Democrats have believed since 2004 they have a lock on the electoral college. The idea, first coined by Democratic strategists Ruy Teixeira and Jon Judis in the Emerging Democratic Majority, posited that the growth of urban areas combined with the growth of Democratic friendly Asians, blacks and Hispanics would ensure the party had a lock on the Electoral College. However, the theory rested on an unstated fundamental assumption; Democratic ascendance relied on minorities as well as maintaining the allegiance of blue-collar whites.
This unstated assumption held up during Democratic victories in the 2006 midterms and 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections. In the 2006 midterms, Democrats won non-college educated voters by a 53%-45% margin. In his bid for the White House in 2008 Obama expanded these margins in route to a massive 7% victory nationally. But suddenly, in 2010, the Emerging Democratic Majority theory stagnated. The President and a Democratic Congress, so intent on giving out goodies to their core constituencies, forgot that blue-collar workers continue to be needed by the party to win a majority in Congress. According to 2010 exit polls the GOP won over 65% of the blue-collar white, vote on its way to winning 63 Congressional seats, six Senate seats, dozens of state legislative chambers and over two dozen Governors races.
The 2010 election set the stage for 2012. Democrats and the President, suddenly realizing they still needed the blue-collar vote, put out an early media blitz aimed at ensuring Mitt Romney could never appeal to these voters. The gamble worked and Romney never gained traction. But this mars an important fact that is incredibly relevant for 2016. Blue-collar workers are becoming increasingly conservative nationally, but in the Midwest these voters form the “Blue Firewall.” This firewall almost gave John Kerry the election in 2004 and handed Obama victory in 2012. In other words, Midwestern, blue-collar whites tend to be more moderate than their counterparts nationally.
Consider these interesting facts. Romney lost the college educated vote by a mere 2% nationally and the non-college educated vote by 4%. He won the $50,000-99,999 vote by 6% and the over $100,000 vote by 10%. But in the crucial swing states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Romney ran into a blue wall. In Wisconsin Romney lost the college educated vote by 7% and the larger non college educated vote by 4%. Romney won the $50,000-$99,999 vote by a single point. Such a result was a startling turnaround from a mere five months ago when Republican Scott Walker easily beat back a recall effort. In Iowa, Romney lost the college and non-college educated vote by 6% and did not even carry the $50,000-$99,999 vote. Quintessential swing state Ohio voted for Obama on the back of his 7% win among con-college educated voters. A similar dynamic can be found in the exit polls from Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
But short of Obama no Democrat has maintained the “Blue Firewall” since the new millennium. No Democrat has also run as well among these Midwestern voters either. Bush won Ohio in 2000 and Ohio and Iowa in 2004. He almost took Wisconsin in both elections as well. But here is the most interesting thing. Without Obama on the ballot to increase turnout among Democratic constituencies the party struggles to survive its weakness among blue-collar workers in midterms. In 2014 Democrats lost every single Governor’s race in the region except Minnesota and Pennsylvania, gave up the longtime Iowa Senate seat of Tom Harkin and lost two Congressional seats in the state. They failed to win a single new Congressional district in the six states and Republicans took control of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
This is relevant to 2016. More so than 2010, the 2014 elections showed just how vulnerable Democratic edge in the Midwest is. Unlike North Carolina and Virginia on the East Coast and Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico in the West these states are not diversifying at a significant clip. Elections are still won and lost on the back of the majority white vote and non-college educated, blue-collar voters form a pivotal plurality of the vote in these key states. Obama managed to increase turnout among core Democratic constituencies while limiting GOP inroads to the group in 2012 but 2014 revealed just how disaffected these voters are becoming from the Democratic Party.
Enter Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s appeal to many Democrats is based on her husband’s ability to appeal to such voters in his Presidential bids. In her last Presidential bid Clinton’s support was built on the backs of these voters. But recent analysis suggests that Clinton would fare no better than Obama among the group, perhaps even worse. The recent ABC/WashPo survey found non-college educated whites favored the GOP’s economic policies over Democrats by a stunning 22% margin. In 2012 Republicans enjoyed a narrow lead. If generic Republican ideas are this far ahead of Democratic ideas you can expect it to translate to the ballot box.
Such results suggest if Republicans find a candidate that can appeal to these voters as well as just make minor inroads with core Democratic constituencies the ball will be put in the Democrats court. Democrats would have to get Obama level turnout without Obama on the ballot. Of course, Democrats could counter that even if they lost a few swing states in the Midwest (most likely Iowa and Ohio) they would still win the election due to the 126 electoral vote edge Obama has built for the party.
Unfortunately for the party this logic is overly simplistic. Since 1968, a majority of swing states have gone to the eventual Presidential winner. Worse, the way most swing states have gone follow the national political trend because they mimic so many elements of the national electorate. For example, Ohio mimics the electorate of Pennsylvania and Iowa, Florida that of Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Doing some quick math in the Midwest if Republicans won Ohio and Pennsylvania they would jump from Romney’s 206 electoral votes to 244. All they would need would be a big swing state like Florida. If Republicans won Iowa and broke through in a Wisconsin or Minnesota, well if the “Blue Firewall” is breaking that much the party might as well call it a night early. For as the party’s Midwestern firewall goes so go their fortunes in 2016.