Older White Voters Will Haunt Democrats All Year

Florida’s special election this week was only the beginning.

MIAMI BEACH - OCTOBER 29: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink (R) is greeted during a Women's Early Vote Rally the Miami Beach city hall October 29, 2010 in Miami Beach, Florida. Sink is facing off against Republican challenger Rick Scott for the Florida governor's seat. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
National Journal
Scott Bland
March 13, 2014, 4:47 p.m.

If the makeup of the dis­trict is any in­dic­at­or, Demo­crats’ loss in the Flor­ida spe­cial con­gres­sion­al elec­tion this week may be a clear in­dic­at­or of the party’s struggles with older white voters.

And un­less something drastic changes between now and Novem­ber, those voters — and their an­im­os­ity to­ward Pres­id­ent Obama and Obama­care — will con­tin­ue to haunt Demo­crats in Sen­ate races throughout the coun­try in 2014.

Geoff Gar­in, a poll­ster for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Alex Sink, said the pres­id­ent and the health care law trans­late in­to turnout among Re­pub­lic­an voters — and that turnout was ul­ti­mately what won the Flor­ida spe­cial.

“The Af­ford­able Care Act was a mo­tiv­at­ing is­sue for Re­pub­lic­ans to turn out and vote, and less so for Demo­crats,” Gar­in said.

Whites over 45 years old ac­count for about 29 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans, but they make up al­most half — 44 per­cent — of the pop­u­la­tion in Flor­ida’s 13th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict. Con­sid­er­ing that young­er and minor­ity voters are the ones most likely to drop out of the elect­or­ate in non-pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, older whites un­doubtedly dom­in­ated the low-turnout spe­cial elec­tion. (More than 150,000 voters who cast bal­lots there in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion did not turn out Tues­day.)

In ad­di­tion, older whites, who gave 61 per­cent of their votes to Mitt Rom­ney in 2012, are the demo­graph­ic group most hos­tile to Obama and his sig­na­ture health care law, which form the basis of most polit­ic­al at­tacks against Demo­crats. For ex­ample, fully 75 per­cent of all GOP TV spots in the Flor­ida spe­cial men­tioned Obama­care, ac­cord­ing to the ad-track­ing firm Kantar Me­dia.

Midterm-elec­tion turnout among young people and minor­it­ies isn’t as bad as it can be in spe­cial elec­tions, but it’s def­in­itely not as good as it is in pres­id­en­tial years. And Demo­crats are about to wage battle for con­trol of the Sen­ate in red states where whites over 45 make up lar­ger shares of the pop­u­la­tion and may dom­in­ate big­ger shares of the elect­or­ate.

For ex­ample, in Montana, where ap­poin­ted Demo­crat­ic Sen. John Walsh is de­fend­ing his new seat, 41 per­cent of res­id­ents are whites over 45 years old, ac­cord­ing to census es­tim­ates. In Arkan­sas, an­oth­er en­dangered Demo­crat­ic seat, it’s 34 per­cent. In West Vir­gin­ia and South Dakota, it’s 43 and 38 per­cent, re­spect­ively. (Re­mem­ber, the na­tion­al av­er­age is 29 per­cent.) North Car­o­lina, the red-state Sen­ate race most demo­graph­ic­ally fa­vor­able to Demo­crats, is at 30 per­cent, while Alaska and Louisi­ana are at 26 per­cent.

Moreover, even in pres­id­en­tial years, whites over 45 make up a much lar­ger share of voters than they do of the pop­u­la­tion as a whole. In all sev­en states cited above, that group out­per­formed its pop­u­la­tion share by at least 10 per­cent­age points in 2008, the last time these Sen­ate seats were on the bal­lot. For ex­ample, whites over 45 made up 51 per­cent of Montana voters that year, but only 41 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

In the ab­sence of exit polling, we don’t have em­pir­ic­al evid­ence on what older white voters did in Flor­ida’s 13th Dis­trict. But there are sev­er­al telling an­ec­dot­al cues, in­clud­ing private Demo­crat­ic polling in­dic­at­ing that Sink lost older voters. She man­aged to keep the mar­gins close, but “close” was not good enough to win.

As Elec­tion Day drew near, Re­pub­lic­ans slightly widened their ad­vant­age among ab­sent­ee bal­lot re­turns, and on the day it­self, they com­pleted the task. Weeks be­fore the race con­cluded, former Pinel­las County GOP Chair­man Tony Di­Mat­teo told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the dis­trict’s older pop­u­la­tion ten­ded to vote later.

Some Re­pub­lic­an mes­saging on Obama­care fo­cused on cuts to the Medi­care Ad­vant­age pro­gram, which is pop­u­lar among seni­ors in the dis­trict. Sink also tar­geted older voters, hit­ting Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly as a So­cial Se­cur­ity-cut­ter, a long­time Demo­crat­ic mes­sage that is also in play in the Arkan­sas Sen­ate race. But in the end, it failed to gain enough trac­tion.

Now, with Demo­crats fa­cing large pop­u­la­tions of older whites in Sen­ate battle­ground states, much of the talk has shif­ted to the im­port­ance of get-out-the-vote ef­forts this fall. If Flor­ida’s res­ults were an alarm bell, it was ap­par­ently heard.

“The takeaway from the spe­cial in Flor­ida is that Demo­crats will need to in­vest heav­ily in a na­tion­al field pro­gram in or­der to win in Novem­ber,” said Matt Canter, a spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

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