Democrats emerged from their pasting on Tuesday with a hole directly in the center of their electoral coalition.
The hole can be measured demographically, and it can be mapped geographically. Either way, it leaves President Obama in a precarious position as he tries to recover from Tuesday’s debacle—the biggest midterm House loss for either party since 1938—before he faces the voters again in 2012.
The coalition that elected Obama in 2008 revolved primarily around three groups: minorities, young people, and white-collar (college-educated) white voters, particularly women. In 2008, Obama carried the first two groups by big margins and the upscale white women narrowly.
In a few places this week, that coalition held together and powered some of the Democrats’ lone bright spots. In California and Colorado, strong showings among minorities and college-educated women allowed Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Michael Bennet to prevail despite a surge toward their Republican opponents among other white voters, especially blue-collar white men and women, who are hurting economically and disillusioned with Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s surprisingly substantial victory in Nevada also showed how, in places with the right demography, the new Democratic coalition can still prevail. Republican Sharron Angle captured the white vote by a resounding 53 percent to 41 percent. But Reid overcame that advantage with a big turnout among African-Americans and especially Latinos, who were mobilized by an exhaustive campaign from the powerful Culinary Workers Union that represents employees along the Las Vegas strip. Angle inadvertently assisted the mobilizing with a race-baiting ad attacking illegal immigrants. In the end, Hispanics voted for Reid by 2-to-1 and cast just under 1-in-6 Nevada ballots, more than even Reid’s team anticipated. If Sen. Patty Murray survives in Washington, she too will have this coalition to thank.
But this formula collapsed in other states where it had previously worked for Democrats (particularly Illinois and Pennsylvania), either because minority and youth turnout declined too much or because Republicans cut too heavily into the upscale white vote, or both. The bigger problem is that in many states between the coasts, the Democrats’ coalition isn’t big enough on its own to provide a majority; to win, Democrats must run competitively among the rest of the white electorate, the college-educated white men, and noncollege white men and women. And on Tuesday, too few Democrats could meet that test. According to exit polls, Republican Senate candidates this week won at least 58 percent of noncollege whites in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Republicans won all of those contests.
The House results paint a similar picture. Earlier this year (2/6/10, p. 20), National Journal divided House districts into quadrants based on whether the share of whites in them with college degrees exceeded the national average of 30.4 percent and whether the minority share of the population exceeded 30 percent, the figure a previous NJ analysis had found politically revealing. Even amid Tuesday’s gale, Democrats have lost only four of the 83 House seats they now hold that are high in both diversity and white education levels (with two more races to be called). At the other end of the spectrum, Republicans have already captured 35 of the 66 Democratic seats that are low in both diversity and white education levels, with two more undecided. In all, 47 House Democratic losses so far have come in districts in which the level of white college attainment lags the national average; just 16 came in districts that exceed that average. Talk about blue-collar blues.
These demographic patterns carry powerful geographical implications. After Tuesday, Democrats, incredibly, hold a majority of the congressional delegation in only three states—Iowa, New Mexico, and Vermont—that don’t directly touch an ocean. Republicans similarly routed Democrats in gubernatorial races across the Midwest and the border states, from Ohio and Tennessee to Wisconsin and Iowa.
So Democrats emerge from this week confronting a huge demographic hole: their meager performance among all white voters except women with college degrees (who tend to be both more socially liberal and more receptive to activist government). And they face a huge geographic hole: a collapse in the interior states, which tend to be whiter and older than the coastal states, with fewer college graduates. After the first red-blue map entered our consciousness following the 2000 presidential race, I wrote that it was possible to drive east for three days from San Francisco without crossing a county that voted Democratic; it is now possible to do the same thing with House districts. Still strong (if somewhat diminished) on the coasts, but routed in the heartland, Democrats look like a bridge with two pillars, but no span in between.
Democrats don’t need to win most white voters or most interior states to compete. But they can’t get annihilated on those battlefields either, and that’s exactly what happened as the party stumbled to its historic collapse this week.
This article appears in the November 6, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.