As I’ve noted, we now have two voting blocs: An increasingly monolithic bloc of white, Republican, conservative voters; and an increasingly monolithic bloc of non-white, Democrat, liberal voters.
This isn’t true everywhere – California whites often vote Democrat; Texas Hispanics often vote Republican. But it’s an unfortunate trend that is evident and accelerating.
National Journal has now obtained previously-unreleased exit poll numbers that illustrate this phenomenon:
By any standard, white voters’ rejection of Democrats in November’s elections was daunting and even historic.
Fully 60 percent of whites nationwide backed Republican candidates for the House of Representatives; only 37 percent supported Democrats, according to the National Election Poll exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Not even in Republicans’ 1994 congressional landslide did they win that high a percentage of the white vote.
Moreover, those results may understate the extent of the white flight from the Democratic Party, according to a National Journal analysis of previously unpublished exit-poll data provided by Edison Research.
The new data show that white voters not only strongly preferred Republican House and Senate candidates but also registered deep disappointment with President Obama’s performance, hostility toward the cornerstones of the current Democratic agenda, and widespread skepticism about the expansive role for Washington embedded in the party’s priorities. On each of those questions, minority voters expressed almost exactly the opposite view from whites.
November’s gap between the voting preferences of whites and minorities was at the wider end of the range over the past two decades but it wasn’t the absolute widest. More striking was the disparity between the two groups’ views on other questions with implications for the 2012 election.
First among those was Obama’s performance. Exactly 75 percent of minority voters said they approved; only 22 percent said they disapproved. Among white voters, just 35 percent approved of the president’s performance, while 65 percent disapproved; a head-turning 49 percent of whites said they strongly disapproved. (Those whites voted Republican last fall by a ratio of 18-to-1.)
The racial gulf was similar when voters were asked whether they believed that Obama’s policies would help the nation in the long run. By 70 percent to 22 percent, minorities said yes; by 61 percent to 34 percent, whites said no.
Minorities were almost exactly twice as likely as whites to say that life would be better for the next generation than for their own; whites were considerably more likely to say that it would be more difficult. And on a question measuring bedrock beliefs about the role of government, the two racial groups again registered almost mirror-image preferences. Sixty percent of minorities said that government should be doing more to solve problems; 63 percent of whites said that government is doing too many things that would be better left to businesses and individuals.
The irony in these results is that minorities expressed more faith in both the future and the government than whites did, even though the recession has hit minority communities harder. Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies Hispanics’ attitudes, says that part of the explanation is that whites found the downturn more psychologically wrenching because more of them (especially white-collar whites) had expected to make a steady ascent up the economic ladder. More minority workers hold marginal positions in the private economy, he says, so they were less likely to be shocked by the severity of the downturn—and more likely to turn to government, rather than the private sector, to help survive it. “They didn’t lose money on Wall Street; they had shitty jobs, if they had jobs, so where would they look to if not the [government]?” de la Garza asked.
Measured both geographically and demographically, these new exit-poll results show that Democrats maintained openings in only slivers of the white electorate. In House elections, the bottom fell out for Democrats in both the South (where they won just 24 percent of whites) and the Midwest (37 percent). The party remained relatively more competitive along the coasts, capturing 46 percent of white voters in the East and 43 percent in the West.
Democrats have been losing support among blue-collar white voters since the 1960s, but in this election, they hit one of their lowest points ever. In House campaigns, the exit poll found, noncollege whites preferred Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 with virtually no gender gap: White working-class women—the so-called waitress moms—gave Republicans almost exactly as many of their votes as blue-collar men did.
These blue-collar whites expressed profound resistance to Obama and his agenda. Just 30 percent of them said they approved of the president’s job performance (compared with 69 percent who disapproved). Two-thirds of them said that government is doing too many things. An approximately equal number said that Obama’s agenda will hurt the country over the long term. Only about one-fifth of these voters said that the stimulus had helped the economy, and 57 percent wanted to repeal the health care law—even though they are uninsured at much higher rates than whites with more advanced education.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, says that blue-collar disaffection from Democratic candidates reflects not only immediate economic distress but also a longer-term process of alienation from the party. “The noncollege whites … see themselves as a declining minority within the national Democratic Party, where they have very little control or influence on the policies,” he says. “The party is controlled by the coastal elites and nonwhites, and that is a very different kind of Democratic Party” than a generation ago.
These emphatic 2010 results represented another shovel of earth on the grave of the New Deal electoral coalition, centered on working-class whites, that long anchored Democratic politics. But the decline of that coalition began long before Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. No Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has captured as much as 45 percent of white voters, according to exit polls. And not since 1992 have whites given half or more of their votes to Democratic congressional candidates. The erosion has been especially pronounced among the white working class: No Democratic presidential nominee since 2000 has won more than 40 percent of its votes.
Despite that decline, Democrats have survived, and at times thrived, by building a new coalition. They have won the overall popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, and they recaptured Congress in 2006 with a coalition that now revolves primarily around young people, minorities, and college-educated whites, especially women. That so-called coalition of the ascendant offers Democrats long-term advantages because all of those groups are growing as a share of the population.
Minorities, most important, more than doubled their share of the vote from 12 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2008. In his victory that year, Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote (and merely 40 percent among noncollege whites). Yet he captured a larger share of the overall popular vote than any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 by winning 80 percent of that growing pool of nonwhite voters, along with majorities among whites under 30 and college-educated white women.
But if 2008 demonstrated the possibilities of that new alignment, the 2010 election demonstrated its limits. It has proven to be a boom-and-bust coalition because turnout in midterm elections usually declines modestly among minorities and sharply among young people; both groups fell off even more than usual in 2010, producing an older and whiter electorate that compounded the GOP’s advantage. “We have gotten to the point where we have two different electorates: presidential and nonpresidential,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of California.
Equally significant, although racial diversity is spreading and education levels are rising, these trends are not evenly distributed across the country. As a result, the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant is much more potent in coastal states than in most interior states still dominated by white voters, many of them older and working-class. In 137 House districts, at least 80 percent of the population is white; after November, Republicans control a crushing three-fourths of those seats. And, as Feingold discovered, there are not enough minority and well-educated white voters to win Senate races in many interior states if Democrats cannot remain competitive among blue-collar whites.
Finally, Democrats also discovered last year that they cannot rely on cultural affinity alone to hold most well-educated whites who become dissatisfied with the party’s economic performance. Some of the most ominous midterm results for Obama came in Pennsylvania and Illinois, where white-collar white voters who had been crucial to his victories two years earlier flocked to the GOP’s Senate nominees.