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

As the first article in this series pointed out, the two chief demographic components of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition that enabled the Democratic Party to dominate American national politics from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s-the white South and the northern white working class-have been drifting away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans for the past four decades. But, America is a dynamic country with a growing, changing, and increasingly diverse population. And, the Democratic Party is in position to once again dominate U.S. politics around the same core values, but now with a far different voter coalition than the one assembled by FDR eight decades ago.

Recent Gallup and Pew polls indicate that the Democratic Party has a national party identification advantage of about ten percentage points over the Republicans.

 The voter coalition that underpins the Democratic Party's current party identification advantage-and which also elected Barack Obama President of the United States in 2008-reflects the America of today fully as much as FDR's coalition reflected the America of its era. While some of the components of the emerging Democratic coalition were a part of the New Deal coalition, others are brand new. If the white South and white working class have left the Democrats, other groups, some of which were decades from birth and others of which comprised only a negligible portion of the American electorate during the previous era of Democratic dominance, have joined. The major components of the new 21st Century Democratic coalition are:

  • Young voters. Political scientists have long maintained that political realignments result from the emergence of new large generations of young Americans. The coming of age of the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) produced the New Deal realignment in the 1930s. The emergence of the sharply divided Baby Boomer Generation (born 1946-1964) ended that Democratic era in 1968 leading to forty years during which the Republican Party won the presidency in seven of ten elections. Today it is the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) and, to a lesser extent, younger members of Generation X (born 1965-1981) that are bringing about major political change. In 2008, Millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% vs. 32%). Millennials also preferred Democratic congressional candidates to Republicans by about the same ratio (63% vs. 34%). A narrower majority of Gen-Xers (52% vs. 46%) also voted for Obama. By contrast, the forever-divided Boomers split their votes almost evenly between Obama and McCain, while the Silent Generation (born 1925-1945) opted for the Republican nominee (53% vs. 45%). The Democratic loyalties of America's youngest voters have persisted since Obama's election: in a mid-November 2009 Pew survey, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by 58% to 19%. Gen-Xers did so by 51% to 38%. And, unlike older generations, Millennials are not sharply divided by gender and race: most male and white Millennials say they are Democrats, as do an overwhelming majority of the female and minority group members of the cohort.
  • African-Americans. Blacks became charter members of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition after seven decades of solid loyalty to the party of Lincoln. Black support for the Democrats became virtually unanimous in 1964, when the GOP nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, who earlier that year had voted against a civil rights bill that opened public accommodations to people of all races, as its presidential nominee. In 2008, not surprisingly, virtually all blacks (95%) voted for Barack Obama. But this was not much higher than black support for white Democratic presidential candidates had been in every election since the mid-1960s. Pew also indicates that African-Americans identify as Democrats over Republicans by an overwhelming 78% to 9% margin.
  • Hispanics. Except for scattered regional pockets in places like Tampa, along the Rio Grande border, and New Mexico, Latinos were a negligible component of the American population both when FDR assembled the New Deal coalition and during the forty years afterward when the Democratic Party dominated U.S. politics. That is no longer the case. Hispanics now comprise 15% of the American population, a percentage expected to double within forty years. Latinos are now an increasingly crucial component of the new Democratic coalition. While a majority of them have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1972, more than two-thirds (67%) voted for Barack Obama in 2008. With one exception (Bill Clinton's reelection in 1996), this was the largest percentage in any election since Latinos became a large enough component in the U.S. population to tabulate separately in presidential election exit polls. The support of Latinos for the Democratic Party is likely to be of long duration, a matter of increasing importance as the Latino share of the American electorate grows. According to Pew, more than six in ten Latinos (62%) identify as or lean to the Democrats; only 15% are Republicans.
  • Women. Women gained the vote in 1920 and, for most of the time since then, there was virtually no difference in the partisanship of men and women. Most people married and most husbands and wives voted alike. However, as the divided Baby Boomer Generation became an increasing share of the electorate, a partisan "gender gap" developed in U.S. politics. Starting in 1980, the Democratic presidential vote of women was, on average, eight percentage points higher than that of men. The gap has only grown in recent elections as older, less divided, generations pass from the scene. Starting in 1996, a majority of women voted for Democratic presidential candidates while at least a plurality of men voted for Republicans. In 2008, Barack Obama enjoyed a 13-percentage point advantage among women (56% vs. 43%). Men divided their votes evenly between Obama and John McCain. This difference is reflected in party identification. Overall, according to Pew a clear majority of women are self-perceived Democrats (55% vs. 39% who claim to be Republican). By contrast, males are about evenly divided between the parties (41% Democrats and 38% Republicans). The narrow Democratic advantage among men is entirely a function of minority group males: a clear plurality of white males is Republican (44%, as compared to 38% who say they are Democrats). White women, by contrast, identify as Democrats over Republicans by ten percentage points (49% vs. 39%).
  • The Northeast and West. American party coalitions have always contained a distinct regional component. Throughout most of U.S. history it was the Republican (or Whig) Northeast opposing the Democratic South. Today, as always, the South and Northeast continue to be pitted against one another, but the partisan leanings of each region have been reversed. The South has not given even a plurality of its presidential votes to a Democratic candidate since 1976 and white Southerners have not done so since at least 1964. By contrast, in 1984 the Northeast became the most Democratic region in presidential elections. It has given Democratic presidential candidates at least a plurality of its votes since 1992 and a majority since 1996. The West follows the Northeast in its Democratic loyalties. Since 1992 the West has given at least a plurality to Democratic candidates and in 2008 preferred Barack Obama against John McCain by 57% vs. 40%. The Northeast (56%) and West (47%) also contain the greatest percentages of Democratic party identifiers according to Pew.
  • Highly educated Americans. In 1930, on the eve of the creation of the New Deal coalition, not even 5-percent of American adults were college graduates and an infinitesimal number had received any postgraduate education. By 1960, as that coalition entered its final years, the percentage of U.S. college graduates had crept up to nearly 8-percent. During the 1932-1968 era of Democratic dominance most of America's relatively few college graduates voted for and identified as Republicans. As recently as 1964, Gallup showed that a plurality (38%) of college graduates identified as Republicans, well above the percentages of those with high school (22%) or grade school (20%) education who did so. But things have changed. Now more than a quarter of Americans are college graduates and the New York Times exit poll indicated that 45% of those who voted for president in 2008 were college graduates, with 17% having at least some postgraduate education. More and more of these college graduates are Democrats. The percentage of college grads voting for a Democratic presidential candidate has steadily increased in each election since 1988 (from 37% to 50% in 2008) and those with postgraduate training have become the most strongly Democratic educational component in the electorate save for the now tiny number with less than a high school education. In 2008 college postgraduates voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 58% to 40% and have remained Obama's strongest supporters during his presidency. In addition, a majority of college grads (51%) now identify with or lean to the Democratic Party in contrast to 37% who call themselves Republicans.

America is a much different nation now than it was 80 years ago when the New Deal coalition was first assembled. The Democratic Party has changed along with America and has put together a new voter coalition, one that is very different from the New Deal coalition, but also one with the potential to become the dominant force in U.S. politics just as FDR's coalition did so many decades ago.

The groups within the emerging Democratic coalition have clear political values. Most crucially they all favor an activist government that moves forcefully to resolve economic and societal problems in a way that protects and advances middle class Americans. These core Democratic values energized and held together the groups that comprised FDR's New Deal coalition. These same values will energize and bond the disparate groups that now comprise a new 21st century Democratic coalition.

But while a new coalition that can underpin renewed Democratic dominance has come into place, Democratic success in using it is by no means guaranteed. To do that, Democrats will have to have both the vision and the courage to see things as they are now and as they will be in the years ahead, not as they once were. If DC Democratic leaders and Democratic candidates across the nation are timid and fail to inspire and mobilize the emerging Democratic coalition by appealing to core Democratic values, the Democratic Party will manage to lose elections even in solidly Democratic places like Massachusetts. Democrats have a choice. They can either use their new majority coalition or they will lose it.