Six years ago, Democrats rode a wave of voter discontent with President Bush to claim nail-biter wins and a Senate majority that few prognosticators expected. This time around, they’re facing an electorate that’s just as angry as it was back then—only now, much of the anger is directed their way.
The Democrats’ uphill battle to hold their narrow Senate majority will hinge on their ability to minimize voter discontent with President Obama and the economy—particularly among whites—and to maximize two factors in their favor: the rapid growth in the minority population since 2006, and the tendency of minority voters to turn out in far greater numbers in presidential election years than in off-years.
This dynamic will play out in key states, including Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin, where Democrats hope the growth in minority voters offsets the decay of Democratic support among whites.
Republicans need to net just four seats to guarantee a 51-seat majority in the upper chamber. Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s retirement likely puts his Nebraska seat in Republican hands. Democratic open seats in Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin, plus vulnerable incumbents in Missouri and Montana, give Republicans enough opportunities to make their taking over the Senate a possibility bordering on a probability.
Democrats have their own opportunities this year in Massachusetts and Nevada, where GOP incumbents Scott Brown and Dean Heller face their first regular elections (Brown won his seat in a 2010 special election; Heller was appointed to his seat in 2011 after Republican John Ensign resigned). But even if Democrats win both seats, the number of vulnerable seats they must defend puts their majority at serious risk.
BREAKING THEIR WAY
When they ran for office six years ago, Senate Democrats couldn’t have scripted a more favorable political climate. George W. Bush’s approval rating stood at just 38 percent on Election Day. The public had lost confidence in his handling of the Iraq war and saw no end in sight to the conflict. Memories of the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina remained fresh. Bush’s second-term attempt to revamp Social Security garnered little public support. Red-ink government spending was irking fiscal-minded independents. Throw in missteps by Republican incumbents, such as George Allen’s “macaca” moment in Virginia and Conrad Burns’s serial intemperate remarks in Montana—and Democrats were able to pick up six seats, just enough to eke out a 51-seat majority.
Now, of course, the tables are turned. Obama’s approval rating stands somewhere between 46 percent (in the latest Gallup survey) and 48 percent (in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week); although those figures are not as low as Bush’s, they are weak enough to give Senate Democrats the jitters. Just under two of every three Americans say that the country is on the wrong track. The unemployment rate has topped 9 percent for most of Obama’s presidency; although it’s been dropping in recent months, the number of long-term unemployed has remained stubbornly high. The federal government’s debt is $15.3 trillion—and climbing. And more than 80 percent of voters disapprove of the job that Congress is doing, hardly a reassuring number for incumbents.
Some Senate Democrats will attempt to distance themselves from Obama and make the case that they’re independent actors in Washington, but they may not fare any better than Senate Republicans who followed the same strategy in 2006. In competitive Senate races that year, the usual pattern was that more than 80 percent of voters who approved of Bush’s job performance voted Republican, while more than 80 percent of those who disapproved cast Democratic ballots. The same dynamic was largely evident in 2008 and 2010 as well. If that pattern holds in 2012, it creates a clear threat for Democratic prospects in red-leaning states where Obama will likely run below his national approval ratings; in key states such as Montana and Missouri, Democrats face the likely prospect that more voters will disapprove than approve of Obama, which means that the Democratic incumbents can survive only by attracting a larger share of voters who disapprove of their party’s president than most candidates have been able to win in recent years.
The bright spot for Democrats’ tenuous majority is the steady growth of minority voters as a share of the electorate. When Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri defeated Sen. Jim Talent in 2006, she took 82 percent of the vote among minorities, who made up 16 percent of the state’s electorate. Her margin of victory was just 48,000 votes out of more than 2.1 million cast. But the minority segment of Missouri’s electorate has increased since then, to 18 percent in 2008 and 19 percent in 2010.
Similarly, in Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb won in 2006 thanks to support from three-quarters of minority voters, who made up 21 percent of the electorate. In 2008, when Obama targeted Virginia, those voters had grown to 30 percent of the electorate, an incredible increase due to Obama’s hard-charging turnout machine, the tendency of minorities to vote in much larger numbers in presidential election years, and minority population growth.
The minority vote is far from monolithic. While African-Americans routinely give Democrats more than 90 percent of their vote, Hispanics—the fastest-growing segment of the electorate—have been more open to voting for Republicans. Harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republicans, however, could be turning off Hispanic voters, causing long-term damage to the party.
“You’ve got two factors acting on Hispanics,” said Ruy Teixeira, a leading expert in political demography at the liberal Center for American Progress. “One is that the bad economy should make them less likely to support the incumbent. But the other side is that Republicans have done such a fabulous job” of alienating Hispanic voters.
Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, noted, “This is why people in the Republican Party say we need to be very sensitive to the Hispanic community, and that’s the vote that’s up for us to get.”
The Democratic National Committee invested millions of dollars in increasing minority-voter turnout in key states in 2010. Although Democrats largely lost those races, minorities did show up in greater numbers; exit polls show the minority vote increased in eight states that held Senate contests in 2006 and 2010, while the percentage of minorities decreased in only two states (Arizona and Washington).
The evolving electorate means that campaigns must adjust their goals and expectations. Campaigns closely guard their voter-turnout models and internal projections of the percentages they need to achieve among key demographic groups. Past results, though, offer a hint at what each party must reach for to achieve 50 percent plus one.
Democrats believe their worst-case scenario is a repeat of the party’s dismal performance among white voters in 2010, but with a bigger electorate that looks more like the 2008 presidential year. That scenario would spell the end of the Democratic majority: McCaskill would garner just 41 percent of the vote in Missouri, if 2010 trends held and Republicans repeated their success with voters in the Show Me State; the open Wisconsin seat would narrowly fall into Republican hands; and Democrats would have no chance of unseating Heller in Nevada. Even Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, generally seen as a safe reelection bet, could be vulnerable.
Under such a scenario, Democrats would be working not to preserve their majority but to stanch the hemorrhaging. Fortunately for Democrats, their position isn’t likely to be that bad. Unfortunately for Democrats, it’s unlikely to be so much better that they can rest easy.
Take Montana, where Democrat Jon Tester in 2006 won a majority, 54 percent, of college-educated white voters and 45 percent of white voters without a college education. Minorities, who made up a relatively small 8 percent of the electorate, gave Tester a 59 percent majority. That helped Tester beat Conrad Burns by just 3,600 votes—the smallest winning margin of any Democrat in 2006.
This year, Tester faces Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican who has won statewide elections eight times. Although minorities made up 11 percent of the 2008 electorate, even a slight decline in Tester’s support among white voters would doom his campaign. If his share slips by just 2 percentage points among whites, even with higher minority turnout, Tester would lose to Rehberg.
In Missouri in 2006, McCaskill took but 42 percent of the college-educated white vote and 43 percent of noncollege whites. However, she won because she captured 82 percent of minorities, which gave her enough—49.2 percent of the total vote—to edge Talent. Minority turnout is likely to be higher in 2012 than it was in 2006, thanks to the presidential election year, but even accounting for this increased turnout, McCaskill will not win if her share among white voters slips by 5 percentage points.
Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s hopes of succeeding the retiring Webb will be undoubtedly aided by Obama’s turnout machine. No state saw a bigger increase in the share of minority voters between 2006 and 2008 than Virginia, where Obama’s campaign spent heavily to drive African-American voters to the polls. If minorities’ share of the electorate in 2006 had been what it was in 2008, Webb would have defeated Allen by nearly 12 percentage points; instead, Webb won by just 9,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast, a margin of 0.4 percentage points.
Kaine’s path to victory, though, doesn’t look so easy, and he cannot count on black turnout being as strong in 2012 as it was in 2008. If minority turnout falls by just 5 percentage points, to 28.5 percent of the electorate, Kaine will have to perform better among whites than Webb did to compensate for the drop-off. That’s by no means impossible, but in a climate in which white voters are breaking away from Democrats, Kaine’s job is difficult, particularly considering Allen’s strong record among noncollege-educated whites.
Obama’s precipitous drops among white voters could even mean trouble for Democrats with solid 2006 wins. Both Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Robert Casey, D-Pa., face reelection after winning big six years ago. And while both have relatively strong approval ratings, neither is out of the woods. Brown will likely face Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a prolific fundraiser and a newcomer to the political scene, while Casey will square off against the winner of a competitive and crowded GOP primary.
The most recent Quinnipiac survey in Ohio, conducted in late September, shows that 52 percent of Buckeye State voters view Brown favorably. Casey’s approval rating, taken in another late-September poll, stands at a weaker 46 percent, but 48 percent of Pennsylvanians say he deserves another six-year term, while just 31 percent say he does not.
However, even high approval ratings don’t always save an incumbent, especially when the person at the top of the ticket is hugely unpopular. Just ask former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican who enjoyed a 63 percent approval rating on Election Day in 2006. President Bush’s approval rating in the state was a dismal 24 percent—and Chafee lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Despite Chafee’s strong personal standing, two-thirds of voters who disapproved of Bush voted for the Democrat—enough to doom the incumbent. (Chafee, now an independent, won election in 2010 as Rhode Island’s governor.)
ALL POLITICS ISN’T LOCAL
Politics, even in Senate races that will cost $20 million or more, is becoming a nationalized sport. Voters see candidates more through the lens of their party than through the merits of the individual contenders. They don’t split tickets as much as they used to. Both sides’ national messages will play a big role in moving undecided voters.
The party’s candidates are likely to stress themes that Obama has road-tested in recent months—Democratic pollsters say that raising taxes on the wealthy plays well among whites, while GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, when spelled out, plays very poorly. Even though they won’t explicitly embrace the Occupy movement, Democrats will borrow the underlying principles to portray themselves as the defender of the 99 percent and the GOP as the bastion for the wealthy elite.
Republicans will blame Obama for the state of the economy and try to tap into the anxieties of voters, including college-educated and noncollege-educated whites. Both groups are suffering in these tough economic times, but the difference between the two is a question of immediacy. College-educated white voters, strategists say, are worried about their children’s future and their standard of living when they grow up. For noncollege whites, the recession raises scarier questions about their own finances and whether they will be able to keep a house, own a car, or even put food on the table.
For Republicans, the rise in support among whites has been dramatic—and central to the GOP’s takeover of the House in 2010.
The party won a narrow majority among white voters, 51 percent to 47 percent, in House elections in 2006; in 2010, the Republican advantage had grown among whites to 60 percent to 37 percent. In both cases, the GOP performed significantly better among white voters without college degrees than among those who matriculated.
“It’s like noncollege whites and whites with college degrees live in two completely different countries,” said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. The better-educated a white voter is, he said, the harder it is for Republicans to break through.
The drop-off in Democratic vote totals among whites mirrors a decline among those who identify themselves as Democrats. A dismal economy and a stagnant recovery, an overreaching government, and a general disdain for anyone in public office have sent white voters scurrying from the Democratic Party. Just 24 percent of white voters without a college degree called themselves Democrats in polls conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011, down from 29 percent in 2008. Democrats lost a smaller number of white college-educated voters; 29 percent now describe themselves as Democrats, down 2 points from 2008. An equal number, 29 percent, of college-educated whites say they’re members of the GOP, although Republicans notched a slight increase in those noncollege voters who identify with the party, to 32 percent.
By and large, the white voters who have switched allegiances in recent years cite the growth of government spending and the exploding federal budget deficit as their main concerns.
Six years ago, Democrats won key races by picking up a significant share of the white vote. In the six states that Democrats snatched from Republicans in 2006—Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia—Democrats garnered an average of 50.3 percent of the vote among white college graduates and 46.2 percent among white voters without college educations. Among minority voters, Democrats got an average of 75.7 percent of the vote.
The difference between Democratic success in 2006 and their performance in 2010 could hardly be starker, thanks almost entirely to the white vote. In 2010, Missouri Democrat Robin Carnahan won just 32 percent of the white vote, running 10 points behind McCaskill’s performance among whites in 2006. Ohio Democrat Lee Fisher, who lost his 2010 bid to Sen. Rob Portman, attracted just 29 percent of white voters, a whopping 23 points worse than Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2006 performance. Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, the Democrat who lost his seat to Republican Ron Johnson, ran 22 points behind Sen. Herb Kohl’s 2006 performance among white voters. (Kohl won 66 percent of the white vote and 67 percent overall.)
Democratic strategists close to Obama’s reelection bid believe that the national electorate is likely to reflect the growth of the minority vote. One Democratic analysis suggests that nonwhites will make up 29 percent of the electorate, up from 27 percent in 2008—a development that would help Senate candidates. That means Republicans could need more than 60 percent of the white vote to win nationally, several strategists said.
All of which leaves Senate Democratic candidates tied inexorably to Obama. If the president can once again energize minority voters, Senate Democrats will benefit. If he experiences a big erosion among white voters, Senate Democrats will suffer.
In the end, the performance of the president who came from their ranks will largely determine the size of their ranks. For vulnerable Senate Democrats, that’s not particularly comforting.
This article appears in the February 4, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.