White-collar men and women also parted ways much more significantly than their blue-collar counterparts did. College-educated white men backed Republican House candidates and registered negative views of Obama’s job performance as overwhelmingly as blue-collar whites did. College-educated white women, though not immune to these trends, displayed more resistance. Although traditionally the most liberal portion of the white electorate, even these women cooled toward Democrats last year. In contrast to the majority support they provided Obama in 2008, they voted 55 percent to 43 percent for Republicans in 2010 House races. In the exit poll, most of them agreed that government was trying to do too much, and a slim majority of them said they wanted Congress to repeal the health care law.
In key Senate races, however, especially in culturally more liberal states, these women backed Democrats in substantial numbers. Both Bennet and Boxer, for instance, carried about three-fifths of this bloc, which proved essential to their victories. Obama’s popularity among these college-educated women deteriorated, but in the exit polling, 45 percent of them still said they approved of his performance, far higher than the rate among most other whites.
Even in the tide of discontent that propelled almost all voters toward Republican candidates, relatively more of well-educated white women remained loyal to Democrats. The same was true among all young white voters. Fewer of them backed Democratic congressional candidates than voted for Obama in 2008, but whites under 30 gave Democrats a much higher share of their vote than did older whites. Those two groups—young people and college-educated women—are the splintering foundations on which Obama will likely have to build any hope of a recovery in the white electorate for 2012.
THE NEW COALITION
These emphatic 2010 results represented another shovel of earth on the grave of the New Deal electoral coalition, centered on working-class whites, that long anchored Democratic politics. But the decline of that coalition began long before Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. No Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has captured as much as 45 percent of white voters, according to exit polls. And not since 1992 have whites given half or more of their votes to Democratic congressional candidates. The erosion has been especially pronounced among the white working class: No Democratic presidential nominee since 2000 has won more than 40 percent of its votes.
Despite that decline, Democrats have survived, and at times thrived, by building a new coalition. They have won the overall popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, and they recaptured Congress in 2006 with a coalition that now revolves primarily around young people, minorities, and college-educated whites, especially women. That so-called coalition of the ascendant offers Democrats long-term advantages because all of those groups are growing as a share of the population.
Minorities, most important, more than doubled their share of the vote from 12 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2008. In his victory that year, Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote (and merely 40 percent among noncollege whites). Yet he captured a larger share of the overall popular vote than any Democratic nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 by winning 80 percent of that growing pool of nonwhite voters, along with majorities among whites under 30 and college-educated white women.
But if 2008 demonstrated the possibilities of that new alignment, the 2010 election demonstrated its limits. It has proven to be a boom-and-bust coalition because turnout in midterm elections usually declines modestly among minorities and sharply among young people; both groups fell off even more than usual in 2010, producing an older and whiter electorate that compounded the GOP’s advantage. “We have gotten to the point where we have two different electorates: presidential and nonpresidential,” says veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of California.
Equally significant, although racial diversity is spreading and education levels are rising, these trends are not evenly distributed across the country. As a result, the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant is much more potent in coastal states than in most interior states still dominated by white voters, many of them older and working-class. In 137 House districts, at least 80 percent of the population is white; after November, Republicans control a crushing three-fourths of those seats. And, as Feingold discovered, there are not enough minority and well-educated white voters to win Senate races in many interior states if Democrats cannot remain competitive among blue-collar whites.
Finally, Democrats also discovered last year that they cannot rely on cultural affinity alone to hold most well-educated whites who become dissatisfied with the party’s economic performance. Some of the most ominous midterm results for Obama came in Pennsylvania and Illinois, where white-collar white voters who had been crucial to his victories two years earlier flocked to the GOP’s Senate nominees.