For a decade, Democrats have heard promises that a durable electoral majority was just around the corner. It's easy to construct such a majority on paper: Racial minorities and young voters (those born after 1978) turn out at record levels, working-class whites suppress their socially conservative leanings to vote their pocketbooks, and suburban professionals and their spouses vote together as unified blue households. Such a coalition could obliterate the aging, white, male, socially conservative Republican base that has dominated American politics for most of the past three decades.
This majority, however, is like the carrot tied in front of the donkey's nose--always just a few inches away. Yes, the Democratic presidential nominee won the popular vote in three of the past four presidential elections. But since 1964, only one Democrat has won a majority of the popular vote. During those same 10 presidential elections, the Republicans have won seven times, five of them with outright majorities, and two of these were 49-state Electoral College landslides.
Favorable demographic shifts have induced in Democrats a false sense of comfort. Poll numbers and population trends do not make majorities, and winning coalitions do not deliver themselves: Transformative politicians and entrepreneurial party leaders do. The inherent potential of any majority is latent and must be mobilized.
With Barack Obama as their presidential candidate and Howard Dean as party chief, and with widespread revulsion toward the Republican Party, many Democrats believe all the forces are finally in place to unleash this long-awaited majority. If it happens, and if the majority holds through subsequent congressional and presidential elections, it will represent a historic transformation comparable to the moment when Franklin D. Roosevelt at last unleashed the potential majority made up of farmers, city-dwellers, and first- and second-generation immigrants to end the Republican hegemony that had prevailed since 1896. Has that moment arrived?
The collapse of the Republicans was the first precondition for the emergence of a more favorable electorate. The roots of that collapse can be found in the 2000 election results. Despite the near-obsessive focus on how George W. Bush won the Florida recount, the more significant result was Bush's second-place finish in the national popular vote. The Texan won despite losing, and he lost the popular vote because his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, relied on an outdated coalition formula.
Although Bush and Rove appealed to emergent Hispanics and suburban women with some success, the Republican calculus depended on maximizing returns from electoral cohorts that were shrinking: whites, men, social conservatives, rural residents, and the traditionally married. It was enough, but just barely. According to exit polls, Bush won whites by 12 points but lost among every nonwhite group; he lost the youth vote by wide margins, and he lost among unmarried voters by 19 points. In general, Bush fared well with declining groups and poorly with growing ones. He won the White House twice but lost the future.
"The gradual evolution of the electorate, along with the national political climate, is producing a pro-Democratic shift in almost every demographic group," says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. "The continuing increase in the nonwhite vote, unmarried and younger voters, fewer religious voters, and so on are helping Obama. And the generation gap in particular appears to be larger than it has ever been this year: Obama is ahead by 25 to 30 points among under-30s, close to even among older voters, actually trailing slightly among the 65-and-over crowd."
We've heard this promise before. But whether these trends continue, and whether Democrats live up to their potential to create a new and resilient politics, depends on the answers to five questions.
Can democrats do (even) better among women? Women cast a majority of all votes nationally, and their majority expands with every cycle. In 2004, according to Census Bureau data, women cast 53 percent of votes among whites and a remarkable 41 percent to 59 percent of votes among African Americans. And they vote for Democrats: Recent Democratic presidential nominees have not only won large splits among nonwhite women but proved competitive or won outright among white women and carried non-Southern white women. Most polls have shown Obama running almost even with men while leading comfortably among women.
Or will unmarried women drift right? There is a big division among women, however: A recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found Obama tied with McCain among married women, a group Bush carried by 11 points in 2004. The Democratic advantage rests on unmarried women--a group that includes widows, divorced women, and those legally barred from entering into same-sex marriages, as well as younger women who are not yet married. The question remains: As younger unmarried women age, wed, and have children, will their partisan tendencies change, as issues that did not concern them when single and childless--the quality of local schools, property taxes, neighborhood safety--creep into their political consciousness?
The media often obsess about the idea that Democrats should fare better among men. But what if a pro-choice party that pushes family-friendly themes piled up even bigger margins among women? The Republicans have used national security and fears of higher taxes to siphon votes from suburban women. Democrats have room to improve among working-class single moms by coupling economic and health-care messages with some response to the moral and familial worries of women whose children often spend many hours unsupervised.
Are today's young voters locked in? John Kerry lost every age cohort except voters under 30, and for once younger voters dramatically increased their turnout from the previous cycle. The generational pushback against the Bush administration and the appeal of Obama's candidacy with young voters have been beneficial in the short term. But voters age, and as they do the party must adapt its message to meet their changing attitudes and life experiences. Remember, youth voters who came out strong for George McGovern three decades ago are now in their 60s, and those voters helped carry Bush across the finish line in 2004.
Is the GOP drive for Hispanic voters over? In 2004, Bush captured 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, a significant achievement and a break with historic trends. However, this year 72 percent of Hispanic primary voters took a Democratic ballot, and a July Pew Research poll showed Barack Obama leading John McCain 66 percent to 23 percent among Hispanics. Even if McCain manages to lure all of the remaining undecided voters, at 34 percent he will fall well short of Bush and close to the historic average for Republican presidential candidates.
If Obama can get 70 percent of Hispanic votes, and Hispanics expand from 9 percent to 11 percent of the national electorate (and the turnout and performance of all other racial groups is identical to 2004), that shift alone would be almost enough to erase the 2.5 percent margin by which Kerry lost to Bush. But Hispanics are also very Catholic, and their aspirational agenda is by definition less susceptible to the redistributive and affirmative-action messages that appeal to African Americans. If Democrats want to improve their margins among Latinos they'll need to come up with something more substantive than "Si, se puede!"
How many conservative evangelicals are there, really? Despite the fawning media coverage of evangelical politics, the country is becoming more secular, more religiously tolerant, and more supportive of removing the influence of church from the state. Christine Wicker, author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, argues that the conservative evangelical voting bloc is 7 percent of the population, rather than one-fourth of the electorate as often reported. "I judged this every way that I could. I looked at beliefs, I looked at behavior, I looked at church attendance. And that 7 percent holds up every way you look at it. There's only a small core of people, and they are the ones delivering the vote. The other 18 percent, it's the swing vote."
As Frances FitzGerald wrote recently in The New Yorker, "Half of all evangelicals have substantial differences with the religious right. Furthermore, they don't like the angry intolerance of the religious right and cringe when they are associated with it." These are the religious voters Obama is vying for when he talks openly about his personal faith. If he can keep his numbers close with these religious voters, as well as continue to draw strong support from infrequent churchgoers and secular Americans, the votes of the highly religious will be cancelled out.
Even if the answers to all these five long-term questions favor Democrats, there will be other forces at work, as Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton, reminded me. "Be very careful of the idea that there are stable and enduring majorities in American politics," Klinkner warns. "When you look at non-incumbent elections since 1796, exactly half were won by the in-party and exactly half by the out-party." If Obama wins this November, it will be partly attributable to a more Democrat-friendly electorate. But his vaunted team will need to mobilize it.