The Democrats' White Flight

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By any standard, white voters' rejection of Democrats in November's elections was daunting and even historic.

Fully 60 percent of whites nationwide backed Republican candidates for the House of Representatives; only 37 percent supported Democrats, according to the National Election Poll exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Not even in Republicans' 1994 congressional landslide did they win that high a percentage of the white vote.

Moreover, those results may understate the extent of the white flight from the Democratic Party, according to a National Journal analysis of previously unpublished exit-poll data provided by Edison Research.

The new data show that white voters not only strongly preferred Republican House and Senate candidates but also registered deep disappointment with President Obama's performance, hostility toward the cornerstones of the current Democratic agenda, and widespread skepticism about the expansive role for Washington embedded in the party's priorities. On each of those questions, minority voters expressed almost exactly the opposite view from whites.

Much can change in two years--as Obama's own post-2008 odyssey demonstrates. These results, however, could carry profound implications for 2012. They suggest that economic recovery alone may not solve the president's problems with many of the white voters who stampeded toward the Republican Party last year. "It comes down to that those voters are very skeptical of the expansion of government," says Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, a veteran strategist. "The voters who went with Obama in 2008 did not know what they were going to get with that vote. Now that they've seen the health care bill, the stimulus bill, the bailout, the cap-and-trade proposal--issue after issue, they don't like what they see."

That resistance could, in turn, increase the pressure on Obama to accelerate the generation-long transformation of the Democratic electoral coalition that he pushed forward in 2008. With so much of the white electorate, especially working-class whites, dubious about the president's direction, to win a second term he will likely need to increase turnout and improve his showing among the groups that keyed his 2008 victory--minorities, young people, and white-collar white voters, especially women. In 2012, Obama may be forced to build his Electoral College map more around swing states where those voters are plentiful (such as Colorado, North Carolina, and even Arizona) and less on predominantly blue-collar and white states such as Ohio and Indiana that he captured in 2008.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, said in an interview that "it would be a mistake to take exit polls from a midterm election and extrapolate too far" toward 2012. Conditions--and the composition of the electorate--will change a great deal by then, he said. But he acknowledged that Obama must "reset" the public perception about his view of government's role. Axelrod, who plans to return to Chicago next month to help direct the president's reelection campaign, also made it clear that he sees as a "particularly instructive" model for 2012 the case of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, who won his contest last fall by mobilizing enough minorities, young people, and socially liberal, well-educated white women to overcome a sharp turn toward the GOP among most of the other white voters in his state.

Given the trends among the white electorate evident in these exit-poll findings, that formula might represent Obama's most promising path to a second term. Because the 2010 elections dealt such a heavy blow to the Democrats' old models of electoral success, the imperative of electoral transformation is looming ever larger for the president. "He has to make an effort to reclaim some of the lost [white] vote," says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic analysis and advocacy group. "But he's got to push the new electorate harder."

 

THE NEW COLOR LINE

After Election Day, several media outlets released exit-poll data breaking down the contrasting level of support among white and minority voters for Republican and Democratic congressional candidates. But they did not publish results that separated by race the responses to questions that measured attitudes about Obama's performance, the state of the economy, the national agenda, and the way voters described their own ideology. It was those additional race-specific results that National Journal recently purchased from Edison Research, the organization that conducts the exit surveys. These polls provide an unusually valuable lens through which to assess such attitudes, because surveyors interview many more respondents (17,504 in the national survey this year) than in a typical poll.

From every angle, the exit-poll results reveal a new color line: a consistent chasm between the attitudes of whites and minorities. The gap begins with preferences in the election.

After two years of a punishing recession, minority support for House Democrats sagged in this election to the lowest level recorded by exit polls in the past two decades, according to calculations that Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, provided to National Journal. The Hispanic vote for Democrats in House races slipped to 60 percent, compared with about two-thirds for Obama in 2008 (although some Hispanic analysts say that other data indicate a better showing for Democrats last year). But even so, a solid 73 percent of all nonwhite voters--African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and others--backed Democratic House candidates in the midterm election, according to the new analysis.

Meanwhile, Republicans, with their 60 percent showing, notched the party's best congressional result among white voters in the history of modern polling. Media exit polls conducted by Edison Research and its predecessors have been tracking congressional elections for about three decades. In no previous exit poll had Republicans reached 60 percent of the white vote in House races. The University of Michigan's National Election Studies, a biennial pre- and postelection poll, is another source of data on voting behavior dating to 1948. Republicans had never reached 60 percent of the congressional vote among whites in any NES survey. Only in the NES surveys had Democrats reached that 60 percent congressional support level among white voters: in their 1974 post-Watergate landslide and in Lyndon Johnson's 1964 rout of Barry Goldwater.

November's gap between the voting preferences of whites and minorities was at the wider end of the range over the past two decades but it wasn't the absolute widest. More striking was the disparity between the two groups' views on other questions with implications for the 2012 election.

First among those was Obama's performance. Exactly 75 percent of minority voters said they approved; only 22 percent said they disapproved. Among white voters, just 35 percent approved of the president's performance, while 65 percent disapproved; a head-turning 49 percent of whites said they strongly disapproved. (Those whites voted Republican last fall by a ratio of 18-to-1.)

The racial gulf was similar when voters were asked whether they believed that Obama's policies would help the nation in the long run. By 70 percent to 22 percent, minorities said yes; by 61 percent to 34 percent, whites said no. On election night, much attention focused on the exit-poll result that showed voters divided almost exactly in half on whether Congress should repeal the comprehensive health care reform legislation that Obama signed last year or should preserve or even expand it. But that convergence obscured a profound racial contrast. The vast majority of minority voters said they wanted lawmakers to expand the health care law (54 percent) or maintain it in its current form (16 percent), while only 24 percent said they wanted Congress to repeal it. Among white voters, the sentiments were almost inverted: 56 percent said that lawmakers should repeal the law, while much smaller groups wanted them to expand it (23 percent) or leave it alone (just 16 percent).

"The issues we'll burnish are ones that will resonate better with some of these [disaffected  white] voters." --White House political strategist David Axelrod

The gap was also wide in attitudes about two fundamental tenets. Minorities were almost exactly twice as likely as whites to say that life would be better for the next generation than for their own; whites were considerably more likely to say that it would be more difficult. And on a question measuring bedrock beliefs about the role of government, the two racial groups again registered almost mirror-image preferences. Sixty percent of minorities said that government should be doing more to solve problems; 63 percent of whites said that government is doing too many things that would be better left to businesses and individuals.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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