Where the White People At?

Why the "white flight" of voters from the Democratic Party shouldn't be alarming


by Jamelle Bouie

As a data dump, Ron Brownstein's piece in the National Journal about the "white flight" of voters from the Democratic Party is fantastic. In 2010, 60 percent of whites nationwide supported Republican candidates for the House of Representatives, an unprecedented gain for the party. Likewise, Republican Senate candidates improved on their share of the white vote relative to 2008. What's more, white voters show deep hostility to President Obama's agenda. 65 percent of whites disapprove of the president's performance—compared to 22 percent of nonwhites—and 49 percent of whites said they strongly disapproved. Those whites, as Brownstein notes, voted Republican by a ratio of 18-to-1.

Of course, this isn't new; whites have long been a minority partner in the Democratic coalition. As Brownstein points out, "No Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has captured as much as 45 percent of white voters, according to exit polls. And not since 1992 have whites given half or more of their votes to Democratic congressional candidates." But in the last two years, the pace of white flight from the Democratic Party has accelerated. In the Midwest, the Democratic share of the white vote fell to 37 percent, and in the South, it completely bottomed out, with Democrats winning a scant 24 percent of the white vote in House elections.

With whites, the party was only competitive in the East—with 46 percent of the white vote—and the West, with 43 percent of the white vote. Likewise, with white voters, Democrats found their strongest support among college-educated women. Blue collar whites and college-educated men overwhelmingly preferred Republicans by nearly 2-to-1, with no gender gap among blue collar whites. And of course, young whites remained more likely than their older counterparts to support Democrats."

Brownstein doesn't try to explain the growing disparity, but there are some clues. As Adam Serwer points out, the loss of white support corresponds with the economic downturn; it's entirely possible that these voters will return as the economy picks up.

I want to throw attitudes into the mix. Economic downturns almost always come with a spike in "us against them" thinking. And in the United States, "us against them" most often translates into "white against black," or at least "white against other." What's more, political attitudes are strongly related to ethnocentric views; the more you view the world in ethnocentric terms, the more likely it is you oppose policies and parties that are perceived to help the other side.

This is mostly speculation, but I think it makes sense: As the economy worsened, ethnocentric views among whites strengthened, with this was most pronounced among conservatives and the less-educated, where ethnocentrism tends to hold more sway. It's no surprise that these whites—more concentrated in the South and Midwest—turned sharply against the Democratic Party. It's redistributive policies were perceived as being for the benefit of its minority voters and not the country at large.

As the economy recovers, I think you will see less fervent opposition to Obama's agenda. But, in the longer-term, I don't think Democrats will recover these white voters, especially as they age and become more conservative (which is usually the trend). Obviously, Republicans need to build a constituency among some minority voters in order to survive as a national party. But for the foreseeable future, they should be able to fare well, nationally and otherwise, with older whites as the vast majority of their support.