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New York-9 and the Democratic Coalition

New York-9 and the Democratic Coalition

By Sean Trende - September 14, 2011


Last night, Republican Bob Turner won a surprisingly strong victory in New York's 9th Congressional District. As I noted after the New York-26 special election last May, special elections don't have much predictive power; we can't use this race to forecast the outcome of the 2012 presidential race -- or even whether Republicans will retain their majority in the House. Still, just as the special election in NY-26 can be seen as part of a gradual decline of Republican fortunes in upstate New York, yesterday's results in NY-9 tells us a bit about the state of the Democratic coalition, both in terms of its fading prospects among white voters, and the effects of packing its most reliable voters into a few districts.

To understand what’s going on in New York-9, let’s travel back to 1988. That year, Democrats won only 40 percent of the white vote in this country, en route to an eight-point defeat for their national ticket, headed by Michael Dukakis. Democrats’ losses among whites were broad: Upper-class whites, suburbanites, and even working-class whites voted Republican. The Democrats’ congressional majorities, while large, were also increasingly shaky; as old Southern Democrats retired, they were increasingly being replaced with Republicans.

In 1992, Democrats nominated Bill Clinton for president, who famously professed to be a “new” Democrat. Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it,” while eschewing tax increases for the middle class.

This paid substantial dividends among the white voters with whom Democrats had struggled for almost four decades. While Republicans had won 60 percent or more of the two-party white vote in 1980, 1984 and 1988, Clinton came a point away from being the first Democrat since LBJ to carry whites. It wasn’t just any whites among whom Clinton improved the Democratic vote share. The white working class -- which never fully left the Democratic Party, especially at the congressional level -- warmed toward a candidate who didn’t seem antagonistic to their values, while suburban whites appreciated his fiscal realism.

Clinton repeated the feat in 1996, but afterward, the Democratic performance among whites began to decline. As the party’s nominees became more liberal, the Clinton coalition slowly dissipated. Al Gore won only 44 percent of the two-party vote among whites nationally, while John Kerry won just 41 percent of the white vote. In 2008, for all the hype about Obama’s “broad” coalition, he only won 43 percent of the white vote, about two points better than Kerry. Obama’s win came almost entirely from turning out more minority voters, and doing better among them.

Obama has had problems with working-class whites in particular. Recall that on the eve of the Democratic convention in 2008, McCain was almost even with Obama in the RCP Average. Gallup’s tracking poll -- which had McCain ahead -- showed that Obama’s weakness was largely due to an underperformance in this group. McCain’s lead among high-school-educated whites at that point was 23 points. Among whites with some college, he led by 21 points. After the Republican convention, those numbers were 22 points and 28 points, respectively.

These voters were brought into Obama’s camp only after the financial collapse; by mid-October, McCain led by only six points among those with no college degrees and 11 points among those with some college. This shift allowed Obama to win the election, although by a smaller margin than many expected.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, it has been more of the same. Consider the following chart: 

Obama’s overall weekly job approval is at 41 percent, but it is concentrated heavily among African American adults. To put this in perspective, in Gallup’s October 1994 polling, President Clinton’s job approval was also at 41 percent. Yet his job approval was five points higher among whites (38 percent); his job approval among blacks had sunk to a still-healthy, but not otherworldly, 63 percent. You may say, “That’s only five points' difference,” but it’s a good bet that Weprin wishes Obama’s approval rating had been about five points higher in New York’s 9th district.

This is important because the African American vote is unevenly distributed in our country. Although blacks make up 13 percent of the population according to census figures, African American voters tend to be packed into a few districts. This “packing” has indeed increased the number of African Americans in Congress, but it has come at the expense of having more districts where African American voters have little influence -- about 90 percent of the districts in the nation have African American populations of less than 30 percent, a few points more than was the case in 1970 (despite a two-point increase in the African American share of the population).

Which brings us to NY-9. The following map (courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting Tool) shows precincts in Queens and Brooklyn by race, with New York-9’s outlines superimposed (blue precincts are African American, green are Hispanic, red are white):

As you can see, this is largely a combination of white precincts in central Queens and South Brooklyn. It’s an impressive gerrymander; standing alone, South Brooklyn would be about a 55 percent McCain district, even allowing for some voters in the 13th. It would be easy to make this a Democratic stronghold, but it would come at a cost of jeopardizing minority control of the neighboring districts. Although it is only 62 percent white, it is also only 4 percent black; Latinos and Asians in the district vote less proportionately  than their white and African American counterparts. 

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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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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