The Invisible Democratic Majority

A new study finds broad support for the party among the general public in 2014, even as it was resoundingly defeated at the polls.

From left: Jae C. Hong/AP, J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In 2002, two pundits prophesied an Emerging Democratic Majority, built on America's increasing ethnic diversity. After the GOP triumph in the 2014 elections, one of them recanted, instead proclaiming an Emerging Republican Advantage. But what if the predicted Democratic majority already emerged, but just never bothered to show up and vote?

A study released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that, over the course of 2014, American adults were far more likely to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, by a margin of 48 to 39 percent. But in November, GOP candidates for the House of Representatives garnered millions more votes than their Democratic rivals, amassing a cumulative advantage of 51 to 45 percent. A decisive Democratic edge in the general population translated to a distinct Republican advantage at the polls.

Democrats still found some solace in longterm demographic trends: Republicans may enjoy the support of older, white Americans, but Democrats remain strong among young people and ethnic minorities, who will make up an ever-increasing share of the population in coming years. The GOP's advantage, they assumed, would be temporary, and an enduring Democratic majority would indeed emerge over time.

Yet the depth of the Democratic losses in November cast doubt on that rosy thinking. For one, Republicans captured so many seats—both on the federal and state levels—that they can write their current advantage into electoral districts that will last a decade. And more ominously, a higher percentage of Millennials—that most crucial element of the future Democratic base—voted GOP than in the past. That's what led John B. Judis, looking at the voting choices made by white and middle-class Americans, to repudiate his prophesy of an emerging Democratic majority, and to declare in National Journal the onset of a Republican advantage.

The Pew study should provide some relief to Democrats even as it raises difficult questions for the country as a whole. The survey of more than 25,000 adults throughout 2014—a much broader sample than traditional opinion polls—found that Democrats retain a wide advantage among younger Americans. Fifty-one percent of Millennials (defined as people ages 18-33) either identify as Democrats or lean that way, compared to 35 percent who identify as or lean Republican. The gap isn't as wide as it was during Obama's first victory in 2008, but it is virtually unchanged from his re-election year of 2012. Democrats also expanded their edge with Generation X: Forty-nine percent of adults between the ages of 34 and 49 backed them, compared to 38 percent who supported Republicans. Democrats retained a significant lead among blacks, Hispanics, and women, and they held a nine-point advantage in overall party ID. (The study found that a higher percentage of people now identify as independents, 39 percent, than ever before.)

Generation Gap in Partisan Affiliation
Pew Research Center

Much of the Democratic edge among Millennials correlates with ethnic diversity: Forty-four percent are non-white, by far the highest percentage of any age group. Yet while black, Hispanic, and Asian American Millennials prefer Democrats by a margin of at least 35 points across all age groups, white Millennials are considerably more likely to back Democrats than are older whites.

White Millennials Are Divided in Partisan Leanings
Pew Research Center

The 2014 elections were decided by those who actually showed up to vote. But the Pew study was a survey of adults, not just registered voters, or those who cast ballots. And so the most striking aspect of the study is just how Democratic the population remained in 2014, even during a year in which Republicans swept elections nationwide. It highlights a striking gap between those who voted and the general population; the electorate was significantly older, and more Republican. Millennials, for example, made up more than 20 percent of the Pew survey but a smaller chunk of the voting public, according to exit polls. And party identification among 2014 voters was almost evenly split, despite the Democrats' longstanding advantage in surveys.

Some pundits declared that an artifact of weak turnout in midterm years, in which many of the Democrats who twice elected Barack Obama stayed home, skewing the results in favor of the more reliable Republican base. Others pointed to the GOP win as evidence of a more significant rightward shift, one that can be replicated not only in congressional elections, but also in the 2016 presidential race. The results of individual congressional races can be difficult to generalize, as voters who lean toward one party or the other may be drawn to particular candidates, or disinclined to vote in uncompetitive races. But whatever the cause, the Pew survey suggests that the result was a Republican Congress, governing a nation that tilts toward Democrats.

Americans have a long and understandable tradition of not extending much sympathy to people who don't bother to vote. (Staying home can itself be a vote, a way of registering disappointment, frustration, or disillusionment.) And Democrats are well aware of their turnout problem in midterm elections—they tried and failed to energize their base in 2014, and their comparative success in recent presidential campaigns is a large part of what gives the party confidence in 2016. There are a host of other factors that contribute to this dynamic as well, such as the congressional gerrymandering that, in 2012, resulted in Republican control of the House despite a majority of votes going to Democrats.

Americans will have a chance to change leadership again soon enough. Perhaps the Republicans running Congress and statehouses will win over the people who stayed home rather than vote against them in 2014. Or maybe the mounting frustration of the Democratic plurality, which stayed silent last fall, will realign the government not just in 2016 but in future off-year elections as well. But for now, America is left with a legislature elected by voters whose views don't match those of the public at large.