The big takeaway from the 2012 election was the limits of the modern Republican electoral coalition. It increasingly appears that the big takeaway from 2014 will be the limits of the modern Democratic electoral coalition.
Each side's dilemma fits neatly into a bookend. Republicans can't attract enough minorities to consistently capture the White House. Democrats can't win enough whites to consistently control Congress.
The 2012 election crystallized the Republican presidential dilemma. Mitt Romney won more than three-fifths of both whites over 45 and blue-collar whites, and a higher share of the total white vote than Ronald Reagan did in his 1980 landslide. Yet President Obama soundly defeated Romney anyway by mobilizing the Democrats' "coalition of the ascendant": minorities, millennials, and college-educated and single whites, especially women.
The 2014 election is spotlighting the offsetting Democratic dilemma: That new coalition doesn't represent a clear majority in enough states to reliably control the Senate, or enough districts to reliably control the House.
In the House, the Democrats' big problem is that their coalition is excessively concentrated in urban areas. This provides Republicans an inherent advantage that they magnified with their control of congressional redistricting after 2010.
In the Senate, the Democrats' parallel problem is that their new coalition is barely a whisper in smaller, rural, older, preponderantly white states that under the Constitution all receive the same number of senators as behemoth states such as California, Texas, and Florida. This year's battle for Senate control will almost certainly turn on whether a few Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning states can overcome that challenge.
Frustration over the economy and the turmoil surrounding Obama's health care law have expanded Republicans' Senate opportunities to include Democratic-leaning states such as Michigan and Colorado. But the biggest threat to the Democrats' 55-45 Senate majority is that the party must defend seven seats it holds in states that backed Romney over Obama. That list includes Democratic incumbents seeking reelection in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, and open seats that Democrats now hold in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
Except in North Carolina, there simply are not enough "ascendant" voters in those states to produce a majority; Democrats can win only by capturing enough of the older, blue-collar, and rural whites who have abandoned the party at an accelerating pace under Obama. "The election is being played on Republican turf because of the dominance of noncollege whites and cultural conservatives in the states that are most critical for determining Senate control," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
In 2008, when Democrats won their Senate seats in those seven states, whites without a college degree cast at least half the votes in four of them (Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia) and about two-fifths in Alaska and Louisiana. Whites older than 45 represented about half or more of the electorate in those first four states, and around two-fifths in Alaska and North Carolina.
While George W. Bush's unpopularity boosted Democrats in these states last time, the current has reversed. In a recent Gallup survey, noncollege whites were almost four times as likely to say the health care law was hurting as helping their family. Polls consistently place Obama's approval rating with both blue-collar and older whites around 30 percent.
That's left these red-state Democrats with almost nothing from the Obama record they can run on, acknowledges Celinda Lake, the pollster for the reelection campaign of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. To survive, she says, these Democrats must defend Social Security and Medicare (priorities for their older electorates), expand the economic agenda from the minimum wage to jobs and the middle-class squeeze, turn out as much of the new coalition as possible, and show "that they took on the Obama administration" to defend their states.
But given the towering alienation from Obama among older and blue-collar whites, even that likely won't prevent big Republican gains in these seven seats. The long-term trend is for each party to control more of the Senate (and House) seats in the places that support them for president. Even if a popular incumbent (like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu) can survive for another term, further GOP gains in these culturally conservative states appear guaranteed as the Democrats' national agenda inevitably reflects the left-leaning priorities (such as gay marriage and climate-change regulation) of its new presidential coalition.
That dynamic will pressure Democrats to maximize their Senate gains in racially diverse states, like Nevada and North Carolina, that are now closely balanced between the parties—and to bring into play other diversifying places that today tilt safely Republican. In coming years, the route to any Democratic Senate majority may be to trade gains in Georgia (where Michelle Nunn gives the party a competitive shot this year), Arizona, and eventually Texas for losses in West Virginia or South Dakota. "There is a demographic realignment going on," Lake says, "that is going to change which states are in play for which side." The tremors from that wrenching change will rumble for years—and could rattle the Democrats' hold on the Senate this fall.
This article appears in the March 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Trading Places.