If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It Part I

Update: This is the first in a three part series. You can find parts 2 and 3 here and here

If there is any single theme that has run through this column since its inception last June it is that the Democratic Party is America’s majority political party and that President Barack Obama and his Democratic congressional colleagues need to summon the courage to use that majority. Pew Research Center national surveys conducted since 1990 indicate that the Democrats’ party identification advantage over the Republicans grew exponentially, especially during the past decade. During the 1990s, the Democratic lead over the GOP was always less than ten percentage points. In 1994, the year in which Newt Gingrich’s revolution took control of Congress for his party, and in 2002, a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Democrats’ lead vanished entirely. During the last six years of the George W. Bush administration and into the first year Barack Obama’s the Democratic advantage grew to 16 percentage points. By May 2009, a majority of the U.S. electorate identified with or leaned to the Democrats (52%) and only a third (36%) said they were Republicans.

But despite their legislative victories in passing the economic stimulus and health care reform in the Senate and House, recent polling now suggests that the Democratic majority may be on shaky ground. According to Gallup, by the end of 2009 the percentage of the electorate identifying with or leaning to the Democratic Party nationally fell below 50% for the first time since 2005. The most recent Pew national survey conducted early this month gives the Democrats a 49% to 39% edge in party ID. It certainly seemed that, as in physiology, by failing to use their strength, the Democrats may be on their way to losing it.

If so, it is in large part because D.C. Democrats, who came of age and learned the political lessons of an earlier era, have a very outdated perception of the electorate that continues to cloud their approach to policymaking. They seem unaware of or unwilling to use the new voter alignments that have given the Democratic Party the opportunity to dominate U.S. politics as it did for nearly 40 years after Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932. While the Democrats do have an opportunity to assemble a dominant majority just as they did nearly eight decades ago, that majority will be based on a very different voter coalition than the one that elected FDR and later Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.

FDR’s New Deal coalition was diverse for its day. Catholic and Jewish Eastern, Central, and Southern European immigrants, and their children, were an important segment of the New Deal coalition, as were African-Americans in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But, the coalition’s major components were Southern whites and the Northern white working class. The former had been the core of the Democratic Party since the times of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The latter had been primarily Republican since at least the election of William McKinley in 1896, if not Abraham Lincoln in 1860. But the Great Depression provided the opportunity for Democrats to enlist white workers as the second large building block of the New Deal coalition.

Both Southern whites and the Northern white working class have been slipping away from the Democratic Party for decades and, yet since at least the late 1960s, Democrats have focused much attention on somehow recreating the New Deal coalition. Among other things, this led to the truism that the only way the Democrats can, or at least could, win the presidency is by nominating a moderate Southerner. It is true that Barack Obama is the first Northern Democrat to win the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960 and that, until Obama’s win in 2008, Southerners Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore ran the strongest Democratic presidential campaigns in the previous four decades. However, the fact that Carter, Clinton, and Gore were all from the South and were Democrats is just about the only thing similar about the results of their campaigns.

Carter’s victory in 1976 came closest to reconstructing the New Deal coalition. Although a racial moderate, Carter, a self-professed born-again Christian, was certainly culturally Southern. He carried all of the former Confederate states except Virginia and he won the Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware as well. At the same time, in a clear harbinger of things to come, Carter’s Republican opponent, Gerald Ford, actually won a majority of Southern white votes (52%). It was the votes of blacks that ultimately put Carter across the top in the South.

Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 while winning only four old Confederate states—Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, his home state, and Tennessee, that of his running mate. Clinton won only a third of Southern white votes (34%). Four years later, when Clinton swamped Bob Dole nationally, he carried only Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida in the South and again received barely a third of the Southern white vote (36%).

In 2000, Al Gore received a popular vote plurality nationally against George W. Bush, but he won no Confederate states, including his own Tennessee, and lost the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia as well. In spite of his Southern roots, Gore won less than a third of the Southern white vote (31%), barely above John Kerry in 2004 (29%) and Barack Obama in 2008 (30%).

The white South has clearly not returned to the Democratic fold in the first year of the Obama presidency. Quite the contrary. In the most recent Daily Kos weekly tracking survey only a quarter of Southerners (27%) have a favorable attitude toward the president in contrast to 56% of the national electorate. Even fewer are positive about the Democratic Party (24%) as compared with 42% of all Americans. By contrast, a majority of Southerners (59%) have a favorable perception of the GOP in contrast with 30% nationally.

Just as the white South has been drifting away from the Democratic Party for decades, so has the white working class. Alan Abramowitz points out that the contribution of white manual workers to the electorate has declined from nearly half (47%) in the 1950s to a quarter (24%) in the first decade of the 21st century. These numbers are reflected in the Democratic Party’s presidential vote. During the 1950s a majority of the Democratic presidential vote (52%) were white manual workers, a number that fell to 23% in the decade that just ended. And, of crucial importance to the long-term composition of the Democratic voter coalition, the percentage of white manual workers who identified as Democrats declined from more than 60% in the 1950s and 1960s to barely 40% currently.

And, yet, the United States is a dynamic country with a changing population. Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 and the Democrats became America’s majority political party in spite of declining support from the two key elements of the New Deal coalition—the white South and the white working class. Like Humpty Dumpty, the old alignment cannot be reassembled. But a new and different majority Democratic voter coalition is being formed. While it doesn’t have the same composition as the voter alignment that Franklin Roosevelt put together, it has the potential to dominate American politics just like FDR’s coalition did. To do that, today’s Democrats will have to have the vision and courage to appeal to and use the new coalition. We’ll detail the elements of the new Democratic alignment and how to appeal to them in the next edition of this column.