It's about time. After a series of frustrating election nights for Democrats, dating back to the Florida boondoggle in 2000, this year's election is a clear triumph. But was it, like the Watergate election of 1974, simply the result of correctible mistakes by the opposition? Or have the Republican scandals and the Bush administration's misadventure in Iraq brought to the surface trends that will lead to a new political majority? It's too early to say for certain, but it seems this election has at least provided Democrats with an opportunity to build a lasting congressional majority. Whether they succeed in doing so will depend partly on whether they understand what made for their smashing success this November. Here's a hint: It had something to do with energizing their own base, but it had much more to do with winning over voters that historically have had a stormy relationship with the Democratic Party.
Some of the Democratic victories occurred in states or congressional districts carried by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. These districts were going to turn Democratic when their Republican incumbents retired or when the voters in these districts, faced with Republican malfeasance, decided to vote on party lines. That accounts for Ed Perlmutter's victory in suburban Denver and the defeats of GOP moderates like Representative Jim Leach in Iowa and Senator Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. These seats should remain Democratic.
But Democrats also won in a host of districts and states that George W. Bush carried in the last election. In some cases, Democrats won primarily because the seat had been held by a Republican implicated in a personal or political scandal. But, in many others, Democrats benefited from the reemergence of political trends that had been suppressed after September 11--or, even before that, by Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. The most important of these trends involves independents.
There is no dependable measure of independents. Some states don't even allow voters to register as independents. But, when exit polls and the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies have asked voters whether they consider themselves independents, the percentage has grown from roughly one-fifth of the electorate after World War II to over one-third today, making them a larger group nationally than self-identified Democrats or Republicans.
In the South, independents tend to be former Democrats who have begun to vote Republican but are unwilling to describe themselves as Republicans. In the North and West, however, they occupy a much more distinct political niche. They include libertarian-minded professionals and small-business owners--especially in the West--and white working-class voters in the Northeast and Midwest. They are equally uncomfortable with the feminist left and the religious right. What they dislike most is government interference in their personal lives. They see Washington as corrupt and want it reformed. They favor balanced budgets but also Social Security and Medicare. They worry about U.S. companies moving their plants to Mexico and about China exporting underpriced goods to the United States. They favor a strong military, but they want it used strictly against foreign aggression.
In the 1980s, these voters generally supported Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; but, in 1992, many of them abandoned Bush for Ross Perot, who received 18.9 percent of the national vote. Perot did well in the West, Midwest, and Northeast, but not in the Deep South. In 1994, two-thirds of Perot voters, disgusted with what they saw as continuing corruption in Washington, backed the Gingrich revolution, accounting for much of the GOP's success outside the Deep South.
Perot, of course, vanished from the scene after attempting a repeat performance in 1996. But the constituency he had spoken for remained and even grew. In 1996, Clinton and the Democrats won back many of these voters, but, after September 11, they gravitated toward the Republican Party, helping to account for Republican success in 2002 and 2004. In this election, however, independents flocked back to the Democrats. Nationally, the Democrats won independents by 57 percent to 39 percent. In the East, the margin was 63 to 33 percent; in the Midwest, 56 to 41 percent; and, in the West, 58 to 35 percent. Democrats also did well in many of those Western and Midwestern states where Perot had won over 20 percent of the vote in 1992: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas (where the Democrats won two of four House seats and the top state offices), Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
The Democrats also made gains among a critical subgroup of independents--the white working-class voters known as Reagan Democrats. In the Midwest, Democrats won these voters (most clearly identifiable in the polls as voters with "some college") by 50 to 49 percent. White working-class support accounted, among other things, for Democratic victories over Republican incumbents in three predominately white downscale Indiana congressional districts that had backed Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Prior to the election, much was made of how conservative some of the Democratic candidates were, but the focus on candidates like North Carolina's Heath Shuler (who won) or Kentucky's Ken Lucas (who lost) misses what helped many Democrats in the Midwest and West unseat Republicans. These candidates were not neoconservatives nor liberals, but the heirs to Perot's peculiar centrism. They advocated fair trade, not free trade, and promised to reform the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They denounced illegal immigration but didn't endorse the punitive House Republican measures. Rather than advocate new spending measures, they called for balanced budgets and reform of Washington politics.
This description fits the rural New York, Colorado, Montana, and Indiana congressional candidates. It even fits Ohio Senate candidate Sherrod Brown, who was sometimes considered a darling of the Democratic left. In his economic appeals, Brown echoed Perot rather than Ted Kennedy. In one typical commercial, he declared, "Before I ask for your vote, I owe it to you to tell you where I stand. I'm for an increase in the minimum wage and against trade agreements that cost Ohio jobs. I support stem-cell research, tighter borders, and a balanced-budget amendment."
Much was also made of how some successful Democrats, such as Pennsylvania Senator-elect Bob Casey and Colorado Governor-elect Bill Ritter, opposed abortion or gun control. They certainly did, and, by doing so, neutralized some of the opposition from the religious right and the National Rifle Association.But, in general, these centrist Democrats kept the focus on the economy and the war in Iraq and away from social issues, except for stem-cell research, which is universally popular outside the Deep South. Without saying it, they managed to convey that they had no intention of pressing their convictions on guns or abortion.
Democrats also won many of the other constituencies that had begun moving their way two decades ago, but whose movement had halted after September 11. For instance, professionals--best identified in exit polls as voters with postgraduate education--backed Democrats by 58 percent to 41 percent in congressional races. (In the East, the margin was a whopping 67 to 32 percent.) These voters played an important role in the defeat of Arizona Republican J.D. Hayworth and in Democratic victories in suburban Connecticut and high-tech Nashua, New Hampshire. The gender gap, which had closed in 2002, opened wide again, accounting for Senate victories by Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, James Webb in Virginia, and Jon Tester in Montana. Latinos, who had been wooed successfully by the Bush administration but were alienated by the House Republicans, backed Democrats in overwhelming numbers. In the West, Latinos, who had supported Democratic candidates by only 59 to 40 percent in 2004, backed them this year by a landslide of 72 to 27 percent.
One other constituency deserves mention: younger voters. In 2002, voters aged 18 to 29 split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. This year, they backed Democrats by 63 to 33 percent. These voters won't necessarily provide the numbers to win elections for the Democrats, but they can provide energy to revitalize the party. They write blogs, knock on doors, and encourage candidates, such as Montana's Jon Tester or Northern California's Jerry McNerny, neither of whom were initially taken seriously by party officials. They don't necessarily provide solutions to great policy questions; but they can force attention to problems that require solutions, as they did with the Vietnam war in the 1960s and the Iraq war today. As the unions have lost members and clout, their campaign work has been increasingly supplemented by young recruits from organizations like MoveOn.org.
After the 2000 election, it became fashionable to picture Republican and Democratic gains in red and blue on the national maps. Republicans invariably got the better of this visual display because they enjoyed support among the great empty spaces of the West. This election not only altered the lineup of constituent groups, but also the map of American politics. The Republicans now increasingly appear to be a regional party confined to the Deep South. While Republican support collapsed in the Northeast and eroded in the West, it remained steady in the South, where a majority of voters approved of the way George W. Bush has handled his presidency and the war in Iraq. In the new national political map--most clearly seen when states are colored according to their governors--the Northeast, Midwest, and Southern border states of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas are overwhelmingly blue. The Plains and Rocky Mountain states are a mixed palette, but more blue than red, with Democratic governors in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana. Alone among these regions, the Deep South from South Carolina to Georgia and across to Mississippi is dark red.
Republican support in the South is due to the high percentage of white evangelicals, the virtual absence of unions, the widespread dependence (in states like Georgia) on military spending, and the lingering legacy of civil rights strife, which divides the parties along racial lines. But, as Thomas Schaller suggests in Whistling Past Dixie, the Republicans' success in the South can prove their undoing elsewhere, as voters in the West recoil from the GOP's close identification with the religious right and voters in the Northeast look askance at governors who owe their elections to support for the Confederate flag. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was able to establish the Republicans as America's party. But Reagan's party was of the Sun Belt, not of the South. The new party of Bush and Karl Rove is increasingly that of the Southern Bible Belt.
For the Democrats to succeed Republicans as America's party, its leaders must recognize what it took to build this majority. A Democratic majority in this country must include Massachusetts and Colorado, Ohio and Oregon; fervid Democratic partisans, youthful activists who despise Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, and political independents alienated from government; suburban professionals who give money to the National Organization for Women and NARAL; and white workers who worry that politicians will take their guns away. In this election, the Bush administration's failure in Iraq and the corruption of the Republican Congress allowed this heterogeneous group to find a temporary home in the Democratic Party. But it will take all the ingenuity and craft that Democrats can muster to turn this halfway house into a permanent residence for a long-term Democratic majority.