Respond to this Article May 2003

Deciphering the Democrats' Debacle

Why the Republican majority (probably) won't last.

By Ruy Teixeira

Last year, John Judis and I published a book entitled The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that a series of economic, demographic, and ideological changes was laying the basis for a new Democratic majority that would materialize by decade's end--not certainly, we argued, but very probably as long as the Democratic Party put forth decent political leadership to challenge the dominant, but dwindling, current Republican majority.

Our book arrived in stores last September. Two months later, in the midterm elections, the Republicans surprised nearly everyone by winning control of the Senate and further solidifying their majority in the House, unifying Republican control of the federal government for only the second time in half a century. Needless to say, this wasn't my ideal outcome. In the annals of publishing, this wasn't quite so unfortunate as, say, James Glassman's prediction of a 36,000 point Dow just before the 2000 stock market crash, but it still evoked a fair amount of understandable ribbing and forced me to think hard about our thesis. So after the election, I pored over survey data, county-by-county voting returns, and a great deal of underlying demographic data and thought long and hard about what the data showed. And as a result, I've decided that ... we're still right!

The Myth of a 9/11 Majority

First, despite the Republican tsunami described by many media outlets, the actual electoral shift was quite mild. Though politically the election was a landmark, the underlying numbers suggest a continuing partisan balance. Democrats lost two seats in the Senate, six in the House, and gained three governorships. As nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook has pointed out, "A swing of 94,000 votes out of 75,723,756 cast nationally would have resulted in the Democrats capturing control of the House and retaining a majority in the Senate on Nov. 5. If that had occurred, obituaries would have been written--inevitably and prematurely--about the presidency of George W. Bush. Instead, we are entertained by predictions that the Democratic Party, as we know it, may cease to exist."

Given the very evenness of partisan division in this country, even minor fluctuations in public sentiment can cause sudden lurches in political power. Indeed, the last election differed markedly from 1994, when huge Republican gains (52 House and nine Senate seats, 10 governorships) really did change the partisan balance dramatically.

Nevertheless, the shock of '02 initially devastated Democratic morale. Many in the party seemed helpless before the Republican success, ready to concede the 2004 election. For their part, Republicans were riding high, canonizing Karl Rove, and mentally fitting Bush for a spot on Mount Rushmore. Conservatives like Fred Barnes even spoke fondly of an "emerging 9/11 majority."

But that's begun to change. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's December runoff victory in Louisiana put Republican triumphalism in perspective. Subsequent events have revived Democratic hopes, as Bush's approval ratings, especially on the economy, have fallen and his diplomatic failures leading up to the Iraq war have been exposed. That's not the only encouraging news. A careful reading of the election and its aftermath suggests the GOP position has serious underlying weaknesses. In fact, the Republican victory depended on a series of unsustainable advantages that a tough, smart Democratic effort should be able to counter, forcing a competitive 2004 election and the likely--though not certain--ascendancy that Judis and I predicted by the end of the decade.

The White Stuff

The GOP's midterm wins depended heavily on their advantages in five areas that are either unlikely to persist or were overrated to begin with: a reliance on white voters, the growth of exurban voters, heavy GOP turnout, the tax-cut issue, and war. I'll tackle these in order.

Last November was all about the white vote. For all the talk of Republican minority outreach, the voters who showed up for the GOP on election day were, with few exceptions, white. In the 2000 election, 54 percent of whites voted for Bush and 56 percent for congressional Republicans; in 2002 that figure rose to 58 percent, which, coupled with higher turnout of whites, especially conservative whites, was enough for victory. Viewed one way, that's good news for Republicans, since whites comprise the overwhelming majority of U.S. voters. Trouble is, that majority is steadily diminishing. What's more, Republicans' core constituencies among white voters--those in rural areas, married men, married homemakers, and so forth--are also shrinking relative to other voter groups, which makes the demographic challenge of maintaining a majority even tougher.

As Matthew Dowd, polling director at the Republican National Committee, has pointed out, if minorities and whites vote in 2004 as they did in the 2000 election, Democrats will win by 3 million votes, for just that reason. In the long term, unless the GOP can make inroads among minority voters, they'll lose. In 2002, they made essentially no inroads at all. Recall that in the 2000 election, Al Gore got 90 percent of the black vote; in 2002, blacks appear to have voted at similar rates--if not slightly higher--for Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates. Hispanic support for Democrats was similarly rock solid, despite strenuous GOP outreach efforts. For example, California governor Gray Davis beat his Republican challenger Bill Simon by 65 to 24 percent among Hispanics--figures essentially identical to those by which Davis beat his 1998 challenger, Dan Lundgren. Nationally, a Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner poll taken after the 2002 election indicated that Hispanics supported Democrats by 62 to 38 percent, figures nearly identical to 1998 numbers.

Research by political scientist James Gimpel confirms that Hispanic voting patterns haven't shifted. He found that Hispanics in 10 states polled by Fox News supported Democrats over Republicans in Senate races by more than two to one (67 percent to 33 percent). Democrats didn't fare quite so well among Hispanics in governors' races in these states (54 percent to 46 percent), but that result probably had a great deal to do with the inclusion of Florida and the noncompetitive Colorado election in their sample. Gimpel found little evidence that Latinos are moving toward the Republican Party, despite all the talk of Hispanics as swing voters.

What limited data there are on Asian voters indicate that they, too, haven't wavered in their support of Democrats. In California, Asians voted for Davis over Simon by 54 to 37 percent, similar to their preference for Al Gore over George Bush in 2000. In other words, practically all the available data indicates that minority support for Democrats didn't budge in this election. For the GOP, that's a very bad sign.

County Line

Republicans naturally want to make the case that their strong showing wasn't simply a result of demagoguing craven Democrats on national security. Surely, they'll tell you, there were deeper trends at work. One of the most fashionable of the theories put forward is that Republican gains reflected the rise of "exurbs"--those fast-growing edge counties on the fringes of large metropolitan areas that tend to vote Republican. Since these areas are booming, argue conservatives like David Brooks, who wrote an influential post-election article in The New York Times, the future belongs to the GOP.

But while Brooks is correct that exurbs contributed to the 2002 Republican victories, his assertion that they were central to these victories is much shakier. Consider his two main examples, Colorado and Maryland. Colorado's quintessential exurb, Douglas County, just outside Denver, did vote overwhelmingly Republican in the state's Senate race, choosing Wayne Allard over Democrat Tom Strickland, 66 to 32 percent. That's about the same margin by which Bush beat Gore in Douglas County in 2000. But pull back a bit and the picture changes: The Denver-Boulder area as a whole voted for Democrat Strickland by a 6-point margin; that's larger than the 3-point victory Gore won in 2000, which in turn improved on Michael Dukakis's 1-point loss in 1988.

How can this be? Partly it's the influence of vote-rich Denver County, which is strongly Democratic and becoming more so. But another part of it is suburban Arapahoe and Jefferson counties around Denver that, as they've grown bigger, denser, and more diverse--less "exurban," if you will--have also become much less Republican. Arapahoe voted for Reagan in 1980 by 39 points, for Bush I in 1988 by 22 points and for W. in 2000 by only eight points. In the same period, Jefferson favored Reagan by 34 points, Bush by 15, and his son by just eight. These swings have contributed to a pro-Democratic trend in the Denver-Boulder area--a trend that buoyed Strickland's candidacy, rather than hurt it. The real story in Colorado was Strickland's poor showing elsewhere in the state, especially in small towns and rural areas.

Maryland's gubernatorial election is an even stronger refutation of the exurban thesis. To begin with, Democrats picked up two House seats in the 2002 election, and Gore beat Bush by 17 points in the last presidential election. While Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich did very well in exurban counties like Frederick (north of Washington, D.C.) and Harford (north of Baltimore), both of which already tend to vote Republican, Ehrlich's real coup was carrying counties Brooks doesn't mention--closer-in counties like Baltimore (the state's third-largest) and Howard (the state's fastest-growing county with more than 100,000 in population), both of which traditionally vote Democratic and have become more so over time. In other words, the real story is that Ehrlich's opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, ran a lousy race and lost many counties she should have won, and lost badly where she should have at least come close. Consequently, Ehrlich's victory hardly suggests an impending era of Republican exurban dominance in the very Democratic state of Maryland.

Elsewhere, examples of the exurban phenomenon run into the same problem: They are usually examples of--not the reasons for--pro-Republican voting. Take Northern Virginia's Loudon County, the sixth-fastest-growing county nationwide, cited by Brooks in another article. As Loudon has grown, it has grown more Democratic, moving from a 66-33 Republican advantage in 1988 to a much more modest 56-41 advantage in 2000. And, critically, the northern Virginia suburbs as a whole have shifted from a 20-point Republican edge to a mere two-point edge over that same period. Evidently, Loudon's booming growth isn't enough to stop a political trend toward voting Democratic, much less start one toward voting Republican.

In fact, Loudon County illustrates an important, and--for Democrats--positive trend: Many of these fast-growing, Republican-leaning exurban counties are part of larger metropolitan areas that are actually trending in the opposite direction. That's because exurban counties are generally too small to outweigh pro-Democratic developments elsewhere in large metropolitan areas, and also because as exurban counties become bigger, denser, and more diverse, they generally become less--not more--Republican. So, in a sense, today's right-leaning exurb is tomorrow's left-leaning suburb. This makes a strategy based on exurbs as they appear today--nearly all white and low density--a tenuous one. If the GOP expects long-term political dominance from the growth of these same counties, it's likely to be disappointed.

Turn On, Tune In, Turnout

The 2002 election was also an aberration from the perspective of voter turnout. Usually, it's the Democrats who fire up their base and deliver a bravura performance of getting voters to the polls. Last year, however, Democrats dragged their feet, while Republicans did an outstanding job. The GOP's "72-Hour Project" did particularly well, boosting white turnout. But Democrats didn't match this effort among their base; while minorities supported them at typically high rates, fewer showed up at the polls. In California, a Los Angeles Times exit poll--the only functioning exit poll in the nation--indicated that only 4 percent of voters in 2002 were black, compared to 13 percent in 1998. That's almost certainly an underestimate, but it does suggest a substantial falloff. The same poll indicated that just 10 percent of California voters in 2002 were Hispanic, down from 13 percent in 1998. And Gimpel's study of Fox News polls in 10 states indicates that Hispanics of low to middle income and education were much less likely to vote last year than those of high income and education, meaning that not only was Hispanic turnout likely lower in 2002, but those who did show up were unusually unrepresentative of the Hispanic community in a way that hurt Democrats and helped Republicans. (Turnout was especially low among independent Latinos with middling levels of education, who tend to vote heavily Democratic.)

More broadly, county-level voting returns suggest that turnout in Democratic-leaning large cities and inner suburbs, even where it did not decline, did not keep pace with increases in Republican-leaning exurbs and rural areas, which, on the whole, were highly mobilized. In Missouri, for example, the increase in votes cast over the 1998 election was much more moderate in heavily Democratic St. Louis city and Democratic-leaning St. Louis County than in the heavily Republican suburb of St. Charles County and especially in rural and extremely Republican Cape Girardeau County. The same pattern was true in Minnesota, where many Republican-leaning rural counties seemed to show exceptionally high turnouts, while Democratic-leaning urban ones lagged behind.

Of course, the relatively low turnout among minorities and in Democratic areas probably didn't matter much in states like California, where the Democrats prevailed by a large margin, or Florida, where they were so far behind that no reasonable increment of minority turnout could conceivably have saved them. But in close races like Missouri's, it may have cost the Democrats victory--and perhaps nationwide also, since it only took a swing of two seats for Republicans to take the Senate.

So the GOP was clearly the turnout party in 2002. But it's unlikely to be able to repeat this. To begin with, Democrats won't be caught napping again. They've launched their own version of the "72-Hour Project" called "Project 5104"--shorthand for winning 51 percent of the vote in '04. The labor movement will match this expanded turnout initiative with its "Partnership for Working Families," which will target not just union voters, but also non-union liberals and Democratic-leaning voters in the party's 158 million-voter database.

Of course, better mechanics alone can't make up for low motivation, which was clearly one of the reasons Democratic voters didn't turn out in 2002. But three things will be different next time around. First, the 9/11 effect will have dissipated, and far fewer voters will be patriotically inclined to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt. Second, the Democrats are learning that "No ideas don't beat bad ideas." In 2002, they had no agreed upon economic policy, no plausible alternative foreign policy, and a handful of domestic program proposals like prescription drug benefits for seniors that Republicans neutralized with vague proposals of their own. Leading Democrats now know they need a broader agenda to give Democratic-leaning voters reason to show up. Finally, nothing drives voters to the polls like anger--the desire to strike a blow against the opponent. That desire was absent in 2002 due to a short-term confusion among many Democratic voters and lawmakers about whether and how to oppose Bush. But the president's virulent partisanship has erased such concerns among Democratic-leaning voters. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, for example, 95 percent of Republicans approved of Bush's job performance, compared to just 28 percent of Democrats. This extraordinarily high point spread shows that non-Republican voters have become alienated by the administration's hard-right policies on everything from tax cuts and Medicare to Iraq. Bush may indeed be mobilizing his own base--but in the process he's mobilizing the other side's, too.

Tithes that Bind

It is an article of faith in the GOP these days that there is no such thing as a bad tax cut. Indeed, this extraordinary concept has overshadowed the "compassionate conservatism" Bush touted in his 2000 campaign. So the Republicans are betting, at least domestically, on the political appeal of tax cuts. They had an easy time of it in 2001, and now they're proposing a new round, including the complete elimination of the dividend tax. The Democrats didn't dare run against tax cuts last November, they reason, so why should the future be any different?

But early reaction to Bush's new tax-cut plan is remarkably tepid considering that the public's initial reaction to any new economic proposal (if no potential drawbacks are cited) tends to be positive. In this case, the lack of enthusiasm has a great deal to do with the fact that just 22 percent of the public paid any direct dividend tax at all last year. And a closer examination of the general apathy toward Bush's latest cuts reveals a remarkable fact: More people now think the amount of federal income tax they pay is "about right" (50 percent) than think it is "too high" (47 percent). Someone resuscitate Grover Norquist! According to Gallup, the last time the public felt this good about paying their taxes was March 1949. Perhaps this wasn't the ideal time to propose a large, deficit-ballooning tax cut for the rich after all.

Sure enough, survey data from a Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner poll shows that Bush's new plan is sparking much less interest than his first tax cut did in January 2001. Back then, 49 percent thought Bush's proposal was good for the middle class, while 42 percent disagreed; this time just 37 percent think it's good for the middle class, compared to 48 percent who don't.

Other recent survey questions reveal that the public may have had its fill of tax cuts. By more than two to one, people would prefer more spending on education, health care, and Social Security to Bush's proposed tax cut (ABC); 61 percent believe the Bush plan will be "just somewhat" or "not very" effective in stimulating the economy (NBC); almost twice as many think the Bush economic plan would benefit the wealthy over Americans as a whole (NBC); 56 percent believe that if the Bush plan mostly benefits the wealthy, it will be an ineffective way to stimulate the economy (NBC). The public also expresses a preference for a stimulus program focused on infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, schools) rather than tax cuts, and by a whopping margin is nervous about the prospect of Social Security funds helping to fund the government if Bush's tax cut goes through. In other words, it's a considerably less friendly world for tax cuts in 2003 than it was in 2001 and--partly reflecting this fact--this time Democrats are lining up to oppose them.

Polling data suggests that this is a doubly smart move. Not only are tax cuts unpopular, but voters believe them to be an ineffective remedy for the public's real area of concern: the lousy economy. A recent Pew poll revealed that more people disapprove of Bush's performance on tax policy (44 percent) than approve of it (42 percent). On the economy, the president fares even worse. Before the invasion of Iraq, he was regularly drawing approval ratings in this area in the low 40s (and only in the high 30s among political independents, the best simple proxy for swing voters), with disapproval ratings in the low 50s. He received a slight bump from the war (rallying around the president on one issue commonly bleeds into unrelated areas), but is heading right back down. Should that continue into '04, being identified with tax cuts is likely to be a liability, even in the short term. Over the long term, the fiscal damage wrought by tax cuts drains the economy, generates huge deficits, and ensures that voters' priorities can't be met: hardly a recipe for political dominance.

The Spoiler of War

That brings us to the GOP's biggest advantage in the last election and the one they're clearly relying on to carry them through the next: war and national security. Right now, the Bush administration's war in Iraq enjoys the support of about 70 percent of the American public. But even this advantage is unlikely to last. The war is temporarily suppressing Americans' genuine skepticism about the administration's approach to foreign policy, and the underlying softness of their support means that they could quickly tire of a lengthy occupation and the ancillary foreign and security problems.

For example, before the invasion, polls showed that Americans opposed invading Iraq without U.N. support and strongly supported giving weapons inspectors more time, reflecting the public's overwhelming view that Iraq was a long-range, not an immediate, threat. And while general, no-conditions-specified questions about military action against Saddam Hussein always elicited support, this ebbed once stipulations were raised about U.S., and even Iraqi, casualties or about the possibility of a long-term occupation--now a certainty. Moreover, moderates and independents held these viewpoints more strongly than the broader public, indicating that this was the true center of U.S. public opinion.

In other words, the public held a very different view of Iraq than the president did. The administration espoused an evolving ideology that essentially relies on asserting unilateral American power, while the public preferred a more nuanced and pragmatic approach of working through allies--more Wesley Clark, if you will, than Donald Rumsfeld. And, like Clark, they were inclined to see Iraq as more of an "elective war" than one waged out of necessity.

Of course, after the troops hit the ground, these doubts and nuances gave way to patriotic support. But they remain, evident even in post-invasion polls--such as Gallup's--that consistently find just 59 percent supporting the war as "the right thing to do," while the remaining 11-13 percent who favor it do so out of a desire "to support the troops" (25-27 percent oppose the war outright). There is more doubt and even opposition than during the first Gulf War or the attack against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Consequently, the public is less likely to cut Bush slack if the Middle East situation worsens than it was immediately following 9/11.

Besides, to truly benefit from being hawkish, it helps if your opponent is a softie whose party is implicated in a major foreign policy debacle. Today's Democratic Party is not handicapped by this and seems more intent on channeling the spirit of John F. Kennedy than George McGovern or Jimmy Carter. Four of the five leading candidates for the Democratic nomination voted for the resolution supporting Bush on Iraq. And the voguish term for today's Democratic frontrunner, decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry isn't "pinko," but "tough dove."

The Road Ahead

Despite all the evidence that Republicans are not assured of winning in 2004, Democrats are hardly certain to knock off a sitting president. What the 2002 election and its aftermath reveal is that the underlying trends identified in The Emerging Democratic Majority have not been negated; they've been temporarily overwhelmed by Republican successes. The country is still changing in ways congenial to Democrats. A Democratic Party that practices smart, tough politics and fields viable candidates faces no fundamental obstacle to achieving political dominance by decade's end.

But let's get serious--can we really expect that from the Democrats? That's what Republicans ask--and even many Democrats, who see the weaknesses in the current GOP position, but can't quite bring themselves to subscribe to the message of my book. The truth is that many intelligent members of both parties believe the Republicans to be the only true practitioners of effective politics.

Perhaps this is why my party is currently out of power, but I believe differently. Take the Democrats' minority vote. Skeptics will point out that that devious Karl Rove has access to the same numbers I've laid out above and will certainly devise a plan to snare minority voters for Republicans in 2004 and beyond. True as far as it goes, but it doesn't mean he'll succeed. The 2002 elections showed just how little success Republicans have enjoyed so far. The fact of the matter is that the partisan affiliations, policy priorities, and views on the role of government of blacks and Hispanics skew dramatically toward the Democrats. It's going to be difficult for Republicans to change their own priorities and approach to government enough to appeal to these groups and break down their Democratic affiliations.

So what about the gender gap? Isn't the GOP making headway there as smart, tough Republican operatives take advantage of women's sensitivity to public safety issues to move them away from the Democrats? Not really. Survey data from the 2002 election indicates that the gender gap favored Democrats about as much as it ever has. Gallup, whose pre-election poll nailed the result almost perfectly, had the gender gap slightly larger last year than in 2000. And Gallup data indicate that what really drove the surge toward Republicans just before the election was not security-conscious women, but those reliable Republican stand-bys: white men.

Now, it is true that women are substantially more likely than men to fear being the victim of a terrorist attack (see "Homeland Security is for Girls," The Washington Monthly, April 2003). So, even though it wasn't much of a factor in 2002, perhaps those worried women will gravitate toward the GOP's national security toughness over the longer haul? Not likely. On virtually every poll question one might care to look at, women are less likely than men to trust and support Bush administration policies on Iraq and related issues, the main vehicle through which the president is supposedly fighting terrorist attacks. Before the war started, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that more women opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq without Security Council blessing than supported it; and even after war began, far fewer women than men approve of the way Bush is handling the situation.

Beyond that, look at the record Bush has amassed on his 2000 campaign promises. "Compassionate conservatism" flummoxed hapless Democrats the first time around, but by now the administration has several years of not-so-compassionate baggage to explain away. And its hard-right policies on the environment, Medicare, Social Security, tax cuts, and Iraq have polarized Democrats against them (so much for being "a uniter not a divider") and alienated moderates and independents--the principal targets of compassionate conservatism in the first place. In other words, a party's policies and track record set real limits to what smartness and toughness can accomplish. The idea that Karl Rove can negate all this simply by waving his magic wand should not be taken seriously by Democrats or anyone else. What the Democrats should take seriously is the need to fight back and fight back hard, so they can exploit the underlying trends that are moving the country in a Democratic direction.

But these are trends, not guarantees. They're meaningless unless Democrats can find the right combination of politics and ideas to fire up their base while appealing to independents and other swing voters. Can they do it?

There are encouraging signs. From Sen. Landrieu's hard-fought special election to congressional Democrats' relentless campaign against the latest Bush tax cut to the hawkish position of most Democratic frontrunners, the party is in the process of refashioning itself to take advantage of Republican weaknesses and--just as important--avoid dumb mistakes. They need to build on this in 2004 and beyond by articulating an agenda that goes beyond reining in Republican excess and defending Social Security. Again, the signs are encouraging. The Democratic frontrunners, who set the tone for the party, have advanced serious proposals in areas like education, health care, pension reform, and international relations that could give voters a reason to back the Democrats.

John Judis and I argued that a Democratic majority was likely by the decade's end. That's still where I'd place my bet. But all the evidence I've laid out here suggests that Bush and the Republicans are vulnerable sooner, if Democrats can exploit those weaknesses. That would mean new ideas and compelling candidates. But, if they pull it off, that majority could come much sooner than you think--maybe even in 2004. You can say you read it here first.

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author, with John B. Judis, of The Emerging Democratic Majority.


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