By now, it's accepted wisdom that Democrats perform better in presidential elections, when the electorate is more diverse and younger, while the GOP's strength is in midterm elections, when their core voters are likelier to turn out. But it's worth remembering that this is a recent phenomenon, thanks to the changing makeup of the Democratic Party under Barack Obama's presidency—and there's no guarantee it will continue unabated.
It wasn't the case in 2004, when George W. Bush effectively mobilized conservative voters to overcome growing public dissatisfaction toward his presidency. It wasn't the case in 2006, when the Democratic Party capitalized on increased support from older, white voters to retake the House and Senate. And it wasn't the case in the decades prior, when Democrats often recorded significant gains or outperformed expectations in midterm years (1982, 1986, 1998), while Republicans won five of seven presidential elections from 1980 to 2004.
What's changed is the makeup of both parties' coalitions. Seniors, who frequently voted Democratic over pocketbook issues like Social Security and Medicare, have migrated into the Republican column. White blue-collar voters, once a staple of Democratic coalitions past, have become estranged from their old political home over cultural issues. In their place are what my colleague Ron Brownstein labels "the coalition of the ascendant"—single women, minorities, and millennial voters. Voters within these groups turned out at high levels in the last two presidential elections to offset Democratic losses elsewhere.
The challenge for Democrats in this year's midterms is getting these "ascendant" voters enthusiastic about showing up to the polls when Obama isn't on the ballot—something that Democratic turnout specialists are working overtime to achieve. Even if they don't show up and Republicans retake the Senate in 2014, the assumption is they're bound to return at similar levels for the next presidential election. That's not necessarily the case.
To be sure, the growing diversity of the electorate presents Republicans with fundamental challenges, regardless of the turnout rates of the core Democratic groups. But it's also clear that the historic nature of President Obama's candidacy helped him rally African-American voters to the polls in record numbers and at record levels—a dynamic that's unlikely to repeat itself in the future. For the first time in history, African-Americans voted at a higher rate than whites in 2012, with 66.2 percent of eligible black voters casting ballots. That's up six points from 2004, the last presidential election in which Obama wasn't on the ballot. In many urban, heavily African-American precincts, support for Obama ran close to 100 percent. Without that same degree of support in the future, Democrats will need to make up lost ground with white voters, while maintaining the overwhelming advantages with Hispanic and Asian-American voters they enjoyed in 2012.
A postelection analysis from Brookings Institution demographer William Frey found that if turnout rates from all racial groups remained at the same levels as 2004, Mitt Romney would have won the presidency—by 9,000 votes. And if only minority turnout dipped to its 2004 levels (with white turnout at its lower 2012 rate), Obama would have barely defeated Romney. Given the growing share of Hispanic and Asian-American voters, that's far from encouraging news for Republicans, but it's also a cautionary tale for the party dependent on demographic destiny to win future presidential elections.
Indeed, Democrats could find themselves reliant on brand-name candidates to generate the same degree of enthusiasm that Obama offered like-minded voters over the last two presidential elections. Hillary Clinton fits the bill, given her unique appeal among women and potential to improve on Obama's performance among working-class voters. But would Joe Biden or any generic Democratic officeholder provide them with the same advantages? (Think Martin O'Malley versus Marco Rubio.)
Despite the diversifying Democratic coalition, the party's bench is virtually devoid of minority officeholders. There are only four Democratic governors or senators of color, compared to seven Republicans. Obama hasn't brought along many other Democrats who present the same post-racial appeal he showcased in 2008. Even Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod acknowledged the Democratic Party "needs to do a better job" of recruiting more minority officeholders on an American Hospital Association panel in which we both participated. Without those landmark presidential candidates in the future, it's hard to see minority voter enthusiasm maintain its healthy rate.
"Although long-term demographic trends … are favorable for the Democrats, translating those trends into true political and electoral dominance will remain difficult so long as Democrats rely on simply turning out core Obama coalition voters. Their margins will be too thin and subject to backlash, especially below the presidential level," political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Andrew Levison wrote last spring in The New Republic. They later concluded: "If in 2016 white working-class support falls to or below the 33 percent it hit in 2012, a GOP president becomes a very real possibility."
Teixeira, who presciently anticipated that changing demographics would spur political realignment in the landmark book The Emerging Democratic Majority, is now suggesting the limits Democrats face depending entirely on the Obama-forged coalition. Meanwhile, Obama's job approval among noncollege whites hit 29 percent in this month's ABC News/Washington Post poll.
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This article appears in the May 13, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.