With two weeks to go in the unpredictable 2010 elections, many pundits have been left scratching their heads and admitting that they really have no idea how this election is going to turn out. Nate Silver, today's most careful analyst of election statistics and forecasting, examined a variety of indicators and concluded that there were more closely contested and hard-to-predict congressional races this election than ever before. The biggest reason for this uncertainty is that America's electorate is changing as fast as the country's demographic and generational characteristics are, challenging old assumptions about how politics works in America.
In 1965 the nation was 89% white and 11% black, about the same as it had been during the previous century. Since then, high levels of Asian and Latin immigration have produced an America today which is 66% white and 33% "people of color," a tripling of the minority population in only four decades. Remarkably, 10% of Americans are of Mexican descent and about 5% of the electorate speaks primarily Spanish. For the first time in US history a president of mixed race, who considers himself to be African-American, resides in the White House.
The second big demographic change is the emergence of the largest, most diverse generation in American history, one which will dominate the political and cultural life of 21st century America as much as the Boomers did in the late 20th century. The Millennial Generation, born from 1982-2003, is sometimes condescendingly referred to as the "youth vote," but it should be more accurately recognized as the biggest and most important new voting cohort in America. There are about 95 million Millennials, about half of whom are now of voting age. One out of four eligible voters in 2012 will come from this generation and more than one out of three voters will be Millennials in 2020.
Every two years the percentage of non-whites, along with Millennials, in the American electorate is increasing. Non-whites will grow from 33% of the population today to 50% by 2042. As these populations grow, a new political reality will take hold in areas altered by their increased participation, especially in the Southwest and coastal areas of the country. The power of these population shifts to upend conventional political wisdom was demonstrated by Barack Obama's victories over heavily favored establishment candidates in both the Democratic primary and the general election in 2008.
These demographic transformations are changing the political loyalties and beliefs of the American electorate. Democrats now have their largest lead in national party identification since the early 1960s. In the most recent Pew survey, only 15% of Americans claimed to be completely unaffiliated independent voters, while about half (48%) identify with the Democratic Party and 37% with the Republican Party. By contrast, in 1994, the last time in which a newly elected Democratic president faced a midterm election against an aroused GOP, the two parties were tied in party identification at 44% each. This Democratic advantage is due in large part to Millennials and Hispanics who identify as Democrats by a 2:1 margin over Republicans.
Survey data also shows that most Americans continue to favor using government to address their economic concerns and societal challenges. This summer, in a survey conducted for NDN, a clear majority (54% vs. 31%) of Americans favored a government that actively tries to solve societal and economic problems rather than one that takes a hands-off approach--numbers virtually unchanged since Barack Obama's inauguration. More recently, only 29% of those surveyed this fall told Pew they wanted all of the Bush-era tax cuts to remain in place, while a majority (57%) preferred either that those on the wealthy should be allowed to expire or that all of the Bush tax cuts should end. Forty percent of adults told an Associated Press survey they didn't think the new health care law went far enough, while only 20% felt the federal government shouldn't be involved in healthcare at all. These pro-government attitudes are likely to grow as more and more Millennials enter the electorate. By a 60% to 36% margin the generation favors a bigger government providing more services over a smaller government providing fewer services.
Rather than being surprised every two years by the changing politics of a nation altered by a rapidly changing demography, pundits would be wiser to anticipate that American politics is going to keep changing and evolving every two years, and will never again look like the politics of the 20th century. In the shorter run, the operative question in this year's midterm elections is the extent to which the major components of the 21st century American electorate make their presence felt at the polls in November. President Obama, who is concentrating his final campaigning efforts on college campuses and minority neighborhoods, clearly recognizes the challenge-but also the rare opportunity-presented by the 21st century electorate. His success in energizing these newest members of the Democratic Party's base will determine the still uncertain outcome of the midterm elections. But the longer term direction of American politics will clearly continue to be driven by the demographic and generational changes now sweeping the country.
In 2008, after giving Barack Obama a decisive edge in his hard-fought victory over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, members of the Millennial Generation, who are now between 18 and 28 years old, voted for him by an overwhelming 2:1 margin over John McCain (66% vs. 32%). Because they voted so uniformly for Obama, while older generations were almost evenly divided in their presidential voting preferences, Millennials accounted for about 80 percent of the president’s popular vote edge in the November general election. In addition, in both 2006 and 2008, Millennials voted for Democratic congressional candidates by about the same 2:1 margin that they gave the president in his general election victory.
More recently, however, some observers say that Millennial enthusiasm for President Obama, the Democratic Party, and progressive policies has begun to wane and wobble. Unfortunately, most of these observations are based more on personal speculation than on empirical evidence. An early SeptemberNew York Times article, primarily on the basis of personal interviews with about a half dozen students at one Colorado university, concluded that “The college vote is up for grabs this year—to an extent that would have seemed unlikely two years ago when a generation of young people seemed to swoon over Barack Obama.” A few days later, conservative columnist, Jonah Goldberg, relying on even less empirical data than the New York Times, crowed that, after the 2008 election, “youngsters seemed like a pot of electoral gold” to liberal columnists such as Harold Meyerson and E.J. Dionne, but now, according to Goldberg, “Obama’s coalition is frayed and frazzled. Independents defected long ago, and young people are heading for the door.” As even a cursory glance at recent polling demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.
Recent surveys of Millennials conducted in the battleground states of Colorado and Florida for the New Policy Institute (NPI) by market research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, tell a far different story about the political loyalties and attitudes of young voters. As the following table indicates, in both states, a majority of Millennials continue to identify as Democrats. The greatest number also calls themselves liberal or progressive, making theirs the first generation since the GI or Greatest Generation to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. In addition, most Millennials hold favorable attitudes toward Barack Obama and the Democratic Party (and unfavorable attitudes toward the Republican Party and Tea Party movement).
These results are corroborated nationally in an early September Pew Research Center survey. That poll gives the Democrats a greater than 2:1 (51% vs. 22%) party ID advantage over the GOP among Millennials. By contrast, the two parties are almost virtually tied in party ID among all older generations (43% Democrat vs. 40% Republican).
Just as important, Millennials hold solidly progressive positions on a range of key issues:
· A solid plurality of them (45%) favors the healthcare reform law passed by Congress and signed by the president in February. An additional 14 percent want to see how the new law works in practice before attempting to change or repeal it. Only 18 percent of Millennials favor repealing it outright. By contrast, older generations are almost evenly divided on this issue (43% supporting the healthcare reform legislation and 35% favoring immediate repeal of the new law).
· A plurality of Millennials (34%) would prefer to let all of the Bush 2001 tax cuts to expire. An additional 26% favor letting the tax cuts expire for those earning more than $250 thousand per year, but remain in place for other Americans. Less than one-quarter (23%) believe that all of the tax cuts should be extended. On the other hand, among older Americans, only one-quarter (26%) favor ending of all the tax cuts, while a plurality (30%) want all of them to remain in force. (All of this bodes well for the long-term future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Voting behavior research dating back to the 1950s demonstrates that once political identifications and attitudes are formed in early adulthood, they tend to solidify and remain constant for a lifetime. The GI or Greatest Generation was the last American generation that so solidly identified as Democrats and so strikingly supported liberal or progressive policies. That generation underpinned Democratic Party dominance of U.S. politics from the 1930s through the 1960s. The Millennial Generation, along with other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition, has the potential to underpin another era of Democratic and progressive dominance, particularly as the Millennial share of the electorate increases from the 17 percent that it was in 2008, to the 24 percent that it will be when President Obama runs for reelection in 2012, and the 36 percent in will comprise in 2020 when the youngest Millennials become eligible to vote.
For that to happen, however, Millennials will have to vote in 2010 at a level proportionate to their contribution to the electorate in 2006 and 2008. Recent polling suggests that is by no means certain. Part of the problem is structural: a June NDN survey indicated that only 60 percent of Millennials, as compared with 83 percent of older generations, were registered to vote.
However, a bigger concern is attitudinal: Millennials, like other components of the Democratic coalition, are not as inspired by or involved in politics as they were in both 2006 and 2008. The June NDN poll indicated that only 44 percent of Millennials in contrast to 64 percent of other generations said they were “absolutely certain” to vote this fall. The numbers were a bit better three months later in both Florida (48%) and Colorado (56%), but they were undoubtedly well below that of older voters in those states. Of greater concern, however, the June NDN survey indicates that only a third of Millennials (33%), as compared to about half of other Americans (47%), placed great importance on the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections. In both Colorado (31%) and Florida (32%), as in the nation overall, only a third of Millennials perceived the election to be very important.
Fortunately, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party clearly recognize the crucial importance of the Millennial Generation. The president has scheduled a series of rallies at college campuses across the country, most recently at the University of Wisconsin, to remind Millennials of all that is at stake this fall. The Democratic National Committee has earmarked $50 million to bring Millennials, and other key components of the 21st Century Democratic Coalition, to the polls. The operative question in the 2010 midterm election is whether these efforts will prove to be timely and effective enough to activate the Democratic majority this November.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, Obama administration strategist David Axelrod, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, have all recently advised us to not pay much attention to the pre-election polls-- at least at this early date in the fall campaign. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank correctly dismisses this dismissal of the polls as just so much political rhetoric: an "underdog's time honored strategy." It's impossible to believe that political pros like Kaine, Axelrod, and Rendell are not paying attention-- a lot of attention-- to the polls. But, more important than simply paying or not paying attention to the polls is getting a handle on what the polls mean and what they measure.
That's easier said than done. Over the years, the Gallup Poll's weekly generic House ballot has become almost the gold standard used inside the Beltway to forecast the outcome of the race to control Congress. The problem is that in 2010 Gallup's generic ballot numbers have fluctuated wildly, for no clearly discernable reason, almost from week-to-week. In mid-May the Republicans and Democrats were tied at 46% each. A couple of weeks later, the GOP held a 49% to 43% advantage. But, at the beginning of July, the two parties were effectively tied again (Democrats 46% and Republicans 45%) and just two weeks later, much to the joy of DC Democrats, their party held a 49% vs. 43% lead. By mid-August, however, it was the Republican's turn to cheer as the GOP led 47% to 44%, a lead that ballooned to ten percentage points (51% to 41%) as August turned to September. But then, just one week later, the two parties were once again tied (46% each) in Gallup's first post-Labor Day tracking poll, essentially the same numbers obtained when the Gallup results for the entire year are averaged.
The Post's Chris Cillizza posited several explanations for the most recent change in Gallup's generic ballot results. Possibly, Cillizza says, the poll giving the Republicans a ten-point lead was an "outlier," or one of those anomalous samples that occasionally fall beyond the normal range of sampling error. Perhaps it was. It is certainly true that many of Gallup's weekly numbers during 2010 were much closer to the generic ballot results of other pollsters than that one was. The problem with this reasoning, however, is that Gallup's generic ballot numbers have varied so dramatically from one weekly survey to another that it's difficult to know exactly which one might truly be an outlier.
A more plausible explanation is that, unlike many pollsters, Gallup does not "weight" its samples by the party identification of respondents. Gallup might argue that this methodology leads to purer, more accurate, results than predetermining the number of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents within its samples. However, at least in the current political era, this approach is likely to give the GOP an advantage on the generic ballot.
That is because the Democratic Party now has a clear and decisive lead party ID lead over the Republican Party. In a June survey conducted for NDN by communications research and consultation firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, the Democrats held a 47% vs. 33% edge over the Republicans with 19% of the electorate claiming to be totally unaffiliated independents. This distribution is matched almost identically by figures from the Pew Research Center's three most recent surveys, conducted from late July to late August. Across those three polls, a little under half of Americans (46%) identified or leaned toward the Democrats while about a third (36%) said they were Republicans and 14% were unattached independents.
None of this is to say that things will be easy for the Democrats this fall. Things are almost never easy for a newly elected president's party in the first midterm election of his administration. Historically, only once (in 1934 during Franklin Roosevelt's first term) did a new president's party buck the midterm odds and gain congressional seats. On average parties in the position the Democrats are in this year lose about 25 House and half dozen Senate seats in the midterm election after a new president assumes office. The odds against the Democrats in 2010 are only made longer by an economy slow to rebound from the deep recession that President Obama inherited from George W. Bush.
Still, this year, unlike 1994, when Bill Clinton and the Democrats were in the same position that Barack Obama and his party are in now, the Democratic Party has a clear party ID lead within an electorate that is demographically restructured and more open to activist government than at any time since the 1960s. This provides the Democrats with a base sizable enough to withstand a GOP wave if they can rally that base and get it to the polls in November. That is the big political question this year. The answer to it will determine the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections and will, in the end, be far more crucial than what happens with "angry independents" or "engaged Republicans."
A recent posting on Pollster.com indicates that recent surveys suggest the Democratic base may, in fact, now be returning home, possibly accounting for the apparent recent tightening of the Gallup generic ballot. It is for this reason that Democrats should be encouraged by President Obama's post-Labor Day campaign appearances that are so clearly designed to appeal to and rally Democratic voters.
Virtually all polling analyses, including this column, that deal with the possible outcome of the 2010 midterm elections, make frequent use of the "generic congressional ballot," a survey question probing House voting intentions on a national basis. But, while there may be national trends, there are no national elections in the United States. Constitutionally, the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and even the President of the United States are all elected on a localized, state-by-state or district-by-district basis. In spite of this, with one major exception (the discredited Research 2000 that formerly conducted weekly tracking surveys for Daily Kos) pollsters rarely report their results geographically beneath the aggregate national level. That's why a recent posting by Tom Schaller at FiveThirtyEight is so interesting, refreshing, and important. While many reports based on the national generic ballot stress the similarities between the 2010 midterm elections and those of 1994 in which the Democratic Party lost large congressional majorities, Schaller's analysis points to key regional differences that may buffer the Democrats from the kind of devastation they suffered sixteen years ago.
By eerie coincidence Democrats hold precisely the same number of House seats (256 or 59% of the body's 435) in today's 111th Congress that they held in the 103rd Congress of 1994. But, that is where the similarity ends.
In the 103rd Congress the Democrats held essentially the same percentage of seats (60% or a point or two less) in each of the nation's four geographic regions-the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Now, the Democrats control the vast majority of House seats in the Northeast (82%) and West (63%). Within the former region, all of New England's 22 Representatives are Democrats as are 26 of New York's 29 (with one Empire State seat currently vacant). In the West, the Democrats are especially strong along the Pacific Coast, holding 33 of California's 52 seats, 4 of Oregon's 5, and 6 of Washington's 9.
By contrast, the Democrats hold 55% of Midwestern House seats, slightly less than the 58% they held in 1994. But, the big change has been in the South. Now, only 43% of Southern Representatives are Democrats, far less than in 1994 when 60% were. It was, in fact, the 1994 election that finally flipped the South's Congressional delegation from majority Democratic to majority Republican. In other words, as Schaller's analysis makes clear "the two Democratic coalitions [in 1994 and in 2010] are not the same geographically."
The alteration in the regional composition of the two party coalitions described by Schaller is a part of broader demographic and political changes that have been portrayed in detail by NDN's 21st Century America Project. Survey research conducted this year in connection with that project both reflects and explains why the regional strength of the two parties in Congress has been altered so significantly since 1994. As the following table indicates, both the Northeast and West contain the greatest number of voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party followed closely by the Midwest. By contrast, the South contains the fewest, and among white Southerners a clear plurality identifies with or leans toward the GOP
Ratio of Democrat to Republican
These changes may place the Democratic Party in better position to avoid the massive losses of 1994-and thereby retain their House majority. Schaller projects two possible scenarios for the November midterm elections. The first he labels a "regular wave" in which the Democrats would lose about 36 House seats, a bit above the average losses for the president's party in the midterm election of his first term. The second Schaller calls a "big wave" in which the Democrats would lose about 61 House seats. While their losses would be serious in either scenario, in a "regular wave" Democrats would retain control of the House. In the latter, they would lose it.
According to Schaller, Democratic losses would not be distributed evenly across the country. In a "regular wave," he says, a disproportionately large share of Democratic losses (64%) would likely occur in the two regions where the party is already weakest-the South and Midwest. (That, by the way, would leave the Democrats with only a third of Southern House seats, continuing a trend that has been ongoing for the past five decades). However, in a "big wave," while a majority of Democratic losses would still be in the South and Midwest (58%), more of the incremental losses would come in the Northeast (26%) and West (16%). With three months to go before the election, there is no reason to believe that the midterm elections will necessarily result in a wave of any size, but Schaller's analysis does suggest the best place to look for any early signs of a tsunami that would cost the Democrats their House majority are in the contested districts of the Northeast and West.
Of course, its solid party identification lead nationally and its regional strength in the Northeast and West only provides the Democratic Party with an opportunity to avoid a repeat of the disaster of 1994. There is no guarantee that it will do so. As the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate earlier this year in Massachusetts, the bluest of all Northeastern states demonstrates, the Democrats can lose almost anywhere if they run a poor campaign and/or candidate. The Democrats lost that special election in Massachusetts not because the state had suddenly become a GOP stronghold or because Massachusetts Democrats turned against Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, or the policies that they favor. That "impossible to lose" election was lost because Democrats failed to mobilize their majority strength in Massachusetts.
If Democrats are wise, what happened in Massachusetts will serve as a warning and not a prophecy of things to come. To ensure the former, Democrats should reject advice, some well-intentioned and some not, to focus their 2010 campaign on appeals to "angry" independents or "disaffected" moderates and focus instead on activating their own sizable base of identifiers, especially in regions where that base has the potential to be dominant. In 1994, when each of the two parties had exactly the same percentage of identifiers, the Democratic Party could not successfully do that. In 2010, it can-- and must-- if it hopes to retain its majority status in the House.
Like the constant buzz of the vuvuzelas during the World Cup, leading members of the inside-the-Beltway punditry like Chris Cilliza and Chuck Todd have generated an ever louder chorus of warnings recently that "angry" independent voters will determine the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections and, in so doing, threaten the Democratic Party's current congressional majorities.
Actually, however, it is not what independent-or even Republican-voters do that will determine what happens in this November's elections. It is what Democrats do, or perhaps not do, that will be decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, a significantly greater number of voters now identify with or lean to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. Second, only a relatively small number of politically uninvolved and disinterested voters are independents that are completely unattached to either of the parties. As a result, the big election story in 2010 will be the extent to which the large plurality of Americans who call themselves Democrats shows up at the polls this fall, and not the voting preferences of unaffiliated independents or Republicans.
This is a quite different situation from 1994, the last time there was a so-called midterm "wave" election in which the GOP wrested control of Congress from the Democratic Party. That year, the two parties were dead even in party ID at 44% each. A year later, the Republicans held a narrow three-point lead over the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).
But, America is a different country now than it was in the mid-1990s, with a far more ethnically diverse electorate and a new, strongly Democratic generation, the Millennials (born 1982-2003), coming of age. These emerging groups comprise the core of a new, potentially long-lasting majority Democratic coalition.
This year, in sharp contrast to 1994, the Democratic Party holds a party identification advantage over the Republicans. In a June national survey conducted for NDN by highly regarded market research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, 47% of voting age Americans identified with or leaned to the Democratic Party, well above the 33% who identified with or leaned to the Republican Party and the 19% who claimed to be unaffiliated independents. Even among registered voters the Democratic advantage over the GOP was 11 percentage points (47% vs. 36% with unaffiliated independents dropping to 17%). These numbers were replicated in an early July Pew survey showing the Democrats with a 49% to 42% party ID lead over the Republicans among registered voters.
As is the case in virtually every U.S. election, almost all of those who identify with or lean to a party plan to vote for the candidates of that party this coming November. In the NDN poll, about 95% of both Democratic and Republican identifiers who have made a choice say they expect to vote this fall for the congressional candidate of the party with which they identify. Meanwhile, among the presumably decisive independents, almost two-thirds (61%) are as yet undecided in the race for Congress. The remainder is split almost evenly between the two parties, with 21% preferring the Republicans and 18% the Democrats.
The solid Democratic advantage in party ID, coupled with the strong support given by Democratic identifiers to the party's candidates, and the closely divided independent vote, translates into a clear lead for the Democrats over the Republicans among all Americans on the generic congressional ballot in the NDN survey (35% for the Democrats vs. 29% for the GOP with 34% undecided and 8% favoring another party or candidate).
There is, however, a large fly in the Democratic ointment. At least at this point, Democratic identifiers are significantly less likely to be registered to vote than are Republicans (90% vs. 84%). Democrats are also substantially less likely than Republicans to say they are certain to vote in November (76% vs. 67%). These concerns are particularly acute among Latinos and Millennials, both of which are key components of the Democratic coalition. As a result of these disparities, the Democratic lead over the GOP on the generic ballot drops to three points among registered voters (35% vs. 32%), and to a statistical tie of just two points among those who say they are certain to vote this fall (37% vs. 35%).
What must the Democratic Party do to overcome these barriers? One thing is to organize. The decision of the Democratic National Committee to spend $50 million in 2010 to increase the registration and turnout of "first time voters" (meaning, primarily, Millennials, African-Americans, Latinos, and single women) is a key step in constructing and strengthening the 21st century Democratic coalition for this year and the decades ahead.
But Democrats also need to resist advice to turn to the right as some pundits suggest. Conservative columnist, George Will, is certainly correct in noting that the Democratic disadvantage this year in voter enthusiasm and commitment could hurt the party in November. But his assertion that the lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters stems from their party's being "at odds with an increasingly center-right country," is challenged by recent poll results.
The NDN survey portrays a country that is anything but center-right. A solid majority of Americans prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy (54%), rather than a government that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible (31%). Three-quarters of Democrats (76%), and just over half of independents (52%), favor an activist government, while 60% of Republicans want a laissez faire approach.
Similarly, a clear plurality of the electorate (49%) wants government to ensure that all Americans have at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if it increases government spending. Only 34% supported the alternative approach of letting each person get along economically on their own, even if that means some people have a lot more than others. A solid majority of Democrats (69%), and half of independents, opt for governmental policies aimed at increasing economic equality, something that is opposed by two-thirds (65%) of Republicans.
Nothing would be more confusing and dispiriting for Democratic voters than for the Democratic Party to turn away from the political and economic approach they strongly favor, and which has been the hallmark of the party's success and identity since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Generating enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterm election requires highlighting, not downplaying or running away from, the striking legislative accomplishments of the Democratic congressional majority during the first two years of the Obama administration.
Democrats would also be well advised not to base their campaign on pursuing independent voters, angry or otherwise. For one thing, the much-vaunted independents are far less likely to be registered (72%) and certain to vote (52%) than are either Republican or Democratic identifiers. While aiming at unaffiliated and uninvolved voters may be a good idea for a party that has fewer, or even the same number, of identifiers as its opponent, it is not the best strategy for a party that holds a clear party identification lead within the electorate. Doing everything that it can to mobilize its own supporters makes far more sense, and is likely to be far more effective. In the end, what happens to the Democratic Party in 2010 and beyond is in its own hands, and will be determined primarily by the votes of those who identify with it, rather than being in the hands of the media or the other side of the political aisle.
Yesterday we were pleased to see the work of NDN Fellow Mike Hais pop up on The Guardian's blog. The Guadian's Michael Tomasky leads his piece bemoaning the tired predictions we've come to expect from pundits and journalists alike, the "1994 repeating" narrative that is easy to write but hard to prove. Like those who follow Hais' Data Matters blog regularly, Tomasky was struck by Hais' "persuasive" analysis.
The Guadian shout-out is here. Hais' original piece is here. Enjoy!
Claiming to be the "first independent analyst to push the argument that Democrats would likely suffer significantly higher midterm losses than average for the party in power," Charlie Cook now expresses some doubt about his prediction that 2010 will see a wave election similar to that of 1994 in which the Republican Party swept overwhelmingly to control of Congress. The primary cause of Cook's recent uncertainty is the results of last week's special election to fill the seat in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district left vacant by the death of 18-term Democratic Representative John Murtha. Murtha's legislative assistant, Mark Critz, won that election for the Democrats in a district considered ripe for a Republican takeover. Overwhelmingly populated by working class whites that have been trending away from the Democratic Party for decades, it was the only congressional district in the nation to vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and Republican John McCain in 2008.
Cook and other inside-the-Beltway observers attributed the Critz win (the 11th consecutive Democratic victory in a special congressional election) to a large turnout of Democrats brought to the polls by a hotly contested U.S. Senate primary, a superior Democratic ground game and get-out-the-vote effort, and more appealing and persuasive TV advertising by Critz than his Republican opponent's. Undoubtedly, all of those factors contributed to what DC pundits saw as a Democratic upset.
But, what happened last week in Pennsylvania 12 might not be the upset that many in Washington believe it to be. That's because, as we have been saying in this space for the past year, 2010 is not 1994 and the chances of a Republican wave building off shore are far lower now than they were then.
For one thing, the United States is a much different country demographically than it was in 1994. A decade and a half ago, over three quarters of Americans were white. That number has dropped to just over 60% now and is on the way to falling below 50% by the midcentury. In particular, the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. population has nearly doubled (from about 9% to 16%) over the same period. In addition, half of a new generation-Millennials (born 1982-2003), the largest and most diverse generation in American history-has joined the electorate.
All of these changes have worked to the advantage of the Democratic Party and are should continue to do so in the future. In NDN's February survey of the 21st century American electorate, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin (42% vs. 21%) and non-Caucasians did so by over 4:1 (57% vs. 14%). Women also strongly identified as Democrats (44% vs. 24% Republicans). By the way, the other half of the Millennial Generation, all those now under 18, already live in a world where whites are in the minority, promising an even larger Democratic edge in the future.
At least in part as a result of these major demographic changes, the Democratic Party now holds a clear lead among voters in party identification, something it did not have in 1994. In the most recent Pew national survey (pdf) released earlier this week, the Democrats enjoy a nine-percentage edge over the Republicans in party ID (45% vs. 36%). In 1994, the two parties were tied at 44% each and in 1995, the year after the GOP won control of Congress, more Americans identified with or leaned to the Republican Party than the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).
Moreover, while it is true that attitudes toward the Democratic Party have declined during 2010, contrary to 1994 the Republican Party is not seen as a viable alternative by most voters. In 1994 favorable ratings of the Democratic Party fell in Pew's surveys from 61% when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 to 50% by the time of the midterm election. In that same time period, positive perceptions of the Republican Party increased dramatically from 46% to 67%. While Pew's March 2010 survey (pdf) showed Democrats with only a 40% favorable rating, down from 57% in the fall of 2008, positive attitudes toward the GOP also declined since President Barack Obama's election from 40% to 37%, still leaving the Democrats with a slight advantage.
These demographic changes and attitudinal configurations have put the Democratic Party in a stronger position now than in 1994 to hold off a possible Republican wave. Furthermore, as they have enacted major portions of the Obama agenda, Congressional Democrats have improved their standing in comparison to Republicans on the generic ballot since earlier this year. All of the public surveys conducted during the past week show the Democrats with at least a modest lead. Over the last few months there has been a net shift of six-points toward the Democratic Party.
March/April Democratic Preference
March/April Republican Preference
May Democratic Preference
May Republican Preference
An examination of a few key findings from some recent polls shows why that shift has occurred.
First, while voters do not yet believe that America has returned yet to prosperity, there is a clear perception of progress. In the Quinnipiac survey, the number believing that the nation's economy is getting better rose from 19% in April 2009 and 28% last December to 32% now. The belief that the economy is worsening is down from 32% to 24% over the same period. President Obama is getting some of the credit for the perceived improvement in the economy. His approval score for handling the economy is up from 39% in March 2010 to 44% currently. More specifically, the percentage approving of President Obama's performance in creating jobs has risen from a low of 34% last January to 40% in May.
Second, after a year of rancor, voters are increasingly positive about the Democratic health care reform plan that passed Congress and was signed by the president in March. According to a recent CBS News poll, approval of the plan rose from only 32% in early March to 43% in May. As a result, the president's approval rating for handling health care in the Quinnipiac poll has risen from a low of 35% in January and February to 45% now.
As proof that nothing succeeds like success, the perception of an improving economy and the increasingly positive reactions to the newly enacted health care reform law have led to the most favorable job approval scores for both the president and congressional Democrats this year. For most of 2010, in the Quinnipiac poll, a slightly greater percentage of voters disapproved than approved of the way President Obama was handling his job. But in May, for the first time since early February the president's approval score was in positive ground (48% approve vs. 43% disapprove). Over the same time frame, the job performance approval of congressional Democrats has gone up from 28% to 34%. By contrast, the approval score for congressional Republicans is down from a high of 34% in March to only 26% in May.
Of course, none of this should be taken as an indication that the road forward to November for the Democrats will be smooth and easy. Historically, during a president's first term his party suffers on average a midterm loss of about 25 seats in the House and half dozen in the Senate. Only once, in 1934 when voters overwhelmingly endorsed Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, did a president's party make first term midterm congressional gains. In addition, the enthusiasm and involvement of Democratic voters continues to trail that of Republicans, although the Democratic Party's legislative successes have lessened that gap over the past couple of months and continued progress on matters like financial and immigration reform should reduce it even further.
Still, in spite of the challenges ahead, the forecast of another Democratic election disaster like that of 1994 seems premature and unlikely in today's changed demographic and political environment. Those expecting a wave may well be left standing on the shore vainly waiting for a high tide that will never come.
Last week President Barack Obama spoke with what Politico reporter, Ben Smith, called "unusual demographic frankness" in saying that the Democratic Party must reconnect with and appeal to "young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 to stand together once again" in the 2010 midterm elections. While these comments have predictably led some conservative columnists to accuse Obama of "race baiting," all the president is really saying is that he and his Democratic allies in Congress must continue to act in a way that redeems the promises they made to their core supporters in the 2006 and 2008 elections. That strategy will produce both good public policy and positive electoral results.
It is also an approach that NDN and this blog have been recommending since the beginning of the Obama presidency. It took a while for the lesson to take hold, but once it did the polling results have been increasingly positive for the president and his party.
As the following table drawn from recent ABC News/Washington Post surveys indicates, since the passage of health care reform legislation President Obama's overall job performance score and his approval rating in specific policy areas have increased from their early February lows.
Approve Obama job overall
Approve Obama's handling of economy
Approve Obama's handling of health care
Approve of Obama's handling of situation in Afghanistan
*Question not asked in February 8 survey. Data from January 15 survey.
The ABC News/Washington Post survey report correctly points out that "politics are comparative, and he [Obama] continues to outpoint the GOP head-to-head" by significant margins on all policy areas examined in the survey, including one item of presumed Republican strength-the federal budget deficit. Most encouraging, over the past three months, President Obama's advantage over the Congressional GOP has widened across all policy areas.
Trust more to handle
(April 25 Survey)
Republicans in Congress
Current Obama margin over Congressional Republicans
Obama margin over Congressional GOP in Feb. 8 survey
Not asked in Feb. survey
The federal budget deficit
The president's fellow Democrats have shared in his recent polling bounce. When the ABC News/Washington Post interviewers asked their respondents which of the two parties they trust to do a better job of coping with the main problems America faces over the next few years, the Democrats led the Republicans by 14-percentage points (46% vs. 32%). The Democratic advantage grew from only six points in February (when it was 43% vs. 37%).
Most important, the Democrats retook the lead from the GOP on the congressional generic ballot. In February, the Democrats trailed the Republicans by three points (45% vs. 48%). Now , the Democrats are in front of the GOP by five points (48% vs. 43%). This represents an overall shift of eight points toward the Democratic Party since the enactment of health care reform in March, indicating that good policy makes good politics.
The ABC News/Washington Post poll is not the only one showing generic ballot movement toward the Democrats. During the course of April on Gallup's weekly tracking survey a four-point Republican advantage fell slightly to three points at midmonth. At month's end, the two parties were tied at 45-percent each. While the Democrats did not lead on the Gallup generic ballot, by the end of April they were at least competitive.
The Democrats also gained ground on the generic ballot in the Rasmussen Reports, by far the most Republican-leaning of all the public surveys. Even though the Rasmussen survey showed the Democrats still trailing the GOP by six-percentage points that was the smallest Democratic deficit of 2010. It was down from a ten point spread in mid-March, only a week before healthcare reform legislation was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama.
The importance of enacting health care reform in rallying the Democratic base and enhancing the party's electoral prospects cannot be overemphasized. A Pew survey conducted just as health care reform passed the House found that a majority of Americans (56%) were frustrated with the federal government. About equal numbers were either basically content (19%) or angry (21%). A month later, the number that were frustrated dropped by four points (to 52%). The level of satisfaction rose by a similar amount (to 23%). In spite of media attention to Tea Party "rage" about the passage of health care reform, the number claiming to be angry about the federal government actually remained constant and now even marginally trailed those saying they were satisfied or contented with the performance of government.
Not surprisingly, most of the increase in positive attitudes came from Democratic identifiers (satisfaction up from 27% to 36%) and members of key groups within the Democratic voter coalition such as Millennials (18-29 year olds), a plurality of whom (43%, up from 28%) now said they were satisfied or contented with the federal government.
The next item on the Democratic policy agenda is financial reform legislation. As events in the U.S. Senate this week indicate, that is something even the Republican congressional leadership knows it cannot resist for very long. In a clear sign that the Great Recession has fundamentally altered the country's attitude toward Wall Street and minimally regulated markets, a solid majority of Americans (61%) told Pew survey researchers they believe it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate how financial companies do business. While Democratic identifiers and leaners spearhead the demand for stronger financial reform, support for it crosses partisan and demographic lines.
The one thing Washington Democrats should not do is to heed the calls of Democrats from an earlier era or Republican "friends" like Frank Luntz and retreat from their activism of recent months. A March Pew survey demonstrates that most Americans and, especially, most Democrats would reject this approach. In that poll, led by Democratic identifiers, a majority (50%) believes that federal government programs should be maintained to deal with important problems. In the same survey a majority (50%) also say that the biggest problem with government is its inefficiencies rather than its priorities (37%). If President Obama and Congressional Democrats take counsel from anyone, they would be well advised to adhere to the admonition of the rockers of four decades ago and "keep on keepin' on."
For years the team at NDN/NPI has been a leader in helping policymakers better understand the changing demographics of the United States. We are excited to announce that we are bringing our demographic and public opinion research together under a single banner: The 21st Century America Project. The project will feature work by Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, NDN/NPI Fellows, authors of the critically acclaimed book Millenial Makeover; Alicia Menendez, our new Senior Advisor, who has extensive experience working in these emergent communities; and other NDN/NPI Fellows and collaborators.
Below, please find some of the highlights of our past work on 21st Century America:
The 21st Century America Project is dedicated to demographic and public opinion research that for years has served as an invaluable resource in helping our leaders and policymakers understand America’s changing demographics.
The United States is a dynamic country with a constantly changing population, culture, and economy. Throughout the nation's history this dynamism has forced the two political parties to either embrace or resist the changes occurring around them. Historically, neither party has had a monopoly on making wise choices. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, it was the Republican Party that better adapted to a fully industrialized country, one that had largely left its agrarian past behind. In the 1930s, it was the Democratic Party that endorsed activist government that enabled everyday Americans to better cope with the rough edges of an industrial economy.
But America-- as well as the two political parties-- does not stand still. Several recent surveys, including one commissioned by NDN, paint a picture of a Republican Party appealing to an ever more narrow and aging base and a Democratic Party developing a voter coalition that reflects the more diverse and progressive American electorate of the 21st Century.
The Tea Party Movement Does Not Represent America
An early April New York Times/CBS Newsnational survey contained a subsample of nearly 900 Tea Party supporters permitting a detailed comparison of those who endorse that movement with the American electorate as a whole. A number of observers have already commented on the poll. For example, in a balanced interpretation, Pew's Andrew Kohut suggests that an association with the Tea Party movement might provide short-term benefit to the Republican Party, but hurt it in the long run. In a strangely odd misreading of the data, former Bill Clinton pollster, Doug Schoen, who along with Jimmy Carter's pollster, Pat Caddell, advised congressional Democrats not to pass health care reform, described the Tea Partiers as politically "diverse" and "close to the demographics of the American people."
But even a cursory reading of the New York Times/CBS News poll clearly indicates that Tea Party supporters are distinctive demographically, have sharply different perceptions of and attitudes toward politics than most other voters and are strongly oriented to the Republican Party. Given the alacrity with which most Republican politicians (with the possible exception of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown) are rushing to get in front of Tea Party rallies and embrace Tea Party ideas, it's not too much to say that the Tea Party movement has literally become the face of the GOP.
Demographics. As the table below indicates both Tea Party supporters and Republican identifiers are disproportionately male, older, and white compared with the U.S. electorate overall. In fact, Doug Schoen to the contrary, Tea Partiers are, if anything, less diverse than even rank and file Republicans. Both groups are clearly much less diverse and reflective of the American electorate as it is now and as it will increasingly be than are Democratic identifiers.
Tea Party Supporters*
Sources: *=New York Times/CBS News survey, April 2010. ^=NDN survey, February 2010.
Party ID and Ideological Identification. According to the New York Times/CBS News poll a majority of Tea Partiers identifies as Republicans, while around a third say they are independents and a scant one in twenty claim to be Democrats. Tea Party supporters identify as Republicans at about twice the rate as the overall electorate (54% vs. 28%) while only a sixth as many (5% vs. 31%) say they are Democrats. And, while only a third of all registered voters (34%) label themselves as conservatives, nearly three-quarters (73%) of Tea Partiers do.
Perceptions of Political Figures. Given their partisan and ideological preferences it is not surprising that Tea Party supporters are far less positive about Democratic politicians and far more positive about Republicans than is the American electorate overall.
Tea Party Supporters*
Approve of Barack Obama job performance
Favorable opinion of Barack Obama
Obama understands needs and problems of people like you
Obama shares values most Americans try to live by
Favorable opinion of George W. Bush
Favorable opinion of Sarah Palin
Think Sarah Palin has ability to be effective President
* Source=New York Times/CBS News survey, April 2010.
Attitudes on Political Issues. Tea Party supporters differ substantially from the entire U.S. electorate across a range of issues. In particular, Tea Partiers are far more opposed to using government to confront and attempt to resolve the problems facing America. For example, while as the following table indicates, a majority of Americans favors the Federal Government spending money to create jobs, even if this increases the budget deficit, more than three-quarters of Tea Party supporters believe that the government should not spend money on jobs, but should instead focus on deficit reduction.
Tea Party Supporters*
Spend to create jobs even if increases deficit
Focus on reducing deficit rather than job creation
*Source=New York Times/CBS News survey, April 2010
Along these lines, a majority of the electorate believes that President Obama has expanded the role of government to about the right degree (36%) or even not enough (18%) to solve the economic problems facing the country. By contrast, virtually all Tea Party supporters (89%) believe that the president has expanded the government too much.
And, on the issue that has energized the Tea Party movement more than any other, a plurality of the electorate (49%) now agrees with the provision in the recently enacted health care reform legislation requiring all Americans to have health insurance as long as the federal government provides financial help to those who cannot afford it. In contrast, 85 percent of Tea Partiers are opposed. Similarly, a majority of all voters (54%) believes it is a good idea to raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year to help provide health insurance for those who do not already have it. Eight in ten Tea Party supporters are against this.
Media Usage. Finally, to help shape their world view, Tea Partiers utilize very different sources for political information and have distinctive attitudes toward the media and media personalities than does the electorate overall.
Tea Party Supporters*
Watch Fox News Channel most for information about politics
Believe shows hosted by people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity are more news than entertainment
Favorable attitude toward Glenn Beck
The Democrats are in Stronger Position Since Passage of Health Care Reform
While the GOP has been affixing itself ever more closely to the Tea Party movement, the position of the Democratic Party has actually strengthened since the passage of health care reform in late March, while that of the Tea Party movement and politicians associated with hit have actually softened somewhat as more people came to learn and form opinions about it.
A mid-April CNN Opinion Research poll (pdf) indicated that favorable evaluations of President Barack Obama held steady at 57 percent and those of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rose by eight and six percentage points respectively from what they had been about two months previously. By contrast, favorable ratings of Sarah Palin, the Republican perhaps most strongly identified with the Tea Party movement, dropped from 46 percent in December 2009 and 43 percent in January 2010 to 39 percent in April. Her unfavorable evaluations rose by nine points (from 46% to 55%) over the same period. In addition, while positive opinions of the Tea Party movement increased by five points (from 33% to 38%) since January, negative attitudes rose by 10 points (from 26% to 36%).
Obama Leads All Potential 2012 Republican Opponents
Also, according to the CNN survey, President Obama holds a clear lead among registered voters over four potential Republican challengers to his 2012 reelection bid-Mitt Romney (53% vs. 45%); Mike Huckabee (54% vs. 45%); Sarah Palin (55% vs. 42%); and, Newt Gingrich (55% vs. 43%). His margin against each Republican actually slightly exceeds his 2008 popular vote lead over John McCain (53% vs. 46%), indicating that in spite of all the turmoil and rancor of the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama retains as strong a position with the electorate as when he won the White House.
Democrats Lead in CNN Generic Ballot for First Time in 2010
But, the president's reelection campaign is still more than two years away. Of more immediate relevance, the Democratic Party leads among registered voters on the 2010 CNN/Opinion Research generic congressional ballot for the first time this year.
"Enthusiasm Gap" Has Narrowed Since Passage of Health Care Reform
Even more important, after languishing for months, as indicated in the following table drawn from the Daily Kos weekly tracking survey, the political enthusiasm and intensity of Democratic identifiers and the groups that together comprise the emerging 21st Century Democratic coalition rose sharply in the wake of the enactment of health care and student loan reform legislation.
Definitely/likely to vote
Definitely/likely to vote
Percentage Point Increase
18-29 year olds
Residents of Northeast
Residents of West
In early March, Republican identifiers were far more likely to vote than Democrats (51% vs. 40%). On month later, what had been an 11-percentage point "enthusiasm gap" separating Republican from Democratic identifiers had narrowed to four points (63% vs. 59%). In the most recent Daily Kos poll it widened again to eight points (69% vs. 61%). Still, the increased intensity of Democratic voters coupled with the Democratic Party's party identification advantage over the Republicans (47% vs. 34% in the NDN survey) puts the Democrats in better position to compete effectively this November than they were just a month ago.
The lesson from this is clear. Like any majority political party, the Democratic Party will be rewarded by those who identify with and vote for it when it governs like the majority party that it is. The next step for congressional Democrats is to adopt financial institution reform over the persistent opposition of the GOP leadership and its Tea Party base. By so doing, the Democrats will continue to turn on its head the admonition that has so often been a part of these blogs: "if you use it, you won't lose it."