Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief campaign strategist, has compared this year's election to that of 1896 and Bush himself to victorious Republican presidential candidate William McKinley. Rove argued that just as McKinley's election created a new political alignment that reflected the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, Bush's election in 2000 would create a new political alignment that reflected the new high-tech economy of the twenty-first century. "We're at a unique moment where the governing philosophy and government model that we choose in this election is likely to be the philosophy and model for the next 20 years," Rove said. These were splendid words, but if you look at the tortured results of this year's election, they are very far from the truth.
If the vote in Florida holds up, George Bush will have won the presidency. But Vice President Al Gore should have won fairly easily. He didn't because he is a horrific politician, the worst since 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis; because he was burdened by the Clinton administration's legacy of scandal; because he had to share the Democratic vote with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader; and, finally, because of the anomaly of the electoral college. Together, Gore and Nader got a majority of votes--and with even a modicum of Nader's votes, Gore would have won the electoral college tally. In the Congress, Democrats continued to eat away at the majority that the Republicans established in 1994. If the pattern of by-elections holds, Democrats should be able to win back the Congress in 2002.
On a deeper level, the election revealed the outlines of an emerging Democratic rather than Republican majority. Ironically, this Democratic majority most closely resembles the old McKinley Republican majority that Rove cited. In 1896 McKinley and the Republicans brought the industrial Northeast and Midwest--the most dynamic areas of the country--into an electoral coalition with their older base among midwestern and prairie farmers and businessmen. The Democrats were saddled with the South, the most backward part of the country, and the sparsely populated Rocky Mountain states. This Republican coalition dominated American politics from 1896 to 1912 and from 1920 to 1930.
During the past decade, Democrats have begun to build a new majority coalition along the fault lines of the new economy, one that links the college-educated suburban voters with the party's traditional base of minorities and unionized workers. Geographically, this emerging Democratic majority stretches from Maryland to Maine, across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, and over to the Pacific Coast. But it also coincides with the spread of high-tech firms and includes states like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Colorado.
By contrast, the Republicans are uniting the more retrograde business classes with downscale white workers in the rural and small-town South and Midwest who are opposed to gun control, abortion, and affirmative action. Like the old Democratic coalition of William Jennings Bryan, this conservative-Republican coalition is rooted in the least dynamic sectors of the economy and is committed to an increasingly unpopular social and religious outlook.
The outlines of these coalitions can be glimpsed in this year's presidential returns and exit polls, and they're not just about geography. The Milken Institute publishes an index of high-technology concentration among states. Of the 20 states with the highest percentage of college graduates, Gore took 14. Of the states with the highest percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers, Gore won 15. According to national polls, Gore got 90 percent of African Americans, 62 percent of Hispanics, and 63 percent of union members, but he also got 55 percent of Americans who identify themselves as "upper class" and 53 percent of voters with postgraduate degrees. He won the cities and split the suburbs, while Bush did best in rural areas.
In Michigan, Gore won a majority among voters who had gone to college; he won among voters who made less than $30,000 and more than $75,000; he won 92 percent of African-American voters and 68 percent of union members. Bush's best voting group consisted of nonunion white males making between $30,000 and $50,000. In Colorado, Gore surpassed Bush among voters with only high school diplomas and those with advanced degrees. In California he won the high-tech counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara by over two to one, running strongly among all income groups.
The Bush campaign boasted that it won West Virginia, a state that even Dukakis had won. But Bush won West Virginia by appealing to workers who oppose gun control and environmental regulation, particularly in the state's embattled coal industry. He enjoyed similar success in rural Ohio and Kentucky and northwestern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri. In Ohio, Bush got 60 percent of the vote from the 40 percent of voters who said they owned a gun. Politicians gladly take whatever votes come to them, but as Republicans like Rove peer into the future, they can't be optimistic about either the growth or the loyalty of this constituency.
In gubernatorial and congressional races, the Democrats had similar success in building a coalition of new-economy suburbanites, urban minorities, and unionized workers. In North Carolina, with its growing high-tech economy around the Research Triangle, Democrat Mike Easley won the governorship over conservative Republican Richard Vinroot. Easley won 90 percent of the African-American vote, but also won 55 percent of college graduates and 56 percent of those with advanced degrees, two groups who together make up 42 percent of the electorate. Vinroot did best among white workers with only a high school diploma. In Washington, Democrat Gary Locke easily won re-election as governor against right-wing Republican John Carlson. Locke got 69 percent of voters from union households, but he also drew 65 percent of college graduates and 64 percent of those earning $75,000 to $100,000. Like Vinroot, Carlson did best among white workers with only a high school degree.
In the Senate races, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow got 56 percent of voters who made between $15,000 and $30,000, and 68 percent of union members. But she also won 51 percent of voters who made over $100,000 and 55 percent of those with advanced degrees. Democrat Mark Dayton of Minnesota got 59 percent of union members but also 56 percent of voters with advanced degrees and 57 percent of those making $50,000 to $75,000. Dayton won the cities and suburbs but not the rural areas. In Missouri, the late Democrat Mel Carnahan got 78 percent of the vote in predominately minority St. Louis, but he also won 54 percent of the vote in the predominately white, upscale suburbs of St. Louis.
In the House, Democrats successfully picked up seats in high-tech suburban areas like the Silicon Valley district won by Mike Honda and the southern California district won by Jane Harman. They also kept control of some traditionally Republican seats. In a congressional district in eastern Kansas that includes Johnson County (the affluent suburbs of Kansas City where Sprint is headquartered), Lawrence (the home of the University of Kansas), and a smaller working-class enclave of Wyandotte County, Democrat Dennis Moore--who two years ago upset a right-wing Republican incumbent backed by the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association (NRA)--defeated another right-wing Republican opponent. Moore was able to build a coalition that combined Wyandotte County with the voters from Lawrence and Johnson County.
Where Republicans won seats from Democrats, they had to rely on rural and small-town working-class Democrats who, in this election, seemed more concerned about protecting their guns and banning abortion than about Medicare or prescription drug prices. In a semi-rural southwestern-Pennsylvania district that Democrat Ron Klink used to represent, Republican Melissa Hart won with the NRA's active support. NRA President Charlton Heston even campaigned with her in the district. Oddly, Republicans probably benefited from the current prosperity, which gave white working-class voters the luxury of fretting about whether Jim and Sarah Brady were going to take away their guns.
Some Democrats will argue that this emerging majority will be stillborn. How can you have a party that includes soccer moms and waitress moms (not to mention welfare moms) as well as computer entrepreneurs, telemarketers, investment bankers, and autoworkers? Indeed, the different parts of the party--represented by such groups as the Democratic Leadership Council and the AFL-CIO--have quarreled bitterly over trade policy. And in the wake of Gore's defeat, these groups and others have already begun to point fingers at one another and at the Democratic defectors in Ralph Nader's Green Party.
But majority coalitions in American politics have always been made up of seemingly disparate components. The Democrats' New Deal included racist white southerners, northern blacks, big-city political machines, Texas oilmen, socialists, communists, and members of the CIO. The conservative-Republican coalition included "country club Republicans" from the Sun Belt, eastern patricians, working-class southern evangelicals, and white ethnic suburbanites from the Midwest and Northeast. Eventually, the members of these coalitions began to quarrel among themselves, but for a decade or longer, they reached an uneasy accommodation that allowed them to dominate American politics.
The task of the Democrats over the next four years will be to set aside the inevitable postelection disputes and to work out the terms of such an accommodation. Bill Clinton went part of the way during his masterful 1996 campaign--a campaign run on the new-economy promise of "building a bridge to the twenty-first century" and on the liberal-populist commitment to protecting the environment and saving Medicare and Social Security from Republican attacks. The Democrats didn't make good on their majority this year because they couldn't create this kind of coalition politics. Al Gore couldn't be both the inventor of the Internet and a fighter for the middle class against the oil and pharmaceutical companies. And as a prime player in the administration's 1996 fundraising strategy, he couldn't credibly champion campaign finance reform. The coalition was implicitly there, but Gore couldn't pull it together. And he also had to contend with Nader and his followers, who learned the hard way that the American political system is based on compromise and on building coalitions rather than on simple, and ultimately self-destructive, acts of conscience. If the Democrats can put together this coalition, they should take back Congress in 2002 and give the lie to Karl Rove's dreams of a new Republican realignment. ¤