This Is Not Your Father’s Democratic Party

by Stuart Rothenberg October 12, 2011 · 9:30 AM EDT

For anyone old enough to remember Bucky Dent’s memorable home run in the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff, the current makeup and political strategy of the Democratic Party has to seem very odd.

No, this isn’t your grandfather’s (or even your father’s) Democratic Party, and while that was an asset in 2006 and 2008, it very definitely looks like a problem in 2012.

Just four or five decades ago, Democratic strategists could count on an army of working-class voters and union members to turn out to support the party’s nominees, tapping on a deep party loyalty that developed out of the Great Depression. While WASPs and the rich hated President Franklin Roosevelt, that animosity didn’t drive American politics.

But over the past few decades the New Deal generation passed away, President Ronald Reagan transformed our politics, the union movement shrunk noticeably, white voters as a percentage of the total electorate dropped significantly and both economic and social issues evolved.

How those changes have affected our politics becomes stunningly clear after talking to Democratic operatives and strategists, who see their best opportunities in 2012 as centering on states and Congressional districts populated by Hispanics, African-Americans, upscale white liberals, suburban voters and the young.

Even after Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s narrow victory in West Virginia last week, Democratic strategists seem to acknowledge that their party has lost downscale white voters — particularly those in rural areas — for 2012.

President Barack Obama, of course, did relatively poorly with those voters in the 2008 Democratic primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he continued to underperform with those same voters in the general election.

As a terrific New York Times graphic showed after the 2008 elections, the GOP presidential vote increased by more than 20 percent from 2004 to 2008 in a swath of counties stretching roughly from southwestern Pennsylvania down through West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, much of Tennessee, Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma, all the way to northeast Texas.

The same pattern showed up in northeast Alabama, northwest Florida and parts of Georgia. It’s probably no accident that the Democrats’ best chances of winning GOP-held Senate seats are in Massachusetts and Nevada, while the GOP’s best chances are in states such as Missouri and Montana, swing states with substantial rural voters. Both states have been moving toward Republicans in recent decades.

The Democrats’ problem with downscale whites is even more apparent in the presidential race. If states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan really are in play, as many now believe, it is because it is precisely those voters who are likely to defect from the Democratic ticket next year.

After years of talking about the party’s opportunities in the South (and crowing about victories in 2006 and 2008), Democratic insiders now appear lukewarm to the party’s prospects in a huge swath of the Southeast beginning just south of Virginia’s Washington, D.C., suburbs through the Carolinas and Georgia to Alabama and Mississippi. Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana also fall into that category. Even Arkansas remains a question mark.

Instead, Democratic insiders suggest that the fight for the House will rest in suburban districts, including Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia, Chicago and New York suburbs, where the president may be more popular and a wide range of issues may benefit Democratic candidates.

It’s true, of course, that suburban voters, once a GOP bulwark, have become more independent recently, and in some areas even reliably Democratic.

Montgomery County, Maryland, and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, two upscale suburbs (one Washington, D.C., the other Philadelphia), went easily for Reagan in 1980. Reagan won the Maryland suburban county by more than 7 points while he was losing statewide by 3 points, and he won Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County by 26 points while he was winning statewide by just 7 points.

Fast forward to 2004, and the change is stunning.

Republican George W. Bush lost Montgomery County, Maryland, by 33 points at the same time that he was losing statewide by 13 points. Similarly, he lost Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County by more than 11 points at the same time that he was losing statewide by a less than 3 points.

Of course, not all suburbs flipped as much as the two Montgomery counties, and some newer suburbs (and many exurbs) show Republican tendencies.

Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether suburbs will somehow be immune to dissatisfaction with the president and to voter angst about jobs and the economy.

“There is nothing about the suburbs that makes things better for us,” observed one smart Democratic strategist, adding that strong Democratic candidates certainly can beat weaker Republicans even if the political environment is difficult.

But even if upscale suburban voters care more about women’s and environmental issues and gay rights, and are willing to pay higher taxes than are more rural, downscale or exurban voters, it’s far from clear that suburbanites will show the Democratic bent in 2012 that they did in 2008. They too may punish the president for the economy.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey lost Philadelphia’s four large suburban counties (Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks) by about 22,000 votes in his 2010 race — compared with Obama’s margin in the four counties of about 203,000 votes. And that suggests that last year’s national Republican wave was not without an effect even in suburbia.