The final strand of the emerging Democratic coalition is college-educated whites, particularly women. Those women are the most rapidly growing part of the white electorate. Women accounted for nearly three-fifths of all college degrees granted to whites from 2000 to 2010, according to federal statistics. In 1980, white men without a college degree, the most Republican-leaning white cohort, outnumbered the Democratic-tilting college white women by more than 3-to-1 in the electorate; this year, the upscale white women could outvote the downscale white men.
If Obama wins in 2012 with a majority centered on minorities, young people, and white-collar socially liberal whites (especially women)—while winning perhaps fewer than 40 percent of blue-collar whites—it could be viewed as the belated triumph, four decades later, of the George McGovern coalition, ironically (or poetically) shortly after McGovern’s death. McGovern was nominated in 1972 amid intense strains in the traditional Democratic coalition over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the 1960s cultural revolution. Many party leaders sympathetic to him believed that Democrats could become a more consistently liberal party, particularly on social- and foreign-policy issues, if they were untethered from their electoral reliance on blue-collar whites, many of them culturally conservative and hawkish. As McGovern’s epic defeat emphatically demonstrated, a minority/youth/social-liberal coalition wasn’t big enough in 1972 to win without significant blue-collar support; an Obama win this year could prove the opposite. “It’s not like this was a fantasy,” Teixeira says of the McGovern-era calculations. “It was just premature. It wasn’t possible at the time. But the distribution of [the population] has changed.”
Working-class whites are proving more important than initially expected to Obama’s prospects because he is generally running ahead of his national numbers with them in the key Midwestern battlegrounds, particularly Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, with a populist message centered on Romney’s business background. But, overall, the president’s reelection strategy has aligned him with this new coalition more unreservedly than any previous Democratic nominee. Obama this year has embraced liberal positions on a series of polarizing noneconomic issues—from contraception, to gay marriage, to temporarily legalizing young undocumented immigrants—that energize the party’s new coalition at the cost of provoking more antagonism among the older and blue-collar whites who anchored the old one. “The weight of the [demographic] changes is heavy enough that maybe we are reaching a tipping point about how the Democratic Party sees itself,” Teixeira says.
Democrats can’t govern if they “write off 60 percent of white America.” —William Galston, Brookings Institution
This new alignment offers Democrats enormous opportunities. Yet it also presents clear challenges. One is that it has already proven to be a boom-and-bust coalition because two of its key elements, Hispanics and young people, vote much less reliably than whites. A larger-than-usual falloff in turnout among both groups in 2010 contributed to the Democrats’ debacle. Current polls show that Obama is still struggling to fully energize these constituencies.
Another problem is that this coalition is better fitted to produce presidential than congressional majorities. Although the minority population is dispersing, many heartland states (and congressional districts) remain preponderantly white, so to control Congress, particularly the Senate, Democrats need to perform better among whites than they do in the presidential race.
Democrats also face the challenge of delivering results for these constituencies that will cement their support and enthusiasm. The party’s failure to aggressively push for comprehensive immigration reform after Obama took office, largely for fear of alienating culturally conservative whites, has frustrated Latino leaders. “Our community would like to see much stronger leadership on this issue from the Democrats,” says Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. Even more important will be producing economic gains for young people and minorities, both groups that have been especially hurt by the Great Recession and its aftermath. “The big problem is, you still don’t have incomes rising for most Americans; you’ve got growing inequality, and what are Democrats going to do about that?” says veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
The final and perhaps most intractable problem facing Democrats is the party’s inability to hold white voters while in power. Since the mid-1960s, each time Democrats have held unified control of the White House and Congress, and thus possessed the power to implement their agenda, they have seen their support among whites decline, often precipitously, in the next congressional or presidential election, or both. (That includes the unified control Democrats enjoyed from 1965-68 under Johnson; 1977-80 under Jimmy Carter; 1993-94 under Clinton; and 2009-10 under Obama.) In congressional elections, for instance, the Democratic share of the white vote dropped 13 percentage points from 1964 to 1968 (after Johnson implemented his Great Society), 9 points after Clinton’s first two years, and 8 points after Obama’s first two years.