New York-9 and the Democratic Coalition

By Sean Trende - September 14, 2011

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Moreover, these are working-class whites; the last of the “Archie Bunkers.” Many of the firefighters and police officers who gave their lives on 9/11 hailed from this district. The median income for the district is about $55,000 a year, which is the lowest of any of the non-majority minority districts in the city area. By contrast, in all four suburban Long Island districts, the median income is around $80,000 a year. Many of the surviving white ethnic communities are in this district; 12 percent of the district still identifies as Italian, 7 percent as Irish.

Estimates of the Jewish population are more difficult to calculate, but Jews probably constitute about 25 percent of the population (and are probably higher as a share of the electorate). While the most heavily Orthodox Jewish communities such as Borough Park (about 70 percent for McCain) are strategically placed in other districts, the Jewish voters here still tend to be more conservative than the Jewish communities around Miami or in Manhattan. Many are Russian immigrants (around 7 percent of the district) who tend to lack affinity for government intervention in the economy. Still, while the Jewish presence is significant, it can’t explain everything that is going on here.

Overall, we can see here a microcosm of the Democrats’ performance among whites, especially working-class whites. The following table shows the Democratic presidential vote in the district over the past few election cycles (the 1988 number is Democratic performance under the 1992 lines; the district’s base partisanship did not change appreciably in the 2000 redistricting), as well as how the Democratic candidate’s performance in the district compared to his share of the national vote:

Democratic performance in the district improved greatly from 1988 to 1992, and continued to improve in the '90s. When Anthony Weiner ran in 1998, after Chuck Schumer vacated the seat to run for Senate, he received 66 percent of the vote there.

Since then, however, there has been a substantial decline in Democratic performance here as the party began to nominate presidential candidates who had more difficulty relating to working-class whites than had Clinton or Gore. Today the district probably leans Democratic at the presidential level by a weaker margin than it has since Watergate. As congressional voting increasingly aligns with presidential voting, this becomes a potential problem for the Democrats. In some respects, this can be seen as a continuation of trends we saw in 2010, when a lot of Democrats in working-class white districts saw their vote shares decline significantly. Many of them survived because they drew weak opponents, and because their vote shares were declining from pretty solid performances in 2008, but for some, including Paul Kanjorski and Jim Oberstar, the decline was career-ending.  New York-9 appears to be in this vein.

Again, we have to resist reading too much into a single special election. There won’t be too many districts with large conservative Jewish populations. Nor will there be many Democratic candidates who get the size of the national debt wrong by an order of magnitude, as did Weprin.

At the same time, I think that if Democrats had a 2012 nominee like Bill Clinton who related well to the white working class, they wouldn’t be in trouble here. But they don’t; they have a nominee whose coalition is much narrower than Clinton’s was (although it is deeper among core Democratic constituencies). If the result in NY-9 is largely about white working-class voters continuing to align their congressional votes with their presidential votes, it could open a whole new crop of seats up to potential competition.

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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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