Overview of This Week’s Report: “Changing U.S. Electorate”

Given the historic nature of the Democratic presidential primary contest – with the nomination coming down to a battle between a white woman and an African-American man – perhaps it’s not surprising that there have been splits among voters along racial, geographic, age, income and educational divides.

“I don’t think there’s any way this election could have been anything but demographically focused, given the candidates left standing,” says Scott Keeter, associate director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press.

The Democrats’ internal splits have them nervous about repairing the breaches in order to get all party supporters on board for the fall contest against Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. McCain might well appeal to white, working-class voters, including the so-called Reagan Democrats, who have sometimes supported GOP candidates because of their relatively conservative stances on social issues.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly pointed out that, thanks to working-class support, she has beaten Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the largest states – California, New York, Ohio, among others – which a Democrat would need to carry in order to win in November against McCain.

In an interview with USA Today conducted the day after the May 6 Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Clinton cited an Associated Press report “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”

In exit polls conducted during the April 22 Pennsylvania Democratic primary, 16 percent of white voters said that race had influenced their decision, with almost half of these saying they would not support Obama in the fall. Only 60 percent of Catholics said they would vote for him in November.

“Mr. Obama was supposed to be a transformational figure, with an almost magical ability to transcend partisan difference,” writes Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist who has been supporting Clinton. “Well, now he has an overwhelming money advantage and the support of much of the Democratic establishment – yet he still can’t seem to win over large blocs of Democratic voters, especially among the white working class. As a result, he keeps losing big states.”

Obama supporters, meanwhile, are concerned that his supporters – particularly young people and African-Americans – will feel disenfranchised if Clinton wins the nomination through a coronation by party officials, because it seems certain she will trail Obama in delegates and overall popular vote support after all the primaries are concluded on June 3.

“We keep talking as if it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that Obama gets 92 percent of the black vote, [that] because he only got 35 percent of the white vote he’s in trouble,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, told The Washington Post following the Pennsylvania primary.

“Well, Hillary Clinton only got 8 percent of the black vote. . . . It’s almost saying black people don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how white people respond.”

Whatever the outcome, Obama’s candidacy has already highlighted many of the ways in which the American electorate is starting to shift – as well as the ways that it hasn’t changed quite yet.

“The biggest trend is that the U.S. is no longer going to be a majority-white country,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist. Given the growth of the Asian and, particularly, the Hispanic share of the population, most demographers predict that whites will no longer comprise a majority by 2050.

“Within 40 years, no single racial group will be a majority,” Page says. “Second, interracial marriage is increasing, and many of these marriages are in the upper-income groups, which means that many of our future leaders will be multiracial,” like Obama.

In leading the battle for Democratic delegates and total votes, Obama has forged a coalition unlike any seen before in his party. It’s typical for one candidate to appeal to educated elites, as Obama does, while a rival appeals to “beer track” blue-collar voters, as Clinton does.

What Obama has done differently is wed African-Americans, who typically vote along with lower-income whites in Democratic primaries, to his base among elites. “This is the first time African-Americans have sided with the educated class,” says David Bositis, an elections analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Referring to the leading contenders of the 1984 Democratic primary race, Bositis continues, “Obama is Gary Hart, but with the black vote. Hillary Clinton is Walter Mondale but without any black support. Obama’s going to be the first nominee who represents the more educated and higher-income Democrats.”

Assuming he does ultimately win the nomination, an Obama victory will be the result not only of this historic shift in black voting but also the fact that educated and upper-income voters are both growing in number and becoming more Democratic. He has also benefited from unusually high levels of support among young voters of all races.

But the white working-class vote, while shrinking as a share of the total electorate, is still a predominant factor in American politics. Many Democrats – as well as Republicans – believe that Obama’s inability to appeal to this group will prove an Achilles’ heel.

“Hillary supporters are going to be very unhappy,” says Herbert I. London, president of the conservative Hudson Institute. London predicts that McCain will do very well in the fall among the older Democrats who have supported Clinton – and could make inroads into other Democratic constituencies as well.

“This age gap [between Clinton and Obama] is so persistent that I would be concerned about it,” says Robert David Sullivan, managing editor of CommonWealth magazine, “especially because McCain might have a particular appeal to older independents.”

“Older whites are really going to stick with McCain,” echoes Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California demographer. “They’re going to think that he speaks to their interests.”

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, suggests that Obama’s candidacy does represent a possible future for American politics. His candidacy has been “post-ethnic” in terms of his appeal to upper-income whites, as well as other white voters in states such as Wisconsin and Virginia. It’s also “post-boomer,” with Obama appealing to millions of “millennial” voters (referring to the generation born since 1982) and seeking, not entirely successfully, to move politics beyond the culture clashes that have marked American politics since the 1960s.

“Obama got a lot of initial support from people who liked his post-boomer sensibility – a way to get beyond moralistic politics,” says Pew’s Keeter. But as for a post-boomer period, he adds, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Frey also cautions that Obama’s candidacy may represent the shape of a political future that hasn’t yet fully arrived. The trends that have benefited Obama – the rise of the youth vote, the increasing size of the upscale Democratic electorate – will continue, but may not yet be sufficiently in place to overcome the type of traditional, white working-class voters who have long dominated American politics and have fueled Clinton’s campaign.

“Maybe 20 years down the road there will be more of the Obama group overall, but for now everything is split,” Frey says. “It’s not 2030 yet.”

Many demographic trends appear to be moving more generally in the Democrats’ favor, including support from voters in their 20s, the increasing number of unmarried adults and secular-minded voters, the party’s inroads into traditional GOP turf in the suburbs and the support of a majority of Hispanics – the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group, who have been put off by the hard line many Republicans have taken on illegal immigration.

In seven states that held primaries in March and April alone, 1 million new voters registered as Democrats, while Republican numbers mostly “ebbed or stagnated.” In Indiana and North Carolina, which held their Democratic primaries on May 6, the rate of new registrants tripled from 2004.

Ruy Teixeira, another Brookings scholar and coauthor of the 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, not surprisingly suggests that all these trends should help his party. But he concedes that Republicans still have some potent arrows in their quiver.

“The good news for the Republicans is that despite some of these various demographic factors that are moving against them, they have held the loyalties of lower-income white voters pretty well,” he says.

Other structural advantages that Republicans have enjoyed in recent years – dominance of the South and the interior West, the rock-solid support of regular churchgoers, large margins of victory in the nation’s fastest-growing communities – also remain in place.

And McCain’s candidacy may dash Democratic hopes of running up a bigger margin among Hispanics that could help them prevail in states President Bush has carried, such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. McCain has famously taken a more conciliatory stance toward immigrants than much of his party. “McCain takes Democrats out of their Western strategy entirely,” says John Morgan, a Republican demographer.

With Democrats not quite settled on a candidate, it’s premature to guess how the persistent demographic differences that have played out in the primaries will manifest themselves in the fall. Bositis suggests that Clinton’s performance has been an indication of support for her among white women, in particular – not of white antipathy toward Obama. White working-class Democrats will mainly “come home” to support Obama in the fall, he suggests.

McCain’s candidacy also has engendered some concerns on the Republican side that evangelicals – the conservative Christians who have been the party’s most loyal supporters of late – will not support him with any enthusiasm. McCain consistently trailed among evangelical white Protestants during his primary race against former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

How all these crosscurrents of support – or lack thereof – will play out in the fall remains to be seen, of course. What this year’s election season has indicated more than anything, however, is that the nature and shape of the American electorate is in a state of flux just now, with the allegiances of various groups shifting between and within the two major parties – and with new constituencies making their presence very much felt.

“We’re seeing more people registering now than we’ve ever seen before,” says Kimball Brace, a Democratic consultant. “How that is going to change the demographics and nature of voting is one of the larger questions coming into play.”

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