The Emerging Democratic Majority
By John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Scribner, 213 pages, $24.00
With the 2002 campaign in its final days, the two parties are engaged in a form of trench warfare. Neither side is expecting a big breakthrough this November. There seems little chance that Republicans will significantly pad their margin in the House or that Democrats will significantly enlarge their fragile one-seat majority in the Senate. Either side could just as easily lose control in the chamber it now holds. Looking state by state and district by district, it's possible to construct scenarios in which either party runs well enough to control either chamber. But when all the votes are counted, the odds are high that on both sides of Capitol Hill, the margin of control will be low.
The prospect of another narrowly divided election follows a 2000 campaign that split the country almost exactly in half. Indeed, viewed from all angles, the 2000 result was probably the closest thing to a tie since the elections of 1880. George W. Bush's four-vote margin over Al Gore was the second smallest in the Electoral College ever (exceeded only by the one-vote victory of Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden in the equally disputed election of 1876). Bush became the first candidate in more than a century to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. Voters initially returned a Senate deadlocked 50-to-50. And while Republicans maintained their slim House majority, the two parties received almost exactly the same number of votes in the 435 House races nationwide.
The parties emerged from the 2000 election in a form of polarized parity. After the last hanging chad was swept away, the election's emblem instantly became the vivid maps that divided America into the red (Bush) and blue (Gore) counties. The map showed a country separated more along lines of culture than economics. Gore dominated the coasts and the more cosmopolitan population centers of the upper Midwest. Bush swept the inland regions: the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and virtually all of small-town America. He seemed to win, in short, every county in America with a cow in it.
Cultural affinities loomed so large in the voting that it almost seemed as if the candidates held one election and the country another. Bush and Gore spent most of their time arguing about bread-and-butter issues such as tax cuts and Social Security; neither wanted to talk much about polarizing social issues such as gun control or abortion. Yet values seemed to drive voters much more than interests. The frequency of church attendance, for instance, was a much better predictor of the vote than income, especially among white voters. (The more often voters attended church, the more likely they were to support Bush.) Likewise, gun ownership was a better predictor of the vote than stock ownership. (About 60 percent of voters in houses with a gun voted for Bush; about 60 percent of those who didn't own guns voted for Gore.) The election presented a picture of two mirror-image coalitions (the Democrats mostly secular, urban, female and socially liberal, the Republicans heavily religious, rural, male and socially conservative) so evenly matched that neither could establish a lasting or decisive advantage over the other.
Now come John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira to argue that, over the long run, demographic and economic change will inexorably tilt the advantage toward the Democratic side in this cultural standoff. "If American history were running in reverse, and if the country were becoming a primarily rural nation again, then the Republicans would enjoy a distinct demographic advantage," they write in their new book The Emerging Democratic Majority. "But history continues to run in the precise opposite direction."
Prediction is the opiate of political reporters. The authors have consciously modeled their work on former GOP strategist Kevin Phillips' 1969 classic, The Emerging Republican Majority, which accurately forecast the Republican dominance of the White House that lasted for a quarter-century after 1968. But the path to Democratic dominance isn't as clear as Judis and Teixeira suggest. For one thing, the party's retreat in culturally conservative rural America will make it difficult for Democrats to win the Senate (where small rural states have disproportionate influence) and could threaten the Democratic hold on midwestern states (such as Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin) that the authors consider part of the party's geographic base in presidential politics. In an age of mass terrorism, a renewed Republican advantage on defense and national security may also prove more of a lasting hurdle for Democrats than the authors believe.
But you don't need to entirely accept this book's vision of the future to appreciate its compelling analysis of the present and the recent past in American politics. Whatever its success as prophecy, the authors have produced one of the freshest looks in years at the changing dynamics of American elections. Their analysis -- particularly of the role of "postindustrial" cities in the new Democratic coalition -- will be eye opening to even hardcore political junkies. Thinkers in both parties will have to grapple with their insights.
At bottom, Judis and Teixeira present a straightforward thesis: Democrats are moving toward majority status because the constituencies favorable to them are growing as a share of the electorate, while Republicans are strongest with groups and in regions that are, relatively, declining in influence. The authors see a modern Democratic coalition with three critical pillars. One is women, especially single women, women who work outside the home and college-educated women -- all of whom tend to be more socially liberal and open to government activism than other elements in American society. It is difficult to overstate how reliant Democrats have become on these women. Unlike in 1996, when men split relatively evenly between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Bush carried men over Gore by a resounding double-digit margin; in 12 of the states that Gore carried, the authors calculate, he lost most male voters and won only because of solid majorities among women. If anything, it's reasonable to project that Bush's successes as a wartime leader will benefit him relatively more among men than women in 2004, meaning that the next Democratic nominee will be even more dependent on women's votes.
Judis and Teixeira also identify a second familiar pillar of Democratic dominance: minority voters. The large turnout of overwhelmingly Democratic African Americans boosted Gore in states from Michigan to Florida in 2000. But more critical for the long-term balance of power between the parties may be Hispanics, who now constitute a slightly larger share of the population than blacks.
Though Hispanics' voting participation has lagged, their enormous growth has already been key to Democratic advances in California, Nevada and Florida (where the increase in non-Cuban Hispanics helps explain why the state has become a toss-up in presidential politics after voting so solidly Republican from 1968 through 1992). Over time, Hispanic population growth could strengthen Democratic prospects in Arizona, Colorado and even Texas (a process Tony Sanchez, the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, is trying to hasten this year). The rising Hispanic presence explains why some Democratic strategists believe the party is more likely to make gains in the West than in the South over the next decade or so.
The third pillar the authors identify will probably surprise readers who group both Judis and Teixeira within the wing of the Democratic Party committed to economic populism and focused on recapturing more of the white working class. Instead, the authors see more potential for Democrats to garner votes from such well-educated professionals as architects, doctors, social workers and teachers. Once reliably Republican, these workers, who now constitute as much as one-fifth of the electorate, have become a solid Democratic bloc. This is partly because the fiscally conservative Clinton-era Democratic Party has become more acceptable to them economically, but largely because the Democrats hold liberal views on such social issues as the environment and women's rights. Strikingly, the authors seem to hold out more hope for further Democratic gains among professionals than among white working-class voters, especially men, who remain extremely receptive to Republican appeals on taxes, cultural issues and national strength. At best, the authors suggest, Democrats in the near future may manage only "a reasonable level of white working-class support."
All this points toward a future that continues the trends of the recent past, in which the electorate aligns more along cultural than economic lines. That conclusion is reinforced by the book's most original contribution: its documentation of the growing Democratic strength in the metropolitan areas that have progressed most in the transition from manufacturing to the production of ideas and services, areas the authors call "ideopolises." In these "postindustrial metropolitan areas," where the high-tech and service economies are strong, the population is diverse (typically with large immigrant and gay constituencies) and tolerance on social issues is the dominant ethos, Democrats are thriving. The eclectic mix seems to create an environment conducive to Democratic messages, even for those ordinarily resistant: One of the book's most compelling findings is that even white working-class voters who live in ideopolis counties tend to vote more heavily Democratic than those who don't. Looking at counties with the most high-tech economic activity or a major research university, the authors conclude that almost all of the Democratic gains in presidential voting since 1980 have come in the ideopolis counties. In 2000, Gore and Ralph Nader combined won close to 58 percent of the vote in these burgeoning communities.
Over time, the authors project, these places will continue to grow and to strengthen Democrats. There's clearly evidence to support that prediction. At the local and state level, Republicans have nominated candidates who can appeal in these areas. But given the strength of the GOP's socially conservative base, it will be difficult in the foreseeable future for any candidate to win the Republican presidential nomination while sharing the liberal views on social issues dominant in these communities, such as abortion and gun control. The numbers may wax and wane in any individual election, but the long-term trend toward the Democrats in these future-oriented counties seems likely to endure provided that the party remains relatively centrist in its views on the economy and social issues such as crime and welfare.
That's a big if, though. The problem with political prophecy as a genre is that parties adapt and change, sometimes in unpredictable ways. The GOP presidential majority seemed so solid 15 years ago that analysts spoke confidently of a Republican lock on the Electoral College. But Clinton picked the lock by moderating the Democrats' message and image, and by capitalizing on the failures of George Bush Senior. Something similar could happen to the lasting Democratic majority Judis and Teixeira foresee -- even before it emerges. Democrats could repel some of the postindustrial voters attracted to them on social issues if they revert toward big-spending liberalism. (Though the authors don't consider the possibility, such a perception may well have hurt Gore in 2000.) Republicans could make enough progress in appealing to Hispanic voters, especially on cultural and national-defense issues, to hold the electoral votes from the Southwest states where their support among whites remain solid. The future may not progress in a straight line from the present.
And before Democrats pop the champagne, it's worth remembering that, even while dominating in the ideopolis counties, Gore still lost the White House. Relative to Clinton in 1996, Gore's biggest losses came at the fringes of the urban core: in agricultural and small-town communities and in the exurban counties on the crabgrass frontier, where the countryside and the most distant suburbs meet. Here the Democratic vote collapsed largely on cultural grounds: support for guns, antipathy toward abortion and the backlash against Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. The decline in rural America cost Gore key battlegrounds such Ohio and Missouri, which Clinton carried in 1996, and nearly pushed Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota into the GOP column as well. If Republicans maintain their solid hold on the South -- the one region where the authors see little evidence that even ideopolis voters are warming to Democrats -- the party is unlikely to establish a reliable majority in presidential politics. The one way to work around the southern problem would be if the party could attract more exurban and small-town votes from the red counties, especially across the big battlegrounds in the Midwest.
The problem is even more acute in the Senate, where the small and rural states that Bush dominated exert a disproportionate influence. Gore may have won more votes, but Bush won more states (30 in all). That means to maintain, much less expand, a Senate majority, Democrats need to demonstrate that they can survive in the red states at a time when cultural allegiances are looming more heavily over voters' choices.
This year's battle for control of the Senate underscores the party's challenge. Raw numbers favor the Democrats: The Republicans are defending 20 seats in November; the Democrats 14. But just three of those Republicans are running in blue states that Gore carried; fully half of the Democrats are competing in red states that voted for Bush. The disparity is even wider when the lens is narrowed to the most competitive races. Of the 11 races the two sides generally consider most competitive, only two are being fought in states Gore carried: New Jersey, where former Sen. Frank Lautenberg is trying to hold the seat Robert Torricelli was forced to vacate, and Minnesota, where Paul Wellstone is trying to fend off former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. The other nine most closely watched races -- featuring Republican incumbents in Colorado and Arkansas, Democratic incumbents in Missouri and South Dakota, and Republican-held open seats in New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee -- are in states that Bush carried. Republicans hold more distant hopes of ousting Democratic incumbents in two other Bush states, Georgia and Louisiana, and a third, Iowa, that Gore barely held in 2000.
It's not an exaggeration to say that, ideopolises notwithstanding, the single most critical factor in determining which party will control the Senate next year is whether midwestern Democrats can regain some of the ground Gore lost with small-town and exurban voters. With takeover opportunities for both sides dwindling, Senate control could come down to whether the Democratic incumbents in South Dakota (Tim Johnson), Missouri (Jean Carnahan) and Minnesota (Wellstone) can hold their seats in an environment where the national-security issues that work well for Republicans with rural and exurban voters are rising in prominence. In each state, the Republican candidate is working hard to portray the Democrat as soft on defense, using arguments and language that really haven't been part of the political debate since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Judis and Teixeira argue that defense issues will recede again when the fear of terrorism grows less acute. I'm not so sure: Unlike, say, the Gulf War, which had a clear endpoint, terrorism is a more open-ended threat that may influence voters for years. But even if the defense issue diminishes, the odds are high that Republicans will find ways to highlight other issues that strengthen their ties to voters on the conservative and traditionalist side of America's cultural divides, even as Democrats solidify their position in the more cosmopolitan states.
All of which points to more time in the trenches for the two parties. Democrats are in a much stronger position to compete for the White House than they were 15 years ago, and the changes that Judis and Teixeira describe could well strengthen the party's position even more over the next 15 years. But the country is so profoundly and evenly divided over the continuing changes in American society -- more racial diversity, fewer traditional families -- that it may be difficult for either party to establish a lasting (much less decisive) electoral advantage in the years ahead. So long as each party has so little success finding new ways to attract voters culturally attuned to the other party, the balance of power in Washington will remain precarious. Demographic change, as the authors project, may eventually deliver Democrats from that deadlock. In the meantime, both parties are likely to remain frustrated by an electorate that denies them enough of a mandate to impose their agenda on the other.
Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.