Much has been said about the long-term demographic challenges facing the Republican Party. Given how dismally Republicans fare with African-American voters—Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans garnered only 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively, in 2012, and this year congressional Republicans got 10 percent—it matters how the GOP does with other minority voters.
In 2012, Romney picked up 27 percent and congressional Republicans received 30 percent of the Latino vote. This year, House Republicans got 36 percent. This doesn't matter that much in the House, because of natural residential patterns and, to a lesser extent, gerrymandering. But it is a big deal in presidential matters and in some Senate election years more than others (the Latino vote will be much more critical in the 2016 class of Senate seats than it was in the 2014 grouping).
But considerably less is being said about a parallel problem that Democrats are facing. Although the national red-blue maps of the partisan makeup of the House, the governorships, and, somewhat less so, the Senate are misleading in that they equate population with land area, the maps do illustrate where Democrats are strong and where they are not (interesting factlet: Only 14 percent of the land area in the U.S. is represented by a Democrat in the House). Increasingly, Democratic strength is concentrated primarily in urban areas and college towns, among minorities, and in narrow bands along the West Coast (but only the first 50 to 100 miles from the beaches) and the East Coast (but only from New York City northward). The South and the Border South, as well as small-town and rural America, are rapidly becoming no-fly zones for Democrats. Few Democrats represent small-town and rural areas, and the party is find it increasingly difficult to attract noncollege-educated white voters.
This challenge for Democrats can be sliced and diced a number of ways: by race, by where people live, and—very acutely—by combining race with socioeconomic status. A November 25 report by the Gallup Organization underscored Democrats' problems with noncollege-educated white voters. According to Gallup Editor Frank Newport:
"President Barack Obama's job-approval rating among white noncollege graduates is at 27 percent so far in 2014, 14 percentage points lower than among white college graduates. This is the largest yearly gap between these two groups since Obama took office. These data underscore the magnitude of the Democratic Party's problem with working-class whites, among whom Obama lost in the 2012 presidential election, and among whom Democratic House candidates lost in the 2014 U.S. House voting by 30 points."
There are many reasons for this decline in support for Democrats among certain groups. But an argument can be made that it is because Democrats have subordinated their traditional focus on helping lower- and working-class Americans move up the economic ladder in favor of other noble priorities, such as healthcare, the environment, and civil rights. Whether these were the right or wrong priorities is totally subjective, but they have come at a cost. Senator Chuck Schumer recently committed the classic case of a political gaffe, once defined by Michael Kinsley as "when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say." The Democratic left went crazy when Schumer suggested that the early focus on health care reform in 2009 and 2010, when he says Democrats should have been concentrating on economic growth and job creation, had cost them greatly.
Governing is about making choices and facing consequences. Implicitly, to focus on certain things is to de-emphasize other things. The modern Democratic Party was effectively born during President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, reacting and dealing with the Great Depression. While books have been filled with the multitude of things that Roosevelt and his New Dealers did, if you boiled it down to its essence, it was helping people get back on their feet after the great stock-market crash of 1929 and the deep depression that resulted. In 2008, we faced the Great Recession, and like other financial meltdowns, it was deep and painful. At the tail end of the George W. Bush administration and in the early Obama years, financial markets were stabilized (the overwhelming majority of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds have been repaid, with many of the investments yielding profits for Uncle Sam), and the Obama administration should be applauded for rescuing the automobile industry.
But while those actions can be legitimately seen as a good start, we then saw a grand pivot to the environment and health care, with grave consequences for the party. At another time and in different fashion, both are important priorities, but the focus on these issues has effectively decimated the Democratic Party in specific areas and among specific voter blocs. The evidence is the difference in the partisan makeup of the Congress that will be sworn in next month, compared with the one from eight years ago.