The Democratic Party used to the party of ideological diversity. It had an urban coalition of cosmopolitan liberals, Northeastern Civil Rights Democrats and conservative Southern Democrats. This diversity was fostered through the efforts of FDR who held together this diverse coalition through personality, war and handouts to Southern Democrats.
Of course, history is filled with the coffins of electoral coalitions and alignments and this Democratic coalition is all but dead. Democrats have their urban and Civil Rights elements as well as a cosmopolitan liberal element in the Northeast but there are few, if any, true conservative Democrats anymore. But as recently as 2008 this was not the case.
Before I go further a brief electoral history is relevant here. Starting with JFK, the conservative Democratic element, particularly in the South, began to chafe under the cosmopolitan/Civil Rights Democratic element. This allowed Nixon to deploy his Southern strategy. Yet, despite GOP success federally in the South they struggled to win other federal or state races in the region. Heck, the GOP tide at the Presidential level was even turned back somewhat with Clinton in 92 and 96.
But the GOP had already made inroads in the region at the Congressional level with their win in 1994. It was only in 2006, a mere two years after George Bush was reelected and Republicans took control of the biggest Southern prize’s Congressional delegation, Texas, the Democratic Party finally began to branch out. With the GOP in firm control of the Senate (55 seats) and the House (232), Democrats sought to branch their party out from the moderate/liberal rump party it had become. Enter Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, took over the DCCC in 2005 and advocated targeting key moderate and conservative districts represented by Republicans. He largely eschewed DNC Chair Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy which advocated supporting progressives nationwide. An unpopular war and unpopular President combined with strong Democratic recruiting heralded the party 6 seats in the Senate and 30 in the House giving them control of Congress. A mere two years later the party would garner a massive 9 Senate seats and an additional 25 Congressional seats, many in conservative and Republican leaning districts in the South and West.
Hence, in 2009 the Democratic Party looked more like the party of FDR. It was fairly strong in the South, dominant in the Northeast and on the Pacific Coast and held its own in the Midwest. It’s control in the Senate rested on strength everywhere but the South. Most notably, the conservative Blue Dog Caucus was enlarged to 54 members.
Then 2010 happened. Suddenly the Democratic Party’s fortunes were thrown up in the air. It’s longtime dominance of legislative races in LA, NC, MS, and AL disappeared. Arkansas turned red. Nationally, the GOP gained 63 Congressional seats and a significant 6 Senate seats which combined with Massachusetts gave them 47 overall. Democrats were crushed nationwide in gubernatorial races and the hold the party held in the Midwest and South largely disappeared. More important ideologically, many longtime white, conservative Democrats in the South (like Ike Skelton-MO) were defeated.
The strategy Emanuel had used to broaden the party’s appeal was derailed. Obama’s reelection did not change this phenomenon. Instead of focusing on candidate recruitment and utilizing the messages of 2006 and 2008, Democrats largely followed the Obama campaign’s lead on identity politics. Carried by the President’s strong showing the party made inroads among Hispanics and women leading to Congressional gains but only in new and liberal districts (created by blue redistricters).
The 2014 election was an utter disaster for the party. Not only did Democrats lose in the South but they lost moderate districts in Iowa, Nevada, Florida and New York. They lost blue Governorships in Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland and failed to win any new legislative chambers while losing 10 nationwide. Not even the Democratic Midwestern blue firewall could withstand the Democratic wave (hi Senator Joni Ernst). Former Southern legislatures that had held out for Democrats turned bright red (West Virginia).
Perhaps this could have been avoided. Emanuel’s 2006 strategy focused on winning blue-collar whites on the economy and foreign policy. Obama’s strategy in 08 fueled this plan though less so. But starting with 2009 the Democratic Party has put far more emphasis on ideology and identity politics than broadening their coalition. In some places this strategy has worked. Democrats are in firm control in multiracial California and are strong in many urban enclaves (though these places have few whites). It has not worked in many other places. If one looks at an electoral map today they will find a Democratic Party literally controlling the fringes of the US map. CA, OR and WA state in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast (minus ME, MD, MA). Of course, the Democratic Party did not exactly become notably liberal in the last three weeks.
Since 2008, the party has shed its moderate personal and appealed to its base. Healthcare Reform, attempts to pass Cap and Trade and Dodd-Frank were it at the most basic level. The Stimulus appealed to only unionized whites. It is not surprising few conservatives and moderates look at it the same way anymore. Unfortunately for conservative and moderate Democrats who have catered to more than the base they have paid the biggest price.
Worse, the party has run on the same message for virtually three straight elections with little deviation. Democrats seemed genuinely shocked when their message on Healthcare Reform and notable social issues such as abortion were rebuffed in 2010 (except in Colorado). In 2012, the same issues were rehashed minus Healthcare Reform, largely because Romney did not want to touch it (Romneycare baby). Democrats found more fertile ground due to GOP blunders. This year, Democrats followed the same script and picked a slate of standard candidates to run in open races on the same, old issues their base loved. Two problems. Their base did not seem to care anymore and Republicans adapted.
Most notable were the candidacies of Join Ernst (IA) and Corey Gardner (CO). Both ran on avoiding debates on gay marriage and suppporting contraception. Former hardline stances on abortion were put to the side and they stressed the hopeful change that the Obama of 2008 had. Both their opponents stressed the social issues of the day but to little effect. Calling their victories a romp would be an understatement. Combine this with conservative Democratic retirements elsewhere in the Senate and the defeats of Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Pryor (AR) and Mark Begich (AK) and there are arguably only three conservative Democratic Senators left in the party and one is likely to lose this Saturday in Louisiana.
Democrat’s don’t have much chance to change course. It is obvious their identity politics coalition is assembled around cultural issues. Running away from fights on abortion, gay marriage and income inequality is simply something the base will not tolerate. Thus, appealing to the middle (if there is such a thing) and increasingly conservative, white America has become harder and harder. Democrats comfort themselves with the thought that their minority-majority coalition is permanent and they can outrun losses among whites. The truth however is the GOP is making gains with traditionally Democratic groups while Democrats stagnate or fall further behind among whites.
If Democrats are thinking of trying to recapture whites for 2016 recent events have not helped the party. The President’s move on immigration reform through Executive Action has made the base happy. It appeals o the racial coalition the President has built. But, notable Democrats representing largely white electorates have voiced concern and opposition. Republicans are in lockstep opposition while a majority of the public (largely whites) is as well. A Hillary Clinton is likely to be dragged down among whites due to this decision.
Democratic futures in 2016 look brighter largely because higher turnout means they will win some blue leaning Congressional seats they lost. But it says nothing of how the party will fair in the post-Obama era where liberalism is now ascendant in the party and the conservative wing is all but silenced permanently. Probably not well.
Addendum: Not to be forgotten, Elizabeth Warren speaks to the party’s modern coalition far better than Obama or Hillary Clinton ever could. However, it is unclear how well she speaks to the rest of the country.