The Democrats Make Their Pitch to a New Silent Majority

Obama and co. have fashioned themselves into the party of common decency.

Barack Obama delivers remarks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—Donald Trump wants to run his campaign like Richard Nixon in 1968. He appeals to “law” and promises “order” in a chaotic, frightening world. But Trump misses a key part of Nixon’s message—his appeal to the ordinary people. In that campaign, Nixon called out to the “voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” He spun a narrative of normalcy. “[T]hey are black, they are white; they’re native born and foreign born; they’re young and they’re old,” he said. “They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.”

Nixon positioned his campaign, and the Republican Party, as the party of “normal” Americans, the party of the “silent majority.” Trump didn’t make this move, because he couldn’t. He’s a reality television star whose life was lived in tabloids, whose brand is the outrageous and nonsensical. He’s decadent, extravagant, and proudly contemptuous of modesty in any area of life. His majority, if he has one, is a loud majority and an angry majority, not a silent one.

On the third night of its national convention, the Democratic Party worked to flip the script. Using a broad roster of speakers, from Vice President Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, long-time national security official Leon Panetta, and eventually President Barack Obama, Democrats recast theirs as the party of normalcy and the champion of those decent people. But where Nixon spoke to a silent majority of white Americans, the Democratic Party wants to speak for a broad and diverse tapestry of blacks, immigrants, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and the college-educated, especially among white Americans.

It’s that last category of voters that got the most attention on Wednesday. From 1952 until 1980, Democrats held a disadvantage among college-educated whites. As the party of unions and the welfare state, they counted instead on support from working-class whites. But since 1980—and especially in the last decade—this has flipped. Increasingly, the Democrats’ most reliable white supporters come from the college-educated cohort, while Republicans find themselves with a large and growing share of working-class whites. You see this in the polls. According to the “Upshot” model at the New York Times, Clinton leads Donald Trump by 9 points among white women with a degree and 3 points among white men with a degree. Trump, by contrast, leads Clinton by 3 points among white women without a degree and by a whopping 14 points among white men without a degree.

Democrats know they need to stanch the bleeding with working-class white men, and there’s a strong chance that Joe Biden, who delivered an intimate and arresting speech Wednesday night, will have that task in the fall. But they also see a distinct opportunity with college-educated whites and a real chance to widen the margin among college-educated white men and women.

As such, the Wednesday roster featured names and figures who spoke to the concerns of those voters. Erica Smegielski, whose mother was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, was there as an advocate for gun control, a popular position among college-educated whites. Christine Leinonen lost her son in the Pulse attack in Orlando, Florida, and spoke both to gun control and fears of terrorism. Likewise, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords appeared on stage as one of the most famous survivors of a mass shooting.*

The headline speeches came from figures of authority—all white men—who in different ways sought to delegitimize Donald Trump and persuade the most Republican-leaning whites with degrees to switch sides and abandon the GOP in favor of the Democrats, presented as a party of almost staid responsibility. Panetta, a former congressman, secretary of defense, and CIA director, vouched for Hillary Clinton’s national security credentials and condemned Donald Trump as fundamentally unfit to lead the nation’s armed forces. Retired U.S. Navy Adm. John Hutson did the same. Coming from the right of the Democratic Party was Michael Bloomberg, who slammed “party politics” and used his cred as an independent to endorse Clinton as “the responsible choice.”

“Today, as an independent, an entrepreneur, and a former mayor, I believe we need a president who is a problem solver, not a bomb thrower,” he said. “And I know Hillary Clinton can do that because I saw it firsthand.” Bloomberg used his stature as a billionaire to attack Trump’s businessman bona fides. “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one.”

Kaine also took on this task, introducing himself as a pragmatic politician of faith and decency. Kaine, like Bloomberg, is pitched to those college-educated whites who crave normalcy and want to feel comfortable voting for Democrats.

Of course, the capstone to the night was President Obama, who gave a stirring defense of his administration, a full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and who made the case for American pluralism and American democracy, as juxtaposed with Donald Trump, the strongman. Borrowing from Lincoln, Reagan, and presidents in between, Obama used his authority and his biography to offer up the Democratic Party and Clinton as the choice for America’s traditional values, as expressed by a multitude of creeds and colors. It was an appeal to what the president, elsewhere, has called “the goodness and decency and common sense on the ground,” all of which exist apart from our “rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”

“America has changed over the years,” Obama said Wednesday. “But these values my grandparents taught me—they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever, still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith. They live on in each of us. What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here. That’s what matters.”

A modern-day silent majority, diverse and pluralistic. That’s the pitch. We’ll know soon enough if it works.

*Correction, July 28, 2016: This article originally misspelled Gabrielle Giffords’ first name. (Return.)  

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