Assessing The Obama Coalition

Assessing The Obama Coalition

By Sean Trende - November 16, 2010

With the midterm elections two weeks behind us, talk is inevitably turning to President Obama's re-election effort. This seems premature, until you realize that we are barely more than a year away from the Iowa caucuses, and that people are already discussing timelines for the first Republican Presidential debates.

While it really is too early to assess the probability of the President's re-election with any degree of accuracy, we can get a good gauge on the strength of the Democrats' electoral coalition, to see what type of playing field he is starting out on.

The Democratic Party is really a coalition of several semi-distinct parts. At its core, it is comprised of urban progressives and racial minorities, both of which were relative latecomers to the coalition. Layered over this base, with varying degrees of loyalty to the modern Democratic Party, are white working class voters (added by FDR in the 1930s), suburbanites (added by Clinton in the 1990s), and the oldest portion of the Democratic Party, rural voters.

Part of the key to the modern Democratic Party's success, especially at the Presidential level, has been the Democrats' ability to maintain at least residual strength among the very first Democrats: rural "Jacksonian" Democrats in Appalachia (western Virginia, West Virginia, Northern Alabama, etc.) and in areas of the country first settled by Appalachians (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, etc.). But as I noted a year ago, the Democrats in 2008 essentially traded away Jacksonian Democrats at the Presidential level for an improved showing in the suburbs and increased turnout among minorities. This allowed President Obama to become the first Democrat since the founding of the Republican Party to win the Presidency without any electoral votes from West Virginia, Tennessee or Kentucky.

The 2009 Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races suggested that this Democratic weakness might be filtering down to the state level. Later, the Massachusetts special election to replace Ted Kennedy showed that while Democratic performance in core liberal areas was largely intact, Democratic erosion was continuing among suburbanites, and also manifesting among white working class voters (in some ways, the Northern counterparts to Jacksonians).

That trend has continued into the 2010 midterm elections. The following table shows the average performance for Democratic districts that saw major party opposition, broken down into the various component parts of the Democratic Party. Only those districts that the Democrats had held at least once during the 2000s are included (such that "core Republican" districts are excluded). I've also included the number of districts that fit into each category in parentheses; obviously there's some room for disagreement here, but the vast majority of districts are easily categorized:

As you can see, the Congressional Democrats were hit hardest in Appalachian and Deep South districts in 2010. This has been widely reported. But note that Democrats in these areas are also running well behind their 2002 and 2004 showings here. These Democrats were immune to any anti-Obama sentiment in 2008; indeed Deep South Democrats got a bit of a boost from the increased African American turnout produced by the Obama candidacy. But now that we've seen Democratic weakness at the Presidential level seep thoroughly into statewide and congressional tickets in these segments, we can probably conclude that these voters are lost to the Democrats, at least in the short-to-medium term.

Less well reported is the weakening of the Democratic coalition in suburban and working class areas of the country. These are areas that weren't particularly warm to Bush-style Republicans, and had been moving toward the Democratic Party (in the case of working class voters, moving back toward the Democratic Party) since the 1992 election. That movement seems to have stalled, and even reversed.

Democrats in working class districts had their worst showing all decade - perhaps ever. The list of Democrats from white working class areas who fell to or below 60 percent of the vote is lengthy. Among the more notable examples: Anthony Weiner of Queens/Brooklyn (who fell to 59 percent of the two-party vote, from 71 percent in 2004, the last time he had major party opposition); James Oberstar of Duluth (49 percent, from 68 percent in 2008); Dale Kildee of Flint (54 percent, from 72 percent); Marcy Kaptur of Toledo (59 percent, from 74 percent); Peter Visclosky of Gary (60 percent, from 72 percent); John Dingell of Dearborn (59 percent, from 74 percent).

Few of these Democrats actually lost, but then again, few of them faced strong, well-financed opponents, making the fact that they faced competitive elections all the more remarkable. To put this further in perspective, every Democrat from a working class district that faced major-party opposition in 2008 saw their vote share diminished in 2010.

Similarly, the table shows that suburban Democrats fell well below their 2008 peak. They performed better than they had in 2002, but many of these Districts were represented by longtime Republican incumbents in 2002 and didn't become competitive until later in the decade. Democratic gains made in the Philadelphia and Chicago suburbs in 2006 and 2008 were completely wiped out, and Republicans recaptured some districts around New York City.

Even Democrats who represented suburban districts that had shifted heavily toward the Democrats in the 1990s saw a substantial diminution in their vote shares, against unheralded opponents. For example: Steve Israel in Suffolk County (57 percent, from 68 percent); Adam Smith of Tacoma (54 percent, from 65 percent); Carolyn McCarthy of Nassau County (54 percent, from 64 percent); Rush Holt of New Jersey (54 percent, from 64 percent).
Looking at the last three rows in the table, the Democrats did see a reduced vote share in Hispanic districts. Republicans captured two such districts, and ran especially strong in Texas. But the vote in "core liberal" and in African American-majority districts was fairly stable.

We see similar results if we dig down into the internals of districts. Barney Frank's 4th District in Massachusetts is frequently referred to as the "Brookline/Newton District," but it is actually a predominately suburban/working class district. He saw a dropoff from President Obama's performance in liberal Brookline and Newton that is roughly in line from what we would expect based on our table: About 7 percent. As we would expect, the dropoff was more substantial in white working class towns like Fall River (12 percent) and Sherborn (14 percent). The dropoff in suburban towns like Norfolk (15 percent), Millis (13 percent), and Dover (17 percent) was more substantial than we'd expect, but not completely out of line with the general trend nationwide.

The dropoff in the suburban and especially white working class vote isn't a huge one for Democrats at the district level; after all, they remained above 50 percent in both sections. Where it becomes more of a problem is at the statewide level. In many swing states, Democrats are dependent upon white working class and/or suburban voters to remain competitive. There just aren't enough core liberal and/or minority voters in these states to make a majority.

For example, Russ Feingold almost matched President Obama's showing in liberal Dane County Wisconsin (Madison) and in urban Milwaukee County - he was off 4 percent and 6 percent respectively. But he ran 10 percent behind the President in suburban Racine County, 12 percent behind in Kenosha County, and 12 percent behind in working class Brown County. That's what doomed his re-election bid.

In Pennsylvania, senate candidate Joe Sestak actually performed slightly better than President Obama in Philadelphia County. He lost the race because of his performance in places like exurban Lancaster and Berks Counties, where he lagged behind the President by double digits, and in suburban Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties, where he ran 6-8 points behind the President. Toomey fared relatively poorly in the working class areas of western Pennsylvania, but GOPer Tom Corbett ran well ahead of President Obama there.

In Ohio, Hamilton (Cincinnati), Franklin (Columbus) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland) counties constituted 3 of the 6 largest swings in the state toward Republican John Kasich from President Obama. In North Carolina, core liberal Orange (UNC) and Durham (Duke) Counties barely inched toward Richard Burr (net six percent and eight percent, respectively), while the state's numerous small cities had huge net moves his direction: Forsyth County (Winson-Salem, 22 percent); Guilford County (Greensboro, 22 percent); New Hanover County (Wilmington, 18 percent). The two largest cities in that state have suburbs that are largely contained in their counties: Mecklenberg (Charlotte) moved a net 18 percent toward Burr while Wake (Raleigh) moved 16 points his way.

Even in states where the Democrat won, the same tendency manifested. In Colorado, Michael Bennet performed about as well as President Obama in Denver, while suburban Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties moved heavily toward Republican Ken Buck (though not as heavily as they did toward downticket GOPers). In California, Barbara Boxer ran only three points behind the President in San Francisco and four points behind in Alameda. She lagged behind the President statewide because in the central valley/exurban counties of Madera, Merced and Fresno Counties she ran behind the President by double digits. Orange County went for John McCain by a narrow 50 percent/48 percent margin; it went for Fiorina by double digits.

A presidential year will indisputably bring greater turnout, especially with President Obama at the top of the ticket, and this will help repair the damage done to the Democratic coalition somewhat. There's indisputably some truth to this. But will Obama be able to match the level of enthusiasm he generated in 2008, when he was buoyed by the historic nature of electing the first black President, when he was able to run against the Bush Presidency, and when he was able to campaign on a message of hope and change? That campaign felt an awful lot like lightning in a bottle that can be difficult to replicate.

And remember, these things are not zero-sum games. 2008 was not just about Democratic energy, any more than 2010 was solely about Democratic apathy. Democrats can emerge as enthusiastic as they were in 2008, and they will still not re-create the 2008 electorate if Republicans are likewise more enthusiastic than they were in that year.

Again, none of this is to say that Obama can't win, or even that he should be considered an underdog. What it does suggest is that he can't win by catering to his base. If Obama doesn't figure out a way to bring enough white working class and suburban voters back into the Democratic fold to offset the loss of Jacksonian and other rural voters, it will be nearly impossible for him to be re-elected.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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