Movement Interruptus

September 11 slowed the Democratic trend that we predicted, but the coalition we foresaw is still taking shape.

This article originally appeared in American Prospect Online.

September 11 slowed the Democratic trend that we predicted, but the coalition we foresaw is still taking shape.

There were certainly reasons to despair after the 2004 election — chiefly, the awful thought that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress could find the means to exceed the egregious irresponsibility, the xenophobia, the sheer partisan pettiness, and the callous disregard for life and law of Bush’s first term. But the election itself, and Bush’s margin of victory over Democrat John Kerry, were not reasons to despair. Bush won re-election by a smaller margin than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower — and against a deeply flawed Democratic opponent.

And there was little sign of a party realignment. In the great realigning elections of 1932 and ’36, and ’80 and ’84, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, respectively, created majorities by winning over new blocs of voters from their opponents. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Bush and the Republicans had to patch together what remained of Reagan’s older coalition — without those states and voters that had earlier begun moving toward the Democrats. Bush’s victory in 2004 didn’t represent the onset of a new majority but the survival of an older one.

The Democrats surely showed weaknesses in the election, particularly in the Deep South and among white working-class voters, but they also displayed continuing strength among constituencies that will command a growing share of the electorate in years to come. These include minorities, single men and women, and college-educated voters. The Democrats also demonstrated surprising strength among younger voters — partly, to be sure, because of the Iraq War, but also because these voters are in tune with the cosmopolitan sensibility that the Democrats represent. And in this election, the Democrats benefited from a new Internet-based popular movement that could do for this era’s Democratic Party what the labor movement did for the old party and what the religious right has done for the Reagan Republicans.

Reviving Reaganism

In 1980, Reagan won a new majority that combined long-standing Republican support among upscale voters, farmers, and businesspeople with new levels of support from white working-class Democrats in the South and the North. He fused a traditional Republican attack on high taxes with militant anti-communism, opposition to racial preference, and support for a cultural conservatism rooted in church and family. With this appeal, Reagan not only carried the South and the Plains but, drawing on the suburban vote, states like California, Illinois, and New Jersey. In the ’90s, Republicans maintained their support in the South and the Plains, but the Democrats under Clinton won over a new generation of upscale suburbanites and city dwellers who lived in postindustrial metropolitan areas. By winning back a modest share of the white working class and maintaining Democratic support among minorities, Clinton obtained a plurality of votes in ’92 and ’96. He also turned California, Illinois, and New Jersey into Democratic enclaves. And in 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote. On the basis of these trends, we foresaw, in our 2002 book, the emergence of a new Democratic majority by the end of this decade. But the movement toward a Democratic majority was interrupted by the September 11 terrorist attacks. By responding dramatically to al-Qaeda, Bush was able to revive the Republicans’ reputation as the party of national security. In the 2002 election, Bush was able to exploit his success on that score — and to amplify it through carefully timed “terror” alerts and wild exaggeration of the Iraqi threat — to override his failures in managing the economy. In the 2004 election, he used virtually the same formula, and it worked. For substantial parts of the spring and early summer, Kerry actually held the lead in opinion polls. Voters didn’t know him, but they knew Bush and were wary of the war in Iraq, which had turned into a quagmire, and the sputtering economy, which had never fully recovered from the recession. Yet after the Republican convention, which was almost entirely devoted to promoting the president as the commander in chief in the war against terrorism, Bush moved ahead in the polls, and, except for the week after his dismal performance in the first debate, never relinquished his advantage.

Bush combined a public campaign as commander in chief and tax cutter with a more targeted campaign aimed at spurring turnout among white evangelicals and winning over observant Catholics (including Hispanics) and Jews who backed Israel’s Ariel Sharon. Unless you lived in a small town in a battleground state—say, Lakeland, Florida — you would not have been aware, for instance, of Bush’s pitch for evangelical votes, which was often conducted on Christian radio stations, in churches, and on billboards reading “One Nation Under God — Bush/Cheney.”

Bush’s targeting was successful. He picked off Democratic constituencies in battleground states, including culturally conservative Hispanics in New Mexico, evangelicals and some Jews in Florida, and observant Catholics in Ohio. In the national exit poll, Catholics who attended church weekly voted for Bush by 53 percent to 45 percent, very close to the president’s margin among this group in 2000, but in Ohio, Bush won 62 percent of the observant Catholic vote, up from 55 percent in 2000. These were significant tactical successes, but they didn’t add up nationally to a new coalition.

Bush failed to capture any of the northeastern or Pacific Coast states that Reagan had won easily in 1980 and ’84, and he failed to make dramatic gains nationally among the voting groups that had moved into the Democratic Party in the 1990s. Rather, the key to Bush’s victory was reviving Reagan’s support among the white working class. According to the post-election survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps/Institute for America’s Future, Bush enjoyed a whopping 24-percent edge among non–college-educated whites, compared with a 19-percent advantage in 2000. (Clinton had actually carried this group by a point in each of his election victories.) Insofar as whites still make up 77 percent of the electorate and non–college-educated whites represent a majority of the white vote, that increase alone accounts for most — perhaps 70 percent — of Bush’s improved performance in 2004.

This increase came primarily among white working-class women, a group that has shown particular sensitivity to issues surrounding terrorism. One mid-October poll of women voters by comScore, a marketing firm, showed that terrorism was the top issue for women voters, ahead of the Iraq War, the economy, or health care. Of the quarter of women voters who selected terrorism as the top issue, more than three-fourths favored Bush. And according to the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner post-election poll, white working-class women voters, in particular, chose terrorism and security (35 percent, up from 28 percent in late September) over the economy/jobs (25 percent, down from 39 percent in late September), the Iraq War (25 percent), and health care (9 percent) as their most important voting issue.

Kerry and the War

Bush also benefited from a less than formidable Democratic challenge, which was the product of the peculiar circumstances in which the Democrats found themselves in the fall of 2002. In September of that year, Gore, then the Democratic front-runner, gave a stirring critique of the Bush administration’s plans for war in a speech sponsored by But Gore was subsequently attacked by pro-war Democrats in his own party. The Washington Post, which would later endorse Kerry, charged that Gore “validated just about every conspiratorial theory of the antiwar left.” With his support dwindling in the Democratic establishment, and with his poll numbers far behind those of Bush, Gore, who for all his weaknesses might have been the strongest candidate in 2004, took himself out of the presidential race.

In Congress, the three leading aspirants to the nomination — Kerry, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt — were determined not to make the same mistake as Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, whose vote against the Gulf War, it was widely believed, had cost him a chance at the presidency. As a result, they backed the war resolution. But as the campaign unfolded, they were unable to respond to the deepening quagmire in Iraq and to the growing popular outcry against the war, particularly among Democratic primary voters. Kerry finally secured primary voters’ support by opposing $87 billion in funding for the war in October 2003, but by the same move, he made himself a ripe target for the Bush campaign’s charge that he was a “flip-flopper.”

To have won in November, a Democratic candidate would either have had to match Bush’s credibility on the war on terrorism or make the failure of Iraq, rather than the war on terrorism, the focus of voters’ anxieties. Kerry was unable to accomplish either objective. In August he would declare, astonishingly, that even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he would still have voted for the war. Even in October, after he had developed a clearer position, voters could still detect little difference in what he planned to do if elected and what Bush might do. The main difference was in the steadfastness of their approaches.

To make matters worse, Kerry was also incapable of articulating a clear economic message. According to exit polls, while just 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush to handle the economy, only 45 percent trusted Kerry with the job. Kerry’s health-care program was incomprehensible except to policy wonks. And he embodied an austere, upper-class New England liberalism that turned off many voters. He lacked a popular touch.

Kerry’s failure as a candidate was evident to us in two visits we made to Martinsburg, a small, blue-collar town in West Virginia. We first visited Martinsburg in July, before the Democratic and Republican conventions. At that time, knocking on doors in a working-class neighborhood, we discovered considerable dissatisfaction with Bush over the war in Iraq and the economy. Few people knew Kerry, but they said they were considering voting for him. Visiting Martinsburg two days before the election, we discovered that most of these voters had decided to support Bush. They often mentioned gay marriage and “family values” — the area is dotted with churches — and feeling “safer” under Bush. They also thought Kerry was too “liberal,” a comment about his “values” rather than his program.

Most of these voters were registered Democrats who had voted for Clinton in ’92 and ’96. And many of them told us, and Democratic canvassers, that they would have voted for Clinton this time, too. Typically, one voter, who faulted Kerry for being “too liberal” on “family values,” said Clinton had been “dishonest,” but that he was “an excellent president.” When these voters talked about the economy, they were clearly closer to the Democrats than Republicans, but they expressed confusion at what Kerry wanted to do. One older voter said, “Of all the countries today, we are the only one that doesn’t have any sort of health-care plan.” That sounded like a line from a Democratic ad, but the voter added that he couldn’t figure out how Kerry’s health plan worked.

In battleground states where there was also a closely contested state race, Kerry usually ran behind the other Democrats on the ticket. In Washington, Patti Murray’s margin in the Senate race was 6 points better than Kerry’s; in Wisconsin, Russ Feingold’s margin was 11 points wider; in Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln won and Kerry lost; and in Colorado, Ken Salazar won and Kerry lost. If Bush’s victory represented a maximization of opportunity, Kerry’s totals represented a bare minimum. Yet this bloc of anti-Bush voters who supported Kerry was extremely large — Kerry garnered the most voters ever for a Democratic candidate — and could be the basis for future Democratic victories.

The Two Coalitions

In the wake of the election, some commentators argued that Bush had dramatically altered the electoral map of the last two decades, but as the corrected exit polls and other post-election surveys have appeared, it has become clear that Bush’s successes were primarily tactical. He didn’t make fundamental or decisive inroads into the Hispanic vote except perhaps in New Mexico. Overall, Bush probably increased his support among Hispanics by no more than 4 percent or 5 percent — only slightly more than among voters overall. In Florida, Kerry actually appears to have done better among Hispanics than Gore did.

Much was also made of Bush’s support in exurban and rural areas. The president did increase his support in these areas, but that is part of a trend that began in 1980. It did not decide the 2004 election. Only 13 percent of Bush’s gain in overall vote could be attributed to his increased support in the fringe or exurban counties of large metropolitan areas. And this support is unlikely to prove decisive in the future. Despite the fact that exurban areas have been growing fairly rapidly, they start from such a small base that their share of all voters has increased only modestly over the last 20 years, from 3 percent to 5 percent. Together with rural counties, which have been declining in population, these areas have stalled at 25 percent of the vote between 1984 and 2004. Exurbia and rural America don’t make for much of a political growth stock. They help make Republicans competitive, but they don’t give them a new and enduring majority.

The Democrats, on the other hand, continue to show support among groups that are steadily growing as a percentage of the electorate. Among minorities (now up to 23 percent of the electorate), Kerry increased his margin among Asian Americans. His margin among African Americans was slightly smaller than Gore’s in 2000 — no doubt a product of his patrician aloofness — but higher than that of Clinton in ’92 or ’96. While Kerry got drubbed among white working-class women, he and the Democrats continued to show strength among single and college-educated women. Single women, whose vote he carried by 25 percent, increased their share of the electorate from 19 percent to 22 percent; college-educated women, whom Kerry won by 10 percent, increased their share from 21 percent to 22 percent.

Kerry actually did better than Gore did among professionals, a key group in the transformation of the suburban vote. He carried voters with a post-graduate education by 11 percent, 3 percent better than Gore had done. Like Gore, Kerry split college-educated voters overall with Bush, but he increased Democratic support among college-educated men, going from a 57-percent to 39-percent deficit in 2000 to a 53-percent to 45-percent deficit this year.

Kerry also did exceptionally well in ’04 among the new generation of voters, winning 18-to-29-year-old voters by 54 percent to 45 percent, compared with a narrow 48-percent to 46-percent margin for Gore in 2000. He even won young male voters by a 51-percent to 47-percent margin, a big change from 2000, when Gore lost these voters 51 percent to 41 percent. In 2000, youth were only 2 points more Democratic than all voters. In this election, youth were 12 points more Democratic. By its nature, the youth vote is transient. But Kerry’s and the Democrats’ success among these voters could have lasting results. Young voters, like suburban professionals, seem to be turning Democratic because of the Republicans’ identification with the cultural right. If so, this trend is likely to continue. Young voters also tend to preserve their loyalties as they get older. Many of the voters who turned 18 during the Reagan years are still voting Republican; many of the current younger voters will continue to vote Democratic as they get older.

The Republicans got their most impressive results in the South, where they won five Senate seats vacated by Democrats and increased their congressional delegation. Kerry’s percentage was even less than Gore’s was in every state of the old Confederacy except Virginia and the Carolinas (where Kerry managed only to match Gore’s poor performance). If the Democrats get shut out in Deep South states like Alabama and Georgia (except in majority black congressional districts), their political infrastructure will deteriorate and they will become less able to field competitive candidates, even when the opportunity for success might arise. That will make it more difficult for Democrats to win back Congress, and may also hamper them in presidential races.

Outside the Deep South, however, the Democrats made inroads. In Arkansas and Colorado, they won impressive Senate victories. Democrats also continued to dominate the nation’s postindustrial metropolitan areas, or “ideopolises,” increasing the pro-Democratic bias of these areas relative to the rest of the country by a point (three quarters of Bush’s net-vote gains, in fact, came outside of ideopolis areas). Kerry predictably racked up large margins in Illinois’ Cook County and California’s Bay Area, but he also increased the Democrats’ margin in Texas’ Travis County (from a 5-point deficit to a 14-point lead), North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County (from a 3-point deficit to a 4-point lead), and northern Virginia’s Fairfax County (from a 1-point deficit to a 6-point lead). It is voters in these ideopolis areas of the solid red states (those Bush carried by 6 points or more in 2000) that are increasing their share of nation’s vote, while the non-ideopolis areas of these states, where Bush made big gains in 2004 (more than two-fifths of his overall increase in vote margin), remain stagnant.

The New Center-Left

In this year’s election, the Democratic coalition was strengthened by the emergence of new political organizations. Some of these, like America Coming Together (ACT), grew out of the older alliances among labor and public-interest groups in Washington. Others, like, came out of the virtual community that the Internet has created. Both kinds of organizations should be around when the next election comes along, and could play an even more decisive role in mobilizing around issues, raising money for candidates, and turning out voters. The ability of the Democrats to match the Republicans in funds (in fact, the Democratic National Committee actually raised more money than the Republican National Committee, and Democratic and Democratic-oriented organizations spent more in support of Kerry than their Republican counterparts did in support of Bush) was largely due to the use of the Internet, a medium that Democrats and liberals dominate in the same way that Republicans dominate AM radio.

These new groups — and particularly those like MoveOn that are based on the Internet — are most clearly expressions of the growing importance of professionals and college-educated women in the Democratic Party. Many were founded by high-tech professionals, and their members are drawn primarily from the college-educated workforce that has been turning Democratic. In fall 2003, when MoveOn surveyed those of its million-plus members who had voted in its Democratic primary, it found that the single largest group was college-educated women — a perfect match with the profile of new Democratic Party.

Some Republican and hawkish Democratic commentators have branded these new movements and organizations part of the left. New Republic Editor Peter Beinart even compared them to the communist-infiltrated left of the late 1940s that backed Henry Wallace for president. But the outlook of these new, primarily upscale and highly educated activists is Clintonite and center-left rather than left wing. These people support environmental regulation and women’s rights, vehemently reject the social strictures and anti-scientific attitudes of the religious right, and favor tolerance and fairness in social policy. But, like many college-educated liberals, they are also fiscal conservatives. When MoveOn held a poll in January 2004 on what ad the organization should run on the week of Bush’s State of the Union address, its members chose one attacking the Bush administration’s budget deficits.

In the 2004 election, ACT, MoveOn, and the other Democratic-oriented groups that took to the field were clearly matched and, in some states, out-organized by Karl Rove’s professional cadre. But without their work, turnout in Democratic-leaning areas in the battleground states might not have increased as much as it did. What’s more, young voters, who were a particular target of ACT and the Internet groups, might not have responded as enthusiastically as they did, both in terms of their turnout (which may have gone up by as much as 9 points) and their support for Kerry. And this was, after all, these groups’ first try at organized intervention in a presidential race. It took Christian conservatives two decades to enjoy the same kind of success that these groups enjoyed the first time around. They should be back and better able to do their job in 2006 and 2008.

The Contingencies

But elections aren’t won simply by demographic changes. They are won by candidates, and the results often depend on unanticipated events like 9-11. In Congress, Democrats will have a difficult time winning back either the House or the Senate in 2006. In 2002, the Democrats had an extremely good chance to increase their hold over the Senate; instead, they lost it because of 9-11. In 2004, they couldn’t overcome retirements in the South, and in 2006, they will face an unfavorable set of contests, although retirements can always alter this [see Sam Rosenfeld, “Better Luck Next Time,” TAP Online, November 17, 2004]. Barring the unforeseen, the Democrats’ next chance of winning back the Senate will probably be in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ best chance of winning back the House (as well as the Senate) is to do what the Reagan Republicans did: oust or convert like-minded members of the opposite party. The Republicans won the southern seats that were held by conservative Democrats; similarly, the Democrats need to take over the seats outside the Deep South that are now held by moderate Republicans. There are about 50 to 60 such Republicans in the House, well enough to tilt the majority back to the Democrats. But this could take several election cycles, as it did in the case of the Republicans and the South. Popular Republicans will have to retire or lose some of their support in redistricting, as Maryland Republican Connie Morella did. Of course, this process could be accelerated if the conservative Republican leadership in Congress runs roughshod over such moderates as Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee and Delaware Representative Mike Castle.

As for events in the world, Democrats — and Americans in general — have to worry about a darker scenario. Much of the election in 2004 was decided on whether the electorate focused on 9-11 or the war in Iraq. If voters worried about the former, they backed Bush; if they worried about the latter, they backed Kerry. Many Democrats pointed out that Bush has increased the threat of terrorism by invading Iraq, but Bush was able to convince enough voters that the war on terrorism is a seamless web that has to be combated, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and he actually used the mobilization of Islamic radicals in Iraq as grounds to support his candidacy.

A dynamic like that could be set up in the future as well. If Bush were to continue on his present course in the Middle East — launching, for instance, a preemptive strike against Iran or encouraging the Israelis to do it — he would succeed in even further enflaming this region and making it even more likely that Islamic terrorism would blow back into western Europe and the United States. Bush and the Republicans could then argue that this spread of terrorism rendered their tenure in office even more necessary. Nobody knows whether American voters would buy this argument the second time around, but it is certainly possible that they would.

Barring that, though, the Republicans’ “Reagan-lite” coalition does not appear to have broad enough support to dominate American politics for the rest of the decade. That should open the door to the Democrats and their new coalition — especially if they can find a way to both mobilize their new center-left and nominate candidates with some comfort level among white working-class voters. The results of the 2004 election suggest that’s the right formula. If Democrats want to win and bring their majority into being by the end of the decade, they should adopt it.

John B. Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, are the authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow