Are Democrats Getting Overconfident?
Many have written – myself included – about the demographic hole that Republicans have dug themselves into by alienating African-American, Asian American, and Hispanic voters, not to mention women, lesbians and gay men, and young voters. But demographics is about trends and probabilities; demographics alone doesn’t determine elections.
Obviously I’d rather have demographics moving in my direction than moving against me. But I’m concerned that Democratic orthodoxy may be confusing demography and destiny. Even with demographic trends running generally toward Democrats, winning elections still takes hard work, good ideas, favorable short-term conditions, and luck. Demographically, to be blunt, Democrats enjoy high popularity among important constituencies, but remain unpopular among non-Hispanic white voters, who remain for now the majority.
Pesident Obama won just 39 percent of the white vote in 2012, down from 43 percent in 2008. This was Democrats’ worst showing among non-Hispanic white voters in 30 years, since Walter Mondale lost big to Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Of 16 Democratic presidential candidacies since 1952, only Lyndon Johnson won more than 50 percent of non-Hispanic white voters. Four others did better than Obama’s 43 percent in 2008 – Kennedy, Carter (1976), and Clinton (1992 and 1996). Five more scored between Obama’s two showings – Stevenson (1952 and 1956), Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. And four did worse among non-Hispanic white voters than Obama did in 2012 – Humphrey, McGovern, Carter (1980), and Mondale.
In other words, Obama’s two showings among white voters were toward the middle of the pack for Democratic presidential candidates – but they were at the low end for Democrats who won. No other Democrat since 1952 has won a presidential election less than 43 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote. But Democrats can’t take for granted that they will do as well as Obama did among white voters, since Democrats have done worse in recent history as often as they have done better. Nor can Democrats take for granted that they will do as well among non-white and Hispanic voters as Obama did.
It is very hard for a party to win three presidential elections in a row – Democrats haven’t done it since Harry Truman won in 1948. Al Gore lost the 2000 election to George Bush despite being vice president to a popular president, despite a healthy economy and favorable international conditions – and despite winning the popular vote. Whoever the Democrats nominate in 2016, that candidate is unlikely to enjoy conditions as favorable.