Are Democrats the New Upstairs-Downstairs Party?

Changing demographics among supporters have reshaped the coalition.

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Talking about "Hearts, Minds and the 2012 Election" Thursday evening, National Journal Group's Editorial Director Ron Brownstein posed a question about the changing demographics of the Democratic Party: "Is this a party that makes sense as kind of an upstairs-downstairs coalition, primarily now of minority voters and then more socially liberal, right of, maybe economically moderate white-collar workers?"

It's a topic he's addressing this week in his National Journal column (which you should all be reading!) too, arguing:

By endorsing gay marriage, championing free contraception in health insurance plans (over resistance from the Catholic Church), and administratively legalizing young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, Obama has repeatedly subordinated the concerns of older and blue-collar whites to the preferences of the Democrats' emerging coalition: minorities, young people, and culturally liberal college-educated whites, especially women. "He's taking positions that are strongly opposed by culturally conservative whites, basically conceding that he is going to do poorly among them, in a conscious effort to increase enthusiasm among the coalition that put him in office," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

Each strand of that Democratic "coalition of the ascendant," as I've called it, is growing as a share of the electorate. But Obama's tightening embrace of its priorities nonetheless represents a historic gamble. Romney could still beat him by amassing large enough margins among the economically strained, culturally conservative older, and blue-collar whites whom Obama's recent decisions may further provoke.

The president isn't conceding those voters, who once anchored his party's base.... But far more than previous Democratic nominees, Obama seems willing to risk alienating them.... Win or lose, Obama seems destined to speed the Democrats' evolution away from the New Deal coalition centered on working-class whites toward one that revolves around the two titanic social forces he embodies: rising education levels and growing diversity.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who was on the panel along with comedian Harry Shearer, BET CEO Debra Lee, CNN Political Director Mark Preston, and former congressman Mickey Edwards, worried that this upper-income tilt might undermine the historic progressive impulse of the party.

"If progressives are in business to do anything, it's to lift up hose who need the most help in helping themselves rise up," Dionne said. "The Democratic Party ... doesn't make sense as a party if it doesn't have that as an element in it. And so I think it is a problem, if you ended up with a party that depended so heavily on upscale voters. But it goes back to people who say that working class voters don't vote for their economic interest because they vote on social issues."

Shearer, for his part, said he thought the changing demographics make the new Democratic coalition more like that of the old GOP: "The template for an upstairs-downstairs Democratic Party in this era is the Republican Party in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. And what it delivered was tow things: it delivered economically for the upper middle class and upper class whites and it delivered cultural symbolism for the working class."

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Of course, the twist is that the GOP never had a minority component, even as downscale conservatives and the wealthy hung out under its big tent. Here's more from Brownstein on the "upstairs-downstairs" Democratic Party, from a column in May:

As Democrats have solidified an upstairs-downstairs constituency of affluent, socially moderate white suburbanites and minorities (many economically strained), they have established a durable hold on states shaped by rising education levels and diversity. As Republicans have become a more monolithically conservative party, especially on social issues, they have tightened their control over heavily religious Southern and heartland states but watched more cosmopolitan states move at varying rates toward the Democrats in presidential races. "All of this is squeezing [and] compressing the map for Republicans," says Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. In fact, since 1992, Republicans have won a smaller share of the available Electoral College votes outside the South than in any five-election sequence since the party's founding in 1856.

Central to this role reversal is the rise of what I've called the "blue wall": the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five consecutive presidential elections. Democrats have not won that many states so often since Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman carried 22 in each election from 1932 to 1948....

Since 2000, the electoral map has broadened further for Democrats, as the same convergence of diversity and education that earlier tipped states such as California and Illinois has transformed previously red-leaning Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia into toss-ups. Hard times and, ironically, questions about his commitment to socially conservative causes offer Romney a chance to enlarge the GOP map and chip away at parts of the blue wall. If he can't, it will be the Republicans who must pull an inside straight to win.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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