Apart from Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s big victory in New Jersey, there was more to fear than to cheer for both parties in this week’s election results. The outcomes, especially in Virginia, solidified the sense that each party is now operating with more weaknesses than strengths.
For Democrats, the most ominous signal is that the party still faces enormous difficulty convincing most white voters that they will benefit from more, rather than less, government. For Republicans, conversely, the results reinforced the sobering message from 2012 that even commanding margins among whites may be insufficient if the growing minority population continues to overwhelmingly reject the GOP.
These book-ended vulnerabilities collided most revealingly in the Virginia governor’s race. Although winning always beats losing, it is difficult to say which party should be more unnerved by Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s slim victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Should Democrats be more frightened that even against an opponent as flawed and absolutist as Cuccinelli, McAuliffe still lost white voters by 56 percent to 36 percent, according to the Edison Research exit poll? Or should Republicans be more concerned that despite winning whites so convincingly, Cuccinelli still lost the state by 55,000 votes? “The answer,” Virginia-based GOP pollster Glen Bolger says drily, “is yes.”
For Republicans, the Virginia election’s most troubling aspect is that McAuliffe essentially replicated the “coalition of the ascendant” that allowed President Obama to carry the state twice. Like Obama, McAuliffe triumphed by combining just enough socially liberal college-educated whites with an overwhelming margin among minorities to overcome a cavernous deficit among blue-collar whites.
According to the exit poll, Cuccinelli carried Virginia’s white voters without a college degree by 69 percent to 25 percent, almost identical to Mitt Romney’s huge 2012 advantage over Obama among them. But, among college-educated whites, who mostly lean left on social issues such as abortion, McAuliffe won 42 percent and trailed the Republican by just 6 points; that tracked Obama’s 44 percent showing with those voters in both 2008 and 2012. And that was enough, barely, for victory, because according to the exit poll, McAuliffe captured nearly four-fifths of nonwhite Virginia voters, and they cast 28 percent of all ballots, down slightly from 2012 but far more than in the 2009 governor’s race.
Geoff Garin, who polled for McAuliffe, says the campaign’s internal analysis found the minority vote share was probably nearer to one-fourth. If that’s right, it would mean McAuliffe’s deficit among whites was slightly less than 20 points. That might qualify the message from Virginia, but it wouldn’t fundamentally change it.
Whatever Cuccinelli’s exact lead among whites, the fact that he lost while winning them so comfortably shows again how risky it will be for Republicans to bet their 2016 presidential hopes primarily on boosting white turnout and expanding their winning margin among whites. Unlike Christie, Cuccinelli made little effort to court minorities—he maintained, for instance, hard-line positions on immigration issues—and paid a price with his vast deficit among them.
If that shortfall doomed Cuccinelli in Virginia in 2013, it will loom even larger there for the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, when minorities are virtually guaranteed to cast more of the vote. Cuccinelli’s loss shows how narrow a path the GOP is leaving itself, not only in Virginia but nationally, if it continues to reject any accommodation with those communities’ views on issues like immigration or health care. The contrast with Christie, who abandoned party orthodoxy on some immigration issues and expanded Medicaid under Obama’s health care law, could not be clearer.
Without over-interpreting an off-year election, McAuliffe’s success shows how the basic demographic changes that twice lifted Obama will continue to advantage Democrats in 2016. Yet the result also pinpoints the party’s greatest risk: its continuing inability to persuade most whites they will benefit from activist government.
Garin persuasively argues that the Virginia race was more stable than public polling indicated and that the disastrous launch of Obama’s health care law didn’t fuel a late surge for Cuccinelli. But even so, just one-third of Virginia whites said they favored the health care law, while two-thirds opposed it, the exit poll found. By contrast, three-fourths of Virginia minorities said they supported the law. (The New Jersey results were similar.) Underscoring that message, doubts about government’s effectiveness inflamed by the health care law’s rocky start helped drive this week’s defeat of a Democratic-designed Colorado ballot initiative to raise taxes for education by a stunning 64 percent to 36 percent.
In all, this week’s results suggest that cultural affinity is the central glue now binding the Democratic coalition and that the party isn’t winning the larger argument about government’s role. That may be enough to hold the White House so long as Republicans continue aiming their agenda almost entirely at the preferences of conservative, mostly older, whites (as Cuccinelli did). But a Republican who could connect more effectively with minorities would instantly shift the discussion to why Democrats can’t sell their economic approach to more whites. Which is precisely why Chris Christie should expect his phone to ring so frequently in the months ahead.
This article appears in the November 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Diminishing Returns.