In previous essays, I have examined the current political climate, compared it with past times of dramatic partisan changes in the country, and suggested that the 2008 election could be a transforming election similar in nature, even if not in the magnitude of the victory, to the 1932 election which brought Franklin Roosevelt in to the White House and huge Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. For many, their first reaction is to scoff. Such a huge Democratic win, following the big wins in 2006, would certainly be against recent trends. Since the death of FDR, only once when a party posted a net gain of more than 15 Congressional seats did they not lose seats in the next election. In 1974, the Watergate scandal helped propel the Democrats to a net gain of 49 seats. In 1976, they gained an additional net of 1 seat, giving them 292 seats; the only time any party has had more seats in Congress was from 1933 through 1939, when the Democrats had over 300 seats. However, as I showed in my first essay, in 2006 and going in to 2008, there are many exceptions to "rules" of election trends since 1946, which isn't odd considering the expectations derive from the results of just 30 federal elections. If one looks at election-to-election variances as mostly the swings of a short pendulum, it makes sense to expect a "correction" in 2008, or at least not a second straight big gain by Democratic. But the underlying terrain for 2008 is far more favorable than one would expect under the conventional assumptions of election trends, especially if the tottering economy and growing credit and housing problems continue to get worse. We are not dealing with a pendulum, we're dealing with a strong and long-term movement of the electorate.
In my second essay, I showed plenty of evidence to suggest that almost all the partisan and campaign/operational advantages currently favor the Democrats. The Democrats' current advantages in registration trends, campaign finances, seats without incumbents running for reelection, polling, desire for change and candidate recruitment may, but next fall, be unprecedented, at least in the era since the expansion of the federal government and the movement from rural to urban and suburban areas that occurred during the New Deal. Literally, there is just about no good news for the Republican party.
Many readers of Daily Kos may think the Democrats are not capitalizing on their current advantages to maximize the opportunity I believe we have in 2008. There is some merit to that argument, although as I will show in a future essay, it's likely that we will have big gains regardless of whether the Democrats in Congress and those running for President are bold or timid. There certainly is a precedent for such an occurrence; the 72nd Congress (1931-1933), with it's new and extremely narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers accomplished very little, pursed no bold strategies, and provided few hints of the transforming political and policy revolution of the New Deal. This unimaginative and low-risk opposition to Hoover, by the way, did not face the resolute obstructionism of the current Republican party, as several liberal Republicans, especially in the Senate, joined with the Democrats in trying to set a new direction for the country in opposition to Hoover's reluctance to engage the federal government as a positive agent for change.
In 1932, the Depression dominated American life in ways that none of our current issues do. The Republican failure to deal with that catastrophe was the dominant, nearly exclusive reason for the Democrats' huge victory in 1932. Fortunately, no single issue dominates our lives the way the Depression did in 1932. Nevertheless, the primary factor in the Democrats current standing is the deep dissatisfaction with the presidency of George W Bush. Roughly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of his prosecution of the war in Iraq and his failure to change course and pursue a responsible withdrawal of American troops. Republican corruption and Republican incompetence—exposed in the national embarrassment that was the reaction to the Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast—also contribute to the current political environment. There are also inherent cultural, social, political and ideological contradictions with the leadership and activist core of the Republican party which threatens to open huge rifts within the party and it's electoral coalition. I will address this component of the political environment in coming weeks.
Even more than in 1932, however, long term demographic and ideological trends have been favoring Democrats. In 2000, the combined vote totals for Al Gore and Ralph Nader were over 51%, only the second time since 1964 that the loosely defined "liberal" alternatives exceed 50% of the popular vote. It was the third straight election that the Democrat won the popular vote, and in the Summer of 2001, George W. Bush was as weak a newly-elected president as we had seen in decades. One can persuasively argue that were it not for the distorting effect of 9-11 and the ability of Karl Rove and company to exploit fear, especially among key sub-groups of independents and married and middle and working-class women, the election that Kathryn Harris and the Supreme Court stole from Al Gore would have been reversed in 2004 and George W. Bush would have repeated the pattern of previous Presidents who had lost the popular vote and not been returned for a second term.
In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published The Emerging Democratic Majority. Some observers believed their book presaged a Democratic victory in 2004. It did not. However, it did describe several long-term trends that strongly favor Democrats. In 2006, they revisited their thesis, looking at the wave that that washed over Republicans at every level:
this election signals the end of a fleeting Republican revival, prompted by the Bush administration's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the return to political and demographic trends that were leading to a Democratic and center-left majority in the United States. In 2006 the turn to the Democrats went well beyond those offices directly concerned with the war in Iraq or affected by congressional scandals. While Democrats picked up 30 House seats and six Senate seats, they also won six governorships, netted 321 state legislative seats, and recaptured legislative chambers in eight states. That's the kind of sweep that Republicans enjoyed in 1994, which led to Republican control of Congress and of the nation's statehouses for the remainder of the decade.
Just as important as these victories is who voted for Democrats in 2006. With few exceptions, the groups were exactly those that had begun trending Democratic in the 1990s and had contributed to Al Gore's popular-vote victory over George W. Bush in 2000. These groups, which we described in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, included women, professionals, and minorities. But in 2006 they also included two groups our book slighted or ignored altogether: younger voters (those born after 1977) and independents. These voters can generally be expected to continue backing Democrats.
Finally, the 2006 election represented a shift in American politics, away from the right and toward the center-left, on a range of issues that go well beyond the Iraq war, corruption, and competence. Voters in 2006 returned to viewpoints on the economy and society that inclined them, even leaving aside the war, to favor Democrats over conservative Republicans. To understand how this could happen, and happen so suddenly, one has to appreciate the peculiar impact that September 11 had on what had been an emerging Democratic majority, and how, once the impact of that event dissipated, the earlier trends reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
According to Judis and Teixeira, the new groups at the heart of the Democratic coalition are women, professionals and minorities. Through the 1960's, the gender gap pointed the opposite direction; women were more likely to vote Republican. Professionals were overwhelmingly Republican. Minorities were Democratic, but they are a much larger percentage of the current electorate and should continue to become larger.
While professionals and white women lean strongly Democratic, in most places Democrats still need to minimize their losses among white men, especially independents. After 9-11, the GOP scare-mongering increased their margins among men, cut our advantage with white woman, and provided the GOP with majorities with independents. The votes Kerry lost from the Gore totals were mostly among white women and independents.
For a short time, the fear-mongering led to a slight shift toward many conservative viewpoints, especially among the groups that shifted most strongly toward the GOP after 9-11:
[T]here was also evidence of another psychological process, which might be called "de-arrangement." The focus on the war on terror not only distracted erstwhile Democrats and independents but appeared to transform, or de-arrange, their political worldview. They temporarily became more sympathetic to a whole range of conservative assumptions and approaches.
However, by 2006, that effect had dissipated:
Voters didn't simply reject the administration for its conduct of the war; angered by its conduct of the war, they reembraced a center-left worldview on a whole range of issues. The electorate of 2006 was like the electorate of 2000 -- only more so...
In the 2006 election, all the groups that had been part of the emerging Democratic majority in the late 1990s came roaring back into the fold. College-educated women backed Democrats by 57 percent to 42 percent. Single women backed Democrats by 66 percent to 33 percent. And the key swing group among women voters shifted. White working-class women, who had voted Republican by 57 percent to 42 percent in 2004, backed them by only 52 percent to 47 percent in 2006 -- a 10-point shift. This movement away from the GOP included a stunning 26-point shift by white working-class women with annual household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, who went from pro-Republican (60 percent to 39 percent) in 2004 to pro-Democratic (52 percent to 47 percent) in 2006. Postgraduate voters, who are typically professionals, also moved decisively into the Democratic column. In 2002 these voters had backed Republican congressional candidates by 51 percent to 45 percent. In 2006 they backed Democrats by 58 percent to 41 percent.
In 2006, Democrats gained among white working class voters and other groups where they had been slipping in recent elections. But those groups where Democrats have been gaining most dramatically are also many of the same groups growing as a percentage of the electorate. Young voters, in particular those 18-29, have swung strongly toward Democrats. There is a belief among election observers that people who vote for one party three times in a row tend are very likely to be reliable voters for that party for an extremely long time, often for the rest of their lives. Young voters have given Dems increasing majorities in each of the last three elections.
Polling since the 2006 election shows dissatisfaction with Congress, but the Pew Center's Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007 shows the long-term trends continue unabated; if anything, they are accelerating. Belief that the government should help the needy even if it means more government debt has increased from 41% in 1994 to 54% in 2007; "young people continue to hold a more favorable view of government than do other Americans." There's markedly less social conservatism and religious intensity, and more populism on economics and attitudes about wealth. Race is a less toxic issue in American politics and society; "interpersonal racial attitudes continue to moderate. More than eight-in-ten (83%) agree that 'it's all right for blacks and whites to date,' up six percentage points since 2003 and 13 points from a Pew survey conducted 10 years ago." The shifts in social attitudes are most pronounced among the oldest voters. That change isn't because a particular cohort of voters are changing their attitudes; it's because more socially moderate voters replace the older, less tolerant voters as they die off.
While there is plenty of good news for Democrats, there are still opportunities for Democrats to squander the tremendous opportunity before them in 2008 and beyond. It's unlikely that Republicans will rally strongly and roar back in to power; they are deeply divided, probably more fatally divided than the Democrats were in 1968 and 1972. But Democrats, should they control the federal government and especially if they win big, will need to deliver. The depth of Republican division, and the ideological and policy opportunities available to Democrats will be the subject of future essays on the possible parallels between the elections of 1932 and 2008.