Welcome to the new Democratic Party. The party has shifted rapidly from its roots to accommodate the changing American political system and changing demographics. The Democratic party is not the only party to shift in recent years. Along with the Democratic Party’s support shifting among the general populace so has the GOP’s. But what is most striking is how far the original Democratic coalition has changed from the start of the 19th century, its impact on 2010, and what it portends for future elections.
In the early 20th century the Democratic party was a hodge-podge of regional coalitions from the big city bosses of the Rust-Belt and Northeast to the Southern rural voter. In 1932 FDR united these various factions under the Democratic banner for the first time, creating a national brand and identity these voters could follow. Even better for Democrats, and relevant for today, FDR balanced the interests of blacks and southern whites, allowing both to come into the Democratic fold. The original Democratic coalition largely consisted of southern whites and blacks, unions, and the urban and rural poor and seniors and religious voters.
This coalition largely held steady through Truman, Kennedy and LBJ. Starting in 1972 the first crack showed with Nixon winning every Southern state (first time a Republican had done so). In 76 Carter would win back several key Southern states on his way to the nomination. However, by this time what was becoming increasingly clear was the coalition FDR had built between southern whites and the national Democratic Party was straining. With Reagan’s victories in 80 and 84 it became clear that southern whites interests had thoroughly diverged with that of the national Democratic party (up until 2010 they voted Democratic in state and local races to some degree). Even moderate Bill Clinton could not help the national party regain the support of many southern whites. Following this trend was the movement of rural voters all across the country into the GOP’s column, mirroring the shift of southern whites. Many of these voters were also religious, helping explain why the religous vote has moved away from Democrats. Democrats also became increasingly affiliated with urban and metro interests and were not seen as being able to balance the two. Finally, while the national interests of unions continued to lie with the Democratic party their rank and file members were not so giving. While unions today continue to be a major Democratic supporter their rank and file members are not always a guaranteed vote.
The Democratic party of today looks nothing like its earlier 19th century counter-part. Today the Democratic Party’s main supporters include urban voters (many minorities), young voters, national unions, seniors and suburban voters. Gone are the key rural voters, many religious, who once populated their ranks as did the once solidly Democratic South. Even in 1994 when a moderate Southern Democrat occupied the White House this was the make-up of the Democratic coalition. The difference was that due to Clinton’s rural roots he won a larger share of the rural vote (1992). The election of 1994 was a rude wake-up call to Democrats. Not only had the South and rural voters shifted Republican at the presidential level they had now started to shift Republican at the Congressional level.
This trend would largely hold true through the new millenium into the elections of 2000 and 2004. Both Al Gore and John Kerry lost rural and white voters by double-digits margins. They won the youth vote, minorities, unions and split the suburban vote (in recent years the suburban vote has been more swing then left leaning due to the growth of GOP leaning exurbs, a mix of suburbs and rural areas). In 2006 and 2008 this trend would be reversed as Democrats won whites in many areas once thought off-limits (South and rural Midwestern areas). Turnout in 2008 among minorities, unions and the youth vote was massive, propelling many Democrats in swing states and districts to victory.
Come 2010 however and the unruly Democratic coalition that had been created since 2006 collapsed in on itself. Urban vs. rural interests collided as did suburban (businesses orientated, post-graduate education) interests vs. union. Elected in a groundswell of support in 2008 by the youth vote and minorities the failure to deliver on key issues, the economy and jobs, turned these voters off to showing up at the polls again. The hard left turn the Democratic Party took to pass Healthcare Reform, the Dodd-Frank bill, Stimulus Package and failed attempts to pass Cap and Trade would have serious repercussions come the midterms.
In every region of the country, (except California and the deep Northeast) the GOP took back the disparate factions of its coalition that had abandoned it in 2006 and 2008. Southern whites, upset at deficit spending, unemployment and liberal economic policies abandoned the Democratic party at every level of governance. Traditionally southern white voters stuck with the Democratic party at the local and state level but not this time. Conservative Democrats at every level of office in the South were defeated. In the key battleground suburbs this swing vote went heavily to the GOP. And among the religious non-evangelical vote, the Catholic vote, traditionally swing in recent elections, the GOP dominated accelerating them to Senate wins in OH, WI, IN and PA and over a dozen new Congressional districts in these states alone.
The unruly Democratic coalition of 2006 and 2008 with all of its competing factions had disintegrated. What was left is the Democratic party of today. Largely minority, union, urban and youth based the one new addition to the coalition that stayed with Democrats was post-graduate voters. Come 2012 this coalition is not enough to win elections and the rural and religious vote is all but decided for the GOP. That leaves Democrats to fight for the key suburban vote in swing states they largely lost in 2010.
Turnout among growing support groups for the Democratic party will be especially crucial in 2012. Hispanics, who have seen their population and vote share grow astronomically in recent elections need to be turned out by Democrats. Even Republicans realize they cannot win on the white vote and a third of the Hispanic vote and have targeted these voters as well. And for the youth and traditional minority vote, their turnout needs to be high as well, especially if suburban voters and independents lean towards the GOP, which they currently are. Republican rural voters are as motivated today as 2010 so Democrats need the key factions of their supporters to turn out.
The growth of the current minority vote in the US looks to have the greatest impact on future US elections. In recent years, especially 2008 and 2010, the two political parties have become more racially homogenous. The GOP has become whiter and the Democratic Party less so and more minority/millennial generation based. But the white vote is shrinking, the African-American vote has stayed constant and what is left is the growing Hispanic vote share. This group since 2006 has given Democrats at least 60% of their support nationwide and turnout has reached about 15% of the voting public in every election. If Democrats maintain a lock on this growing voter group they could dominate elections in the future. This is painting a quite rosy picture however, it is likely if the Hispanic vote share grows individual and group interests within the vote share will shift and change, setting up future competing interests impossible to comment on currently.
The new Democratic Party is mostly minority, youth, union, urban and post-graduate based with support among the swing senior and suburban vote. In 2010 they lost the suburban and senior vote. Rural voters that supported them in 2006 and 2008 left them. Turnout among young voters and minorities was down. For 2012 these factors need to be reversed for the Democrats to hold the Senate and White House and retake the House or some variation of this. In future elections the growing sway of the Hispanic vote promises both parties to adapt to accommodate it or perish. It will be interesting to see how both the GOP and Democrats try to control the competing interests of their constituencies with the Hispanic vote even as they court them.