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Exit Polls: Unprecedented White Flight from Democrats

Exit Polls: Unprecedented White Flight from Democrats

By David Paul Kuhn - November 3, 2010

Democrats performed worse with whites on Tuesday than in any other congressional election since the Second World War.

Democrats' white problems stretch back nearly a half-century. Political white flight changed course with the implosion of George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican Party and the economy in September 2008.

Today, it's almost as if none of that ever came to pass. Democrats' bad old days are back, and in an especially bad way.

Republicans won whites in Tuesday's national House vote by a 22-percentage point margin (60 to 38 percent) according to exit polls. In 2006, Republicans won whites by a mere 4 points. Whites shifted at three-fold the rate of Hispanics between the two midterms, while the black vote remained steady. Democrats faired even worse than in 1994, when Republicans won whites by 16 points (58 to 42 percent) and with them, a landslide.

Now comes a House landslide unseen since 1938. Presidents are the ghost candidates of midterms. In fact, more voters said Obama was a factor in their vote than said Bush was a factor four years ago.

In this vein, Democrats' problems with whites reflect whites' problems with Obama. Whites' support for Democrats in 2010 roughly matches the president's standing prior to the September 2008 crash. Before the crash, Obama polled like earlier Democratic nominees with whites. After the crash, Obama earned the support of more white men than any other Democrat since 1976. He also improved with white women, winning a traditional share for Democrats.

Those gains are gone. Obama's approval rating with whites has declined from the low 60s (week one) to the high 30s (this week).

We will hear charges of racism. But independent whites who voted for Obama have not suddenly realized he's black. Many independents were willing to gamble on Democrats. Their support for Republicans was spent. But Democrats misinterpreted the gamble for an investment. And the Democratic House broke. This is not the first president to experience buyer's remorse.

The recession was the dominant factor for voters this year. But the recession cannot be separated from Obama's agenda. It's said that governing is choosing. Obama's priorities were not the majority's priorities, especially not whites. Most whites have favored a smaller government over a bigger government for decades. Obama's agenda heralded the return of big government, or active-state liberalism. He gave the boldest liberal push since the Great Society.

But Democratic leaders, and much of the "professional left," ignored history. In fact, they ignored the present. I wrote an essay at the close of 2008 illustrating why Democrats' historic problems with whites endured, why Obama's election was more chance than change, warning that the past has a way of catching up with progressives.

The past has caught up. Democrats chose legislation on healthcare and climate change over major jobs initiatives. They chose LBJ over FDR. By the time Democrats tried to move to jobs, whites had already moved on. Yesterday, Democrats lax focus on jobs created many new Republican jobs (in politics).

Lyndon Johnson's domestic programs lost whites support in polls by 1966, and with them the majority. Obama has proceeded like Johnson and received a like rebuke. Only about a third of white men and white women approved of Obama's signature domestic legislation, healthcare, at the time of its passage. Whites similarly opposed the stimulus. It's no accident that over the summer of 2009, when healthcare dominated the debate, Obama first lost the majority of whites and independents.

The keyword is "lost." Voters equally disapprove of both parties. Democrats lost whites. Republicans did not win them. This election was not a vote for Republicans anymore than 2006 was a vote for Democrats. We just witnessed an historic no confidence vote.

Those lost are not simply "soccer moms" or "NASCAR dads." Only 35 percent of white men voted for Democrats compared to 40 percent of white women. That marks a 9-point Democratic loss with both blocs since 2006. Democrats performed especially poorly with white women compared to past House elections-- 6 points worse than in 1994. In post-war congressional elections, 2010 signifies Democrats' worst showing with white women and the floor of Democrats' standing with white men.

Democrats also performed slightly worse with white independents than in any House contest since at least the Reagan era. Same story with college and non-college educated whites, as well as white seniors. The losses threaded the suburbs, small towns and rural areas. This was not a wave isolated to any swing vote trope or slice of whites.

This was broad white flight. And it crossed a symbolic threshold. Among whites, for the first time in post-war congressional elections, Republicans hit the 60-point level of support and Democrats fell below the 40-point mark.

Obama will not easily win these voters back. Whites constitute a smaller share of the electorate than in decades past. And their influence is greater in midterms than White House contests. Yet Ohio captures the presidential problem. The GOP swept every contest in the mega swing state. Obama cannot win back Ohio without winning back whites.

Midterm landslides do not consistently telegraph presidential outcomes. It did not for Clinton's Democrats in 1994. It did for Johnson's Democrats in 1966.

Democrats' white problems today can be partly traced back to the politics of 1966. One labor report following the 1966 midterm warned Democrats that, "The repudiation of the Democratic Party reached deeply into the political structure." The analysis alerted liberal leaders to a "white backlash" against Democrats from Northern blue-collar and middle-income areas to the South. And with civil rights, Vietnam, fissures between white and blue collar Democrats, divisions over crime, defense, culture and the role of government, white FDR Democrats, like Reagan himself, reconsidered their political allegiance.

They came to be known as Richard Nixon's "silent majority." Later we knew them as Reagan Democrats. And they are now Obama's problem, like so many Democrats before him.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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