The Emerging Republican Advantage

The idea of an enduring Democratic majority was a mirage. How the GOP gained an edge in American politics—and why it’s likely to last.

This illustration can only be used with the John B. Judis piece that originally ran in the 1/31/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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John B. Judis
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John B. Judis
Jan. 30, 2015, midnight

Ever since the Re­pub­lic­an tri­umph in Novem­ber, Demo­crats have been cast­ing around for ra­tion­al­iz­a­tions. One the­ory, es­poused by Pres­id­ent Obama, blamed the party’s dra­mat­ic loss on the simple fact that too many Sen­ate races had taken place in con­ser­vat­ive states. “This is prob­ably the worst pos­sible group of states for Demo­crats since Dwight Eis­en­hower,” Obama re­marked on Elec­tion Day. Oth­er ana­lysts poin­ted to the “six-year itch”—which of­ten con­demns the party of a second-term pres­id­ent to de­feat dur­ing the midterm elec­tions. Still oth­ers chalked up the res­ults to the fact that midterm elec­tions (with their low turnout) in­her­ently fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans, while pres­id­en­tial elec­tions (with their high turnout) in­her­ently fa­vor Demo­crats. “We have two sep­ar­ate Amer­icas vot­ing every two years,” wrote Markos Moulit­sas Zuniga, the founder of Daily Kos. “And Demo­crats can win eas­ily with the one, and Re­pub­lic­ans can win eas­ily with the oth­er.”

In­deed, in the wake of the midterms, the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress op­tim­ist­ic­ally pre­dicted that, if 2016 vot­ing pat­terns re­semble those from 2012, the rising num­ber of voters of col­or “will not only make it easi­er for Demo­crats to win states that they pre­vi­ously won in 2012. These demo­graph­ic changes are also cre­at­ing an op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats to win back states they lost in 2012.”

None of these ob­ser­va­tions are wrong, as far as they go. It is un­deni­able, for in­stance, that the cur­rent Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion does bet­ter in pres­id­en­tial years than it does in midterm elec­tions. Yet all of these ex­plan­a­tions have a com­mon prob­lem: They ob­scure the pos­sib­il­ity that 2014 was not an isol­ated event but rather the latest mani­fest­a­tion of a re­sur­gent Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion.

Amer­ic­an parties routinely go through peri­ods of as­cend­ancy, de­cline, and dead­lock. From 1896 to 1930, the Re­pub­lic­an Party reigned su­preme; from 1932 to 1968, the New Deal Demo­crats dom­in­ated; fol­low­ing a peri­od of dead­lock, the Re­agan Re­pub­lic­ans held sway dur­ing the 1980s. After the parties ex­changed the White House, Demo­crats ap­peared to take com­mand of Amer­ic­an polit­ics in 2008. In that elec­tion, Obama and the Demo­crats won not only the White House but also large ma­jor­it­ies in the Sen­ate and House, plus a de­cided edge in gov­ernor’s man­sions and state le­gis­latures.

At the time, some com­ment­at­ors, in­clud­ing me, hailed the on­set of an en­dur­ing Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity. And the ar­gu­ments in de­fense of this view did seem to be backed by per­suas­ive evid­ence. Obama and the Demo­crats ap­peared to have cap­tured the young­est gen­er­a­tion of voters, where­as Re­pub­lic­ans were re­ly­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately on an aging co­ali­tion. The elect­or­ate’s grow­ing eth­nic di­versity also seemed likely to help the Demo­crats go­ing for­ward.

These ad­vant­ages re­main par­tially in place for Demo­crats today, but they are be­ing severely un­der­mined by two trends that have emerged in the past few elec­tions—one sur­pris­ing, the oth­er less so. The less sur­pris­ing trend is that Demo­crats have con­tin­ued to hem­or­rhage sup­port among white work­ing-class voters—a group that gen­er­ally works in blue-col­lar and lower-in­come ser­vice jobs and that is roughly iden­ti­fi­able in exit polls as those whites who have not gradu­ated from a four-year col­lege. These voters, and par­tic­u­larly those well above the poverty line, began to shift to­ward the GOP dec­ades ago, but in re­cent years that shift has be­come pro­gress­ively more pro­nounced.

The more sur­pris­ing trend is that Re­pub­lic­ans are gain­ing dra­mat­ic­ally among a group that had tilted to­ward Demo­crats in 2006 and 2008: Call them middle-class Amer­ic­ans. These are voters who gen­er­ally work in what eco­nom­ist Steph­en Rose has called “the of­fice eco­nomy.” In exit polling, they can roughly be iden­ti­fied as those who have col­lege—but not post­gradu­ate—de­grees and those whose house­hold in­comes are between $50,000 and $100,000. (Ob­vi­ously, the over­lap here is im­per­fect, but there is a broad con­gru­ence between these polling cat­egor­ies.)

The de­fec­tion of these voters—who, un­like the white work­ing class, are a grow­ing part of the elect­or­ate—is genu­inely bad news for Demo­crats, and very good news in­deed for Re­pub­lic­ans. The ques­tion, of course, is wheth­er it is go­ing to con­tin­ue. It’s tough to say for sure, but I think there is a case to be made that it will.

AMER­IC­AN POLIT­IC­AL parties are in­form­al co­ali­tions of in­terest groups, so­cial and eco­nom­ic classes, na­tion­al­it­ies, and re­gions. When a vot­ing bloc shifts from one party to an­oth­er—or when a vot­ing bloc with­in a party changes in size—it can of­ten spell the be­gin­ning or end of a party’s dom­in­ance. The GOP’s suc­cess in the 1980s, for in­stance, was driv­en in large part by the move­ment of white work­ing-class voters out of the Demo­crat­ic Party and in­to the Re­pub­lic­an Party—in the North as well as the South. Mean­while, the suc­cess of the Demo­crats in the 1990s and in 2006 and 2008 was based on the growth of the minor­ity vote (from 13 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in 1992 to 26 per­cent in 2008); the con­tinu­ing move­ment of wo­men, par­tic­u­larly single wo­men, in­to the Demo­crat­ic column; and the sup­port of pro­fes­sion­als, who were once the most Re­pub­lic­an of oc­cu­pa­tion­al group­ings. (Pro­fes­sion­als range from nurses and teach­ers to doc­tors and ar­chi­tects; in exit polls, they can be iden­ti­fied roughly as voters who pos­sess post­gradu­ate de­grees.)

But the Demo­crat­ic suc­cess of re­cent dec­ades was not based only on shifts among minor­it­ies, wo­men, and pro­fes­sion­als. To win elec­tions, Demo­crats have still needed between 36 and 40 per­cent na­tion­ally of the white work­ing-class vote—which, in prac­tice, meant totals in the twen­ties or even the teens in the South, and near-ma­jor­it­ies in many North­ern and West­ern states. At one time, uni­ons had provided a link between many of these voters and the Demo­crat­ic Party. This ad­vant­age star­ted to dwindle in the 1970s as private-sec­tor uni­ons began to shrink. Nev­er­the­less, on a prom­ise of prosper­ity, Bill Clin­ton got about 40 per­cent of the white work­ing-class vote in 1992 and 1996, and Obama got 40 per­cent in 2008. Bill Clin­ton won a nar­row plur­al­ity of middle-class voters in 1992 and 1996. (Dir­ck Hal­stead/The LIFE Im­ages Col­lec­tion/Getty Im­ages)

Demo­crats also needed to hold their own among middle-class voters. Re­agan and George W. Bush hand­ily won this demo­graph­ic, but Clin­ton won a plur­al­ity of these voters in 1992 and 1996, and Obama won voters with col­lege (but not post­grad) de­grees by 50 per­cent to 48 per­cent in 2008. In House races in 2006, Demo­crats split these voters, then car­ried them 49 per­cent to 47 per­cent in 2008.

From the 2008 to the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, Demo­crats main­tained their core co­ali­tion—the His­pan­ic vote for Obama even went up 4 per­cent­age points in 2012—but their sup­port among both white work­ing-class and middle-class voters began to shrink. After get­ting 40 per­cent of the white work­ing-class vote in 2008, Obama got only 36 per­cent in 2012. And after win­ning col­lege-but-not-post­grad voters and middle-in­come voters in 2008, he lost both groups to Mitt Rom­ney, by 51 per­cent to 47 per­cent and 52 per­cent to 46 per­cent, re­spect­ively.

The drop in midterm House races was even more pre­cip­it­ous. Demo­crats slid from 44 per­cent of the white work­ing-class vote na­tion­ally in 2006 to only 34 per­cent in 2014, and from a 49-per­cent-49-per­cent split among col­lege-edu­cated voters in 2006 to a 54-per­cent-44-per­cent loss among these voters in 2014. They also dropped from a 50-per­cent-48-per­cent ad­vant­age among middle-in­come voters in 2006 to a 54-per­cent-44-per­cent de­fi­cit in 2014. Of course, Re­pub­lic­ans have be­nefited from re­dis­trict­ing and from the con­cen­tra­tion of Demo­crat­ic voters in metro areas, but the Demo­crat­ic losses among white work­ing-class and middle-class voters are a prime reas­on that Demo­crats have had, and will con­tin­ue to have, dif­fi­culty re­tak­ing the House.

The shift of these voters played a role in some of 2014’s more sur­pris­ing Sen­ate races. In Col­or­ado, where Demo­crat Mark Ud­all was upen­ded by Cory Gard­ner, Ud­all lost 7 per­cent­age points among white work­ing-class voters from his 2008 vic­tory over Robert Schaf­fer; 8 points among col­lege-edu­cated voters; and 11 points among voters mak­ing between $50,000 and $100,000. You might be temp­ted to write that off as the dif­fer­ence between run­ning for the Sen­ate in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year (2008) and in a midterm year (2014)—but con­sider that, from 2008 to 2012, Obama lost 8 points in Col­or­ado among col­lege-edu­cated voters.

In Vir­gin­ia, where highly favored Demo­crat Mark Warner eked out a win over un­der­fun­ded former lob­by­ist Ed Gillespie, Warner’s totals among white work­ing-class and middle-class voters plummeted between 2008 and 2014. He lost 25 points among white work­ing-class voters, 16 among col­lege-edu­cated voters, and 24 among middle-in­come voters. Here again, these res­ults can’t be dis­missed en­tirely as a pres­id­en­tial-versus-midterm phe­nomen­on. In 2008, Obama won col­lege-edu­cated voters in Vir­gin­ia by 50 per­cent to 49 per­cent and middle-in­come voters by 54 per­cent to 46 per­cent. He lost both groups in 2012.

In gov­ernor’s races, the Re­pub­lic­an edge among middle-class voters helped ex­plain sev­er­al sur­pris­ingly easy vic­tor­ies. In Wis­con­sin, in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an Scott Walk­er in­creased his ad­vant­age among middle-in­come voters from 56-per­cent-44-per­cent in 2010 to 57-per­cent-42-per­cent in 2014. In Ohio, in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an John Kasich in­creased his edge among voters with col­lege, but not post­grad, edu­ca­tion from 59-per­cent-38-per­cent in 2010 to 64-per­cent-32-per­cent. In Illinois, a de­pend­ably blue state, the shift of middle-class voters was a key factor in Re­pub­lic­an Bruce Rau­ner’s win over in­cum­bent Demo­crat Pat Quinn. Rau­ner won col­lege-edu­cated voters by 60 per­cent to 36 per­cent—a 12-point shift from Quinn’s mar­gin in 2010.

Over­all, Demo­crats have con­tin­ued to get a lower per­cent­age of the vote among white work­ing-class voters than among middle-class voters. But dur­ing the Obama years, middle-class voters have moved away from the Demo­crats at a com­par­able—and, in a few in­stances, such as the Sen­ate race in Col­or­ado, a high­er—rate than white work­ing-class voters.

And while the white work­ing-class vote has stead­ily shrunk as a per­cent­age of the elect­or­ate, middle-class voters—as defined by edu­ca­tion and in­come—have grown. In the 1980 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, the white work­ing class made up about 65 per­cent of the elect­or­ate; by 1988, it was 54 per­cent; by the 2008 elec­tion, it was just 39 per­cent. Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin es­tim­ate that by 2020, it’ll be 30 per­cent of the elect­or­ate. On the oth­er hand, voters with col­lege de­grees but not post­gradu­ate de­grees went from 26 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in 2004, to 29 per­cent in 2012, to 31 per­cent in the last elec­tion. And ac­cord­ing to census es­tim­ates, turnout among middle-class voters is 10 per­cent­age points or more high­er than among work­ing-class voters. So middle-class voters are a force to be reckoned with.

The core swing voters with­in the middle class are whites, who make up 70 to 75 per­cent of this group; but the vot­ing pat­terns of minor­it­ies in this in­come brack­et don’t ne­ces­sar­ily mir­ror the over­all minor­ity vote. The two most rap­idly grow­ing minor­ity groups are His­pan­ics and Asi­ans. Ac­cord­ing to a Pew study of the 2012 elec­tions, His­pan­ic sup­port for Obama was 13 per­cent­age points lower among those with a col­lege de­gree than among those without a col­lege de­gree; and it was 23 points lower among those mak­ing more than $50,000 than among those mak­ing less than $50,000. (There is no com­par­able polling among Asi­an voters, but they are more likely to be col­lege-edu­cated and have high­er in­comes than oth­er minor­it­ies—and than white voters. They re­coiled against Rom­ney in 2012, prob­ably due to his anti-im­mig­ra­tion rhet­or­ic, but split their vote evenly in 2014 House races.)

Some Demo­crats be­lieve that the party’s sup­port among mil­len­ni­al voters—the 18-to-29-year-olds who first went to the polls in the 2000s—and their suc­cessors can mit­ig­ate any losses among oth­er groups. It is true that these voters were an im­port­ant part of the ori­gin­al Obama co­ali­tion, but they are not quite as en­thu­si­ast­ic about the Demo­crats as they once were. In 2006, 60 per­cent of young voters backed Demo­crats in House races; that num­ber hit 65 per­cent in 2008, fell to 60 per­cent in 2012, and slid to 54 per­cent in 2014. Moreover, an on­go­ing study by the Har­vard In­sti­tute of Polit­ics has found a steady de­teri­or­a­tion in young voters’ sup­port for Demo­crats since its peak in 2008. “Our re­cent polling,” the study wrote last fall, “shows that on a wide range of is­sues and ques­tions, young voters … now look very much like the elect­or­ate at large—pess­im­ist­ic, un­trust­ing, lack­ing con­fid­ence in gov­ern­ment.”

If Re­pub­lic­ans are smart, they will nom­in­ate for pres­id­ent someone in the mold of George W. Bush in 2000.

TO MAKE AN edu­cated guess about wheth­er these trends will con­tin­ue, it helps to look at how the white work­ing class and middle class have be­haved his­tor­ic­ally. White work­ing-class voters began de­fect­ing from the Demo­crat­ic Party in 1968. Ini­tially, this was in re­sponse to civil-rights le­gis­la­tion and Lyn­don John­son’s War on Poverty. But soon their op­pos­i­tion to gov­ern­ment ac­tion on be­half of blacks had crys­tal­lized in­to a gen­er­al op­pos­i­tion to gov­ern­ment spend­ing and taxes. Ac­cord­ing to a Demo­cracy Corps study, white work­ing-class voters over­whelm­ingly agree—by 12 per­cent­age points more than the av­er­age voter—with the state­ment: “When something is run by the gov­ern­ment, it is usu­ally in­ef­fi­cient and waste­ful.”

For their part, middle-class voters have long been mis­trust­ful of gov­ern­ment. In a 2010 study based on the ex­tens­ive Gen­er­al So­cial Sur­vey con­duc­ted semi­an­nu­ally by the Na­tion­al Opin­ion Re­search Cen­ter, polit­ic­al so­ci­olo­gists Leslie Mc­Call and Jeff Manza found that those with col­lege but not post­grad de­grees ex­hib­ited more marked op­pos­i­tion than any oth­er edu­ca­tion­al group­ing to gov­ern­ment spend­ing, and to policies that prom­ised to re­dis­trib­ute in­come from the rich to the poor.

Be­fore the Great De­pres­sion, middle-class voters had been a stal­wart Re­pub­lic­an con­stitu­ency, and they moved back to­ward the Re­pub­lic­an fold after World War II. They sup­por­ted Re­agan in 1980 in the wake of Carter-era stag­fla­tion and the tax re­volt that began in Cali­for­nia in 1978. Re­act­ing to the 1991 re­ces­sion, a plur­al­ity nar­rowly favored Bill Clin­ton in 1992 and 1996, but they began drift­ing to the Re­pub­lic­ans in 2000 and favored Bush by 58 per­cent to 42 per­cent in 2004. In 2008, in the wake of the Ir­aq War and the Great Re­ces­sion, they sup­por­ted Obama; but in 2010—angry about Obama’s stim­u­lus pro­gram and be­liev­ing that the Af­ford­able Care Act had cost too much without truly be­ne­fit­ing them—they once again began re­turn­ing to the Re­pub­lic­an camp.

Middle-class voters tend, on av­er­age, to be more so­cially lib­er­al than white work­ing-class voters, and they have pun­ished Re­pub­lic­ans for tak­ing harshly con­ser­vat­ive stands on so­cial is­sues. In the 2012 Sen­ate race in Mis­souri, for in­stance, Demo­crat Claire Mc­Caskill, run­ning against an­ti­abor­tion cru­sader Todd Akin, was able to win col­lege-edu­cated voters by 50 per­cent to 44 per­cent after los­ing them by 53 per­cent to 43 per­cent to Re­pub­lic­an Jim Tal­ent in 2006. She edged Akin among voters with house­hold in­comes between $50,000 and $100,000 after los­ing them, too, in 2006. (Per­haps some of this was due to the dif­fer­ence between a midterm elect­or­ate and a pres­id­en­tial-year elect­or­ate; but some of it was al­most cer­tainly due to Akin’s in­fam­ous com­ments about “le­git­im­ate rape,” which caused him to go from lead­ing to trail­ing in the polls.)

Yet while middle-class voters are gen­er­ally so­cially lib­er­al, they op­pose can­did­ates on this basis only when those can­did­ates take ex­treme po­s­i­tions. And so, when Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians have soft-pedaled their views on abor­tion or guns or im­mig­ra­tion, middle-class voters have largely ig­nored these is­sues in de­cid­ing whom to back—re­vert­ing to their nat­ur­al tend­ency to fo­cus on top­ics like taxes, spend­ing, and the size of gov­ern­ment. In 2014, Demo­crats in Arkan­sas, Col­or­ado, Mary­land, Ohio, and Vir­gin­ia learned this the hard way when they centered their cam­paigns on their op­pon­ents’ op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion rights or gun con­trol—and lost.

Middle-class voters also tend to be less pop­u­list than white work­ing-class voters when it comes to blam­ing Wall Street and the wealthy for the eco­nomy’s ills. As a Wash­ing­ton Post poll showed last Oc­to­ber, middle-class voters are less likely than white work­ing-class voters or pro­fes­sion­als to agree that Amer­ica’s sys­tem “fa­vors the wealthy.” Many of them work for busi­nesses where their own suc­cess is bound up with the com­pany’s bot­tom line. That makes them less sus­cept­ible than white work­ing-class voters or pro­fes­sion­als to Demo­crat­ic taunts about the “1 per­cent.”

How middle-class voters re­act to this sort of pop­u­lism was on dis­play in 2012. Obama did man­age to make in­roads in­to the white work­ing class in the North by run­ning ads de­rid­ing Rom­ney’s sharp fin­an­cial prac­tices and his op­pos­i­tion to the auto bail­out: In Ohio, Obama lost white work­ing-class voters by only 46 per­cent to 44 per­cent in 2012 after los­ing them by 54 per­cent to 44 per­cent in 2008. But what helped with work­ing-class voters hurt with the middle class. In Ohio, he lost col­lege-but-not-post­grad voters by 54 per­cent to 44 per­cent after hav­ing won them by 51 per­cent to 48 per­cent four years earli­er.

Maybe such a trade-off would be worth it if left-wing pop­u­lism could con­sist­ently win over white work­ing-class voters en masse. The truth, though, is that Mitt Rom­ney was a per­fect tar­get for these pop­u­list at­tacks in Ohio, and Demo­crats can­not ex­pect to have such a use­ful foil in most elec­tions. On the whole, the white work­ing class and the middle class—an­im­ated by their dis­trust of gov­ern­ment spend­ing and taxes—have moved to­ward the Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cent years, in the ab­sence of some oth­er is­sue (such as war or eco­nom­ic cata­strophe or so­cial ex­trem­ism) tem­por­ar­ily tak­ing pre­ced­ence. And the two groups have done so largely in tan­dem.

THERE MAY BE no bet­ter il­lus­tra­tion of all these trends than the 2014 Mary­land gov­ernor’s race. I live in Mary­land, but, like most na­tion­al polit­ic­al re­port­ers, I know very little about what goes on in my own state, county, and city. On the eve of the 2014 elec­tion, I as­sumed that the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate, Lt. Gov. An­thony Brown, would eas­ily de­feat GOP busi­ness­man Larry Hogan. The Huff­ing­ton Post gave Brown a 92 per­cent chance of win­ning, and Edis­on Re­search, which con­ducts exit polls, didn’t even both­er to sur­vey Mary­land voters.

Yet Hogan won fairly eas­ily, 52 per­cent to 47 per­cent. That even­ing, I re­ceived my first ink­ling of why from my wife, who is a dent­ist in a middle-class part of Sil­ver Spring. She told me that many of her pa­tients had been com­plain­ing about their taxes go­ing up un­der the out­go­ing Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Mar­tin O’Mal­ley. My former New Re­pub­lic col­league Alec Mac­Gil­lis heard the same com­plaints when he in­ter­viewed voters in work­ing-class Bal­timore sub­urbs. And that in­cluded Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters. These con­cerns played in­to Hogan’s cam­paign, which was fo­cused on O’Mal­ley’s tax in­creases. Brown de­fen­ded O’Mal­ley, and at­temp­ted to base the elec­tion on Hogan’s op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion and gun con­trol. But when Hogan prom­ised not to change Mary­land’s laws on abor­tion or gun con­trol, he took those is­sues off the table.

Brown, who is Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, won ma­jor­ity Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Bal­timore City and Prince George’s County eas­ily. And he won 62 per­cent of the vote in Mont­gomery County, which is heav­ily pop­u­lated by pro­fes­sion­als. Brown really lost the elec­tion in key work­ing- and middle-class counties where O’Mal­ley had either held his own in 2010 or de­feated his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, Bob Ehr­lich. O’Mal­ley had tied Ehr­lich in Bal­timore County (which con­sists of Bal­timore city’s blue-col­lar and middle-class sub­urbs) in 2010, but Hogan won the county by 59 per­cent to 39 per­cent. O’Mal­ley had won middle-class Howard County by 54 per­cent to 44 per­cent in 2010, but Hogan won it 52 per­cent to 47 per­cent. For Mary­land voters in the 2014 gubernat­ori­al elec­tion between Re­pub­lic­an Larry Hogan (left) and Demo­crat An­thony Brown (right), the most im­port­ant is­sue was taxes. (Jonath­an New­ton / The Wash­ing­ton Post via Getty Im­ages)

Some Demo­crats tried to at­trib­ute Brown’s de­feat to ra­cism, but Brown was a bland tech­no­crat in the mold of former Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Dev­al Patrick. He did not have a his­tory of tak­ing strong po­s­i­tions on ra­cial is­sues and did not do so in his cam­paign. Un­doubtedly, some voters blanched at elect­ing an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an gov­ernor, but that does not seem to have driv­en the vote.

In­stead, it ap­pears that the elec­tion hinged on taxes and the size of gov­ern­ment—the ques­tions to which middle-class voters so of­ten seem to re­turn. In early Oc­to­ber, a Wash­ing­ton Post poll had showed Brown lead­ing by 9 points—but it also re­vealed that for Mary­land voters, the most im­port­ant is­sue was taxes.

Sev­er­al weeks after the elec­tion, in the ab­sence of exit polls, I sought out middle-class Mary­land voters who had changed their vote from Obama in 2008 to Rom­ney in 2012 or from O’Mal­ley in 2010 to Hogan in 2014. I wanted to find out what they were think­ing. The evid­ence they gave me is an­ec­dot­al, of course, but it helps to il­lus­trate the way these is­sues are play­ing out in the minds of some voters.

Jerry is in his late 50s. He is a sales rep­res­ent­at­ive in South­ern Mary­land for a mul­tina­tion­al cor­por­a­tion. He has a col­lege de­gree and makes about $80,000 a year. He con­siders him­self a “mod­er­ate Demo­crat.” He voted for Obama in 2008 and O’Mal­ley in 2010. He says of Obama in 2008, “He was a breath of fresh air.” But after Obama be­came pres­id­ent, Jerry be­came dis­il­lu­sioned. He didn’t like Obama’s stim­u­lus pro­gram. “I really think Obama messed up with all the money that we were giv­ing out,” he said. He sus­pects that both Obama and O’Mal­ley primar­ily gave the money to “their con­stitu­en­cies”—most not­ably, labor uni­ons. In 2012, Jerry voted for Rom­ney, whom he ad­mired as a “busi­ness­man.” In 2014, he voted for Hogan. Taxes were an im­port­ant reas­on. “Every year I seemed to pay more with Mary­land state taxes,” he ex­plained. “I am not happy with what is hap­pen­ing with the taxes. I don’t seem to be get­ting any­thing more from them.” Brown, he feared, would con­tin­ue along the same line as O’Mal­ley. “Hogan seemed to have the mes­sage,” he said.

Con­nie is in her mid-40s, a col­lege gradu­ate and a paralegal at a prop­erty-man­age­ment firm. She lives in north Bal­timore County. She was a Demo­crat un­til a month be­fore last Novem­ber’s elec­tion, and she voted for Obama in 2008 and O’Mal­ley in 2010. In 2012, hav­ing be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with Obama, she voted for Rom­ney. “I was dis­en­chanted. [Obama] made a lot of prom­ises. I have just seen our coun­try turn around and go back­wards,” she said. “I work in prop­erty man­age­ment. The num­ber of young people liv­ing on en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams is over­whelm­ing to me. I have seen it in­crease as nev­er be­fore.” Last Novem­ber, she voted for Hogan. “I was up­set with the num­ber of taxes that I was be­ing hit with as a single par­ent,” she ex­plained. “We are over­spend­ing, and someone needs to get a handle on it, and per­haps a busi­ness­man was the best per­son to do that.” Con­nie sup­ports abor­tion rights, but she thought Brown mis­rep­res­en­ted Hogan’s po­s­i­tion. “Hogan is not for re­peal­ing any­thing,” she said. She char­ac­ter­ized Brown’s at­tempt to paint Hogan as a foe of abor­tion rights as a “polit­ic­al jab.” Hogan’s an­ti­abor­tion po­s­i­tion “didn’t both­er me,” she said.

James is in his early 30s, a col­lege gradu­ate and a co­ordin­at­or of ser­vices at a uni­versity in South­ern Mary­land. He lives in Howard County. He is one of the mil­len­ni­al voters on whom Demo­crats have res­ted their hopes. He voted for Obama twice and O’Mal­ley in 2010, but in 2014, he backed Hogan. “I didn’t en­tirely like Hogan,” James said. “But I liked the idea of rein­ing in spend­ing.” He also thinks there was “some point” to Hogan’s at­tack on Brown as a tax-hiker. “The im­port­ant thing with Brown is that he was likely to spend money. That would mean more taxes,” he said. James re­jects the idea that Re­pub­lic­ans are an­ti­gov­ern­ment. “Re­pub­lic­ans are skep­tic­al of gov­ern­ment,” he told me.

Jerry, Con­nie, and James are, I would ar­gue, very typ­ic­al of the middle-class voters who are mov­ing to­ward the Re­pub­lic­ans. They are not driv­en by any ra­cial an­im­us. They are so­cially lib­er­al, and would prob­ably not vote for a Re­pub­lic­an who was openly al­lied with the Re­li­gious Right, but they were will­ing to sup­port an an­ti­abor­tion Re­pub­lic­an who didn’t make a fuss about the is­sue. They are not un­bend­ingly op­posed to gov­ern­ment, like some liber­tari­ans or tea-party act­iv­ists; but they are wor­ried about over­spend­ing and taxes.

In a speech after the elec­tion, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York ad­vised Demo­crats to “em­brace gov­ern­ment” to “get the middle class go­ing again.” But if Demo­crats take this ad­vice, which has some ap­peal with­in policy circles, they could con­tin­ue to drive middle-class voters like Jerry, Con­nie, and James away.

NONE OF THIS is to sug­gest that Amer­ica is headed to­ward an era of Re­pub­lic­an dom­in­a­tion. Go­ing for­ward, the coun­try’s polit­ics is likely to re­main on a seesaw. What’s clear, however, is that the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age of sev­er­al years ago is gone. And the seeds of a slight Re­pub­lic­an ad­vant­age ap­pear to have taken root, par­tic­u­larly in gov­ernor’s man­sions, state le­gis­latures, and the U.S. House, where Re­pub­lic­ans sport ma­jor­it­ies they haven’t en­joyed since the Hoover-Coolidge 1920s.

In 2016, with the eco­nomy pick­ing up, the Demo­crats could take back the Sen­ate from the Re­pub­lic­ans, who have to de­fend sev­en seats in states that Obama won. But they are un­likely to win back the House or a ma­jor­ity of state­houses soon. Much of the Re­pub­lic­an edge in midterms—which really dates from 1994—has less to do with gen­er­ic vot­ing habits than with the de­gree to which Re­pub­lic­ans en­joy ad­vant­ages among the polit­ic­al grass­roots—through churches and tea-party-like groups as well as busi­ness and civic or­gan­iz­a­tions—that Demo­crats have had a dif­fi­cult time coun­ter­ing. For dec­ades, Demo­crats de­pended on or­gan­ized labor at the grass­roots level, but labor’s clout seems to be re­ced­ing every year.

In pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion re­mains for­mid­able, and the ranks of minor­it­ies and pro­fes­sion­als—both Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies—con­tin­ue to swell. But the party may still have a dif­fi­cult time win­ning the pres­id­ency next year. For one thing, it’s tough for either party to win three terms in a row in the White House. And in the case of the Demo­crats in 2016, de­fec­tions from the white work­ing class and the middle class will also con­tin­ue to loom large.

The White House un­der­stands that Demo­crats have a prob­lem with white work­ing-class and middle-class voters and is now call­ing for a “middle-class tax cut” aimed squarely at them. Yet the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in 2016 will still have to shoulder the size-of-gov­ern­ment and who-be­ne­fits-from-tax-dol­lars griev­ances cre­ated by Obama’s ini­tial spend­ing pro­grams and by the Af­ford­able Care Act.

The Demo­crats’ best chances in next year’s elec­tions will come if Re­pub­lic­ans run can­did­ates iden­ti­fied with the Re­li­gious Right or the tea party or the GOP’s plu­to­crat­ic wing. If Re­pub­lic­ans are smart, they will nom­in­ate for pres­id­ent someone in the mold of George W. Bush in 2000 or the nu­mer­ous GOP Sen­ate can­did­ates who won last year—a politi­cian who runs from the cen­ter-right, soft-ped­als so­cial is­sues, in­clud­ing im­mig­ra­tion, cri­tiques gov­ern­ment without call­ing for ab­ol­ish­ing the in­come tax and So­cial Se­cur­ity, and dis­plays a good ol’ boy em­pathy for the less well-to-do. Such a can­did­ate would cater to the Re­pub­lic­an ad­vant­age among the middle class without ali­en­at­ing the white work­ing class.

After the 2008 elec­tion, I thought Obama could cre­ate an en­dur­ing Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity by re­spond­ing ag­gress­ively to the Great Re­ces­sion in the same way that Frank­lin Roosevelt had re­spon­ded in 1933 to the Great De­pres­sion. Obama, I be­lieved, would fi­nally bury the Re­agan Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity of 1980 and in­aug­ur­ate a new peri­od of Demo­crat­ic dom­in­a­tion.

In ret­ro­spect, that ana­logy was clearly flawed. Roosevelt took power after four years of the Great De­pres­sion, with Re­pub­lic­ans and busi­ness thor­oughly dis­cred­ited, and with the pub­lic (who lacked any safety net) ready to try vir­tu­ally any­thing to re­vive the eco­nomy. Obama’s situ­ation was very dif­fer­ent. Busi­ness was still power­ful enough to threaten him if he went too far in try­ing to tame it. Much of the middle class and work­ing class were still em­ployed, and they saw Obama’s stim­u­lus pro­gram—which was ut­terly ne­ces­sary to stem the Great Re­ces­sion—as an ex­pan­sion of gov­ern­ment at their ex­pense.

In the wake of the dra­mat­ic gains Re­pub­lic­ans have made dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency, I now read the his­tory of the last 80 years much dif­fer­ently. The peri­od of New Deal Demo­crat­ic as­cend­ancy from 1933 to about 1968 may well prove to have been what his­tor­i­ans Jef­fer­son Cow­ie and Nick Sal­vatore have called the “long ex­cep­tion” in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. It was a peri­od when Amer­ic­ans, pan­icked about the De­pres­sion, put on hold their his­tor­ic aver­sion to ag­gress­ive gov­ern­ment eco­nom­ic in­ter­ven­tion, when the middle and bot­tom of the Amer­ic­an eco­nom­ic pyr­am­id united against the top, and when labor uni­ons could claim the loy­alty of a third of Amer­ic­an work­ers. That era suffered fatal fis­sures in 1968 and fi­nally came to a close with Re­agan’s land­slide in 1980.

It now ap­pears that, in some form, the Re­pub­lic­an era which began in 1980 is still with us. Re­agan Re­pub­lic­an­ism—rooted in the long-stand­ing Amer­ic­an dis­trust of gov­ern­ment, but per­haps with its roughest theo­crat­ic and in­sur­rec­tion­ary edges sanded off for a na­tion­al audi­ence—is still the de­fault po­s­i­tion of many of those Amer­ic­ans who reg­u­larly go to the polls. It can be ef­fect­ively chal­lenged when Re­pub­lic­ans be­come iden­ti­fied with eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment or with mil­it­ary de­feat. But after the memory of such dis­asters has faded, the GOP co­ali­tion has ree­m­erged—sur­pris­ingly in­tact and ready for battle.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly de­scribed Ed Gillespie as a lob­by­ist. He is a former lob­by­ist.

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