Polls have consistently shown that whites, by contrast, have aimed more of their economic frustration at government than at corporations. That reversed a warming toward government activism during President Bush’s second term that helped drive the Democratic breakthroughs in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Obama and the Democratic Congress expanded government’s role across a wide range of issues precisely at the moment when white voters’ confidence in Washington hit rock bottom. That collision partly explains the force of the backlash in November. “This is a fundamental transformation [of attitudes] going back to where it was before 2006 and 2008,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says. “Part of it was occasioned by the economy [since 2008]; part of it was occasioned by the response to the economy. People felt government did a lot of big things that were inappropriate. They felt government took care of the big guys—and not me.”
SLIVERS OF SUPPORT
Measured both geographically and demographically, these new exit-poll results show that Democrats maintained openings in only slivers of the white electorate. In House elections, the bottom fell out for Democrats in both the South (where they won just 24 percent of whites) and the Midwest (37 percent). The party remained relatively more competitive along the coasts, capturing 46 percent of white voters in the East and 43 percent in the West.
A separate National Journal analysis of the results from exit polls in Senate elections found similar trends. Edison Research conducted exit polls last year in 26 Senate races; in 19 of them, the Democratic Senate candidate won a smaller share of the white vote than President Obama captured in the state two years earlier. Democratic Senate candidates carried a majority of white voters in just seven races and reached 45 percent of the vote in only two more. Except for West Virginia, those states were all near an ocean (or, in Hawaii’s case, in one).
Democrats have been losing support among blue-collar white voters since the 1960s, but in this election, they hit one of their lowest points ever. In House campaigns, the exit poll found, noncollege whites preferred Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 with virtually no gender gap: White working-class women—the so-called waitress moms—gave Republicans almost exactly as many of their votes as blue-collar men did.
These blue-collar whites expressed profound resistance to Obama and his agenda. Just 30 percent of them said they approved of the president’s job performance (compared with 69 percent who disapproved). Two-thirds of them said that government is doing too many things. An approximately equal number said that Obama’s agenda will hurt the country over the long term. Only about one-fifth of these voters said that the stimulus had helped the economy, and 57 percent wanted to repeal the health care law—even though they are uninsured at much higher rates than whites with more advanced education.
“The significance of the tea party is that it is not a situational vote.” —Jeff Bell, American Principles Project
In Senate races, the story was no better for Democrats: They won majorities of white voters who don’t have a college education in just three states and garnered at least 45 percent in only two more. Even Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Michael Bennet of Colorado, each of whom ran well among upscale whites, won only about one-third of working-class white voters. In Wisconsin, those blue-collar whites doomed Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold: He carried most minority voters and a thin 51 percent of college-educated whites, but he was crushed among working-class whites, who gave him only 40 percent of their votes.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, says that blue-collar disaffection from Democratic candidates reflects not only immediate economic distress but also a longer-term process of alienation from the party. “The noncollege whites … see themselves as a declining minority within the national Democratic Party, where they have very little control or influence on the policies,” he says. “The party is controlled by the coastal elites and nonwhites, and that is a very different kind of Democratic Party” than a generation ago.
Compared with 2008, Democrats lost ground among college-educated whites as well, but they maintained more support in this group than among blue-collar whites. Democratic Senate candidates won at least half of the votes of college-educated whites in 10 races and at least 45 percent in two others. Almost all of those states are along the East or West coasts or in the Upper Midwest, the regions that have been the foundation of the Democrats’ Electoral College map since Bill Clinton’s time. In heartland states such as Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, and even Illinois, Democratic support cratered among college-educated whites.