Democrats Are Not Talking to Swing Voters

If Democrats run on abolishing health insurance and decriminalizing illegal immigration, they will lose.

Bernie Sanders
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders gives a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, October 30, 2015 (Michael Vadon)

Imagine you’re an American swing voter and you listened Tuesday and Wednesday night to the twenty Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination. What did you hear?

  • Three of the four highest-polling candidates want to abolish private health insurance and replace it with a single government program.
  • Virtually all candidates would decriminalize illegal entry into the United States and all of them praised immigration.
  • Many would give free health care to undocumented immigrants.
  • Some, like Bernie Sanders, would even give them a free college education.

This is not a winning program.

Health care

There were a few voices of reason.

Former Maryland congressman John Delaney argued strongly (and, it seemed to me, persuasively) against banning private health insurance. “When we created Social Security,” he said, “we didn’t say pensions were illegal.”

Former vice president Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg similarly argued for a public option: allow Americans of all ages to go on Medicare (which is now for seniors), but allow them to stay on private insurance if they want to.

This is a critical issue. Democrats have a huge advantage over Republicans on health care — many voters in both parties rank it as their number-one concern — but that advantage dissipates when you tell 150 million Americans you are going to take away the health insurance they currently get through their employer. Only 13 percent would support that.

Americans know their system, which leaves millions underinsured and millions more struggling to pay ever-rising premiums, copays and deductibles, isn’t perfect. But there are better, and more popular, alternatives than a British- or Canadian-style one-size-fits-all.


Democrats are much closer to the center on immigration than Republicans. A record 75 percent of Americans, including 65 percent of Republicans, believe immigration is good for the country. Only 29 percent say it should be reduced. Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and family-separation policy are deeply unpopular.

But Americans make a distinction between legal and illegal immigration. 77 percent argue it is important to control the border. Only a third (PDF) believes the border is now secure and a majority suspects that not enough is being done to prevent people from crossing it illegally. 59 percent oppose free health care for illegals.

There are fair arguments to be made for decriminalizing border crossing, ending mass deportation and providing health care to undocumented immigrants. Trump uses the current statute as justification for hoarding migrants in detention centers and separating children from their parents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s capacity is limited, so it makes sense to order them to prioritize finding and deporting illegal aliens who have committed a crime. If somebody turns up at a hospital without ID but desperately in need of medical attention, are you going to turn them away?

But please explain to me how these arguments are going to persuade Obama-to-Trump voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to switch back to the Democratic Party.

I have argued before that a compromise could be had on doing more to stop illegal immigration at the border while expanding avenues for asylum and legal immigration. That would require such things as reform of the visa system, which favors family reunification over high-skilled immigration, and investment in understaffed immigration courts, which hear asylum cases.

None of the Democratic candidates talked about that.


Given the choice between a policy that is too far to the right and a policy that is too far to the left, many voters in the middle will opt for the former.

Middle-class suburban voters in states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia (who I still think are the most important swing voters) are not going to vote away their health insurance.

White voters in the deindustrializing Midwest, who fear losing status and power in a country that is changing demographically and economically, are not going to vote for “open borders”.

Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot.