Like converging thunderstorms, two distinct trends collided Tuesday night to power the Republican Party to the largest midterm gains for either party since 1938.
The portions of the electorate that remained loyal to President Obama and Democrats - particularly minority voters and young people - did not show up in anywhere near the numbers they did in 2008. And among the voters who did show up, Democratic candidates suffered crippling defections among white voters, particularly independents, seniors, and those without a college education, according to the national network exit poll of House elections.
The long-anticipated enthusiasm gap manifested itself in force Tuesday: The exit poll found that Republicans equaled Democrats as a share of the electorate; just two years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans as a share of all voters by 40 to 33 percent. That shift reflected the declining participation of some of the Democrats’ best groups and a surge among those favoring Republicans.
Young people, who cast 18 percent of the ballots in 2008, dropped to just 11 percent. That was a slightly larger falloff than is typical in midterm elections. Likewise, the falloff between the minority share of the vote in 2008 and Tuesday night was the largest decline between a presidential and the subsequent midterm election in at least the past two decades. Two years ago, minorities cast 26 percent of all ballots in the presidential election; this year that number fell to 22 percent. Both groups largely stuck with Democrats - but their impact was severely diluted by their declining turnout.
Meanwhile, seniors, who represented one-sixth of voters in 2008, soared to fully 22 percent - their largest share since at least 1992. And nearly three-fifths of them backed Republican House candidates. Among white seniors, that number rose to over three-fifths.
Overall, the national exit poll measuring preferences in House races put the Republican vote among whites at a jaw-dropping 60 percent, up sharply from 53 percent in 2008. Democratic candidates attracted only about 35 percent of the vote among white men and women without a college education and college-educated white men. Following patterns evident in Obama’s approval rating, the only segment of the white electorate that didn’t collapse for Democrats were college-educated white women. But even they tilted slightly toward the GOP.
The stampede toward the GOP among blue-collar whites was powerful almost everywhere. In heartland states such as Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, and even Illinois, Democrats were routed among college-educated whites, too, the exit polls found. But along the coasts - in such states as Delaware, California, and Connecticut - Democrats did a better job of holding college whites, especially women. That was critical to their Senate victories in those states. The exception to that coastal pattern was in Pennsylvania. Republican Pat Toomey attracted more of those suburban voters and, crucially, remained competitive in the Philadelphia suburbs (which two years ago gave Obama a crushing margin of nearly 200,000 votes); that helped power Toomey’s narrow victory over Democrat Joe Sestak. In Colorado, which shares many cultural characteristics with the coastal states, strong support among college-educated whites in metropolitan areas such as Denver and Boulder allowed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet to remain in a tight race with Republican challenger Ken Buck despite Buck’s massive advantage among noncollege whites, especially in the state’s rural areas.
Overall, Tuesday had the feel of a parliamentary election in which individual candidates had only limited ability to separate themselves from the national tide. Put another way, the name on the back of the jersey mattered less than the color on the front.
Particularly in the House, Democrats from all segments of the party were swept away. The Democratic House losses were greatest in the sorts of places that have been most skeptical of Obama from the outset. Democrats representing districts that voted for John McCain in 2008 were routed: Republicans appear to have gained at least three-fourths of the 48 seats now held by Democrats in that category.
In a geographic reflection of Obama’s weakness among blue-collar white voters, a partial count showed that Republicans captured the seats of at least 35 House Democrats in districts where the percentage of whites with a college degree lags the national average of 30.4 percent. House Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008, when George W. Bush’s weakness allowed the party to expand deep into traditionally Republican terrain, also suffered heavy losses. Geographically, Democrats were especially hard hit through the border states and industrial Midwest: The party lost five House seats in Ohio, five in Pennsylvania, three in Tennessee, two in Indiana, and at least three in Illinois. Meanwhile, Republicans captured governorships in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, flipped Senate seats in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, and easily held an open Republican seat in Ohio.
But the election’s blast radius extended well beyond those highly-vulnerable categories. Besides the freshman and sophomore Democrats, the election also claimed veteran House leaders such as Ike Skelton of Missouri, Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and John Spratt of South Carolina. While the House losses were greatest in downscale blue-collar districts, Democrats also lost white-collar suburban seats in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and the Philadelphia suburbs, and failed to carry the suburban seat vacated by Mark Kirk, the successful GOP Senate challenger in Illinois. Those losses also extended the Democrats’ vulnerability beyond swing states to reliably blue states that have been cornerstones of the party’s coalition since the 1990s, including New York. There, the party dominated statewide races, but lost a stunning five House seats, mostly through economically squeezed upstate districts. Few Democrats anywhere Tuesday night could feel entirely sheltered from the storm.
Scott Bland contributed