It’s possible that most people have forgotten, or never even realized, that former Senator from Virginia and Vietnam War veteran Jim Webb was a candidate for the Democratic nomination just five months ago. Like everyone else in the Democratic field not named Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, Webb faded into irrelevance after he failed to make a name for himself. His hodgepodge of economically populist and socially conservative policy positions did not attract much interest from a Democratic electorate increasingly moving leftward. In fact, Webb essentially denounced the Democratic Party when he suspended his campaign, and just yesterday, he declared that he would never vote for Clinton, but wouldn’t rule out voting for Donald Trump.
Why is Jim Webb relevant? Well, he’s not per se, but his failed campaign acts as a foreshock to the major earthquake of political realignment that could potentially strike this year’s presidential election. With all the stories we read about Republicans refusing to support Trump if he wins the party’s nomination, very little is written about Democrats who are frustrated with their own party’s shift away from the center. A small but electorally significant number of Democratic voters, particularly blue-collar workers from rustbelt states in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, feel left behind by the Democratic establishment. Now, Webb was obviously not their ideal candidate; these voters did not turn out in droves to support him while his campaign was still active. We never got to see how he would have fared against the other Democratic candidates because he didn’t actually make it to primary season, but he never managed to excite crowds or attract much of a following. However, that doesn’t mean some Democratic voters wouldn’t have supported him if his campaign gained traction and his message had more of a reach, and it definitely doesn’t mean those voters won’t defect if there’s a viable Republican alternative that more accurately represents their interests.
Enter Donald Trump, who is strikingly similar to Webb on substantive policy questions, including opposition to free trade, illegal immigration, affirmative action, and the establishment, and support of gun rights and “nationalist isolationism.” Trump has promised to “make America great again” by fighting back against the elites who’ve allowed American workers to get ripped off. He’s taken a stand against illegal immigrants taking the jobs of blue-collar Americans. He’s taken a stand against free trade because it leads to outsourcing of jobs to countries that could eventually outcompete the United States. Unlike Webb, however, Trump is winning. His name is a brand that’s synonymous with success, and his campaign resonates with voters far more than Webb’s ever did. With Trump’s campaign under full swing and Webb’s dead before it even started, it’s possible that many of Webb’s Democratic would-have-been supporters who don’t love the idea of a Clinton presidency could present a liability to the Democratic Party if Trump indeed wins the Republican nomination. If those voters defect, then suddenly, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which all threw their electoral votes behind President Obama in 2008 and 2012, might all come into play and could help secure a Republican victory this fall.
I’ve mentioned a few times the potential for an upcoming political realignment, and I’ll probably write an upcoming post about the different scenarios that exist, but if it’s true that Trump’s campaign is more than an anomaly and that economic nationalism is here to stay, it’s possible that a lot of blue-collar workers that might have supported Webb could realign themselves to the Republican Party. In response, many pro-business, pro-free trade Republicans that have been a part of the party for more than a century could realign themselves to the neoliberal, centrist “New” Democratic Party of the Clintons. If anything, the fact that two substantively similar candidates ran for President in different parties and that plenty of voters are threatening to break ranks and vote for the nominee of the opposite party proves that this country is overdue for a major political realignment.