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No, Democrats Can't Win Back the House -- At Least Not Just Yet

Race plays an unmistakable part in the Democratic challenge in conservative states and districts. And it's deeper than just antipathy to Obama; in fact, it goes back half a century.

Matthew Bloch, Josh Keller, and Nate Silver / New York Times

Are Republicans going to hold on the House of Representatives forever? That's the question Nate Cohn examines in a piece in Sunday's New York Times called "Why Democrats Can't Win the House." Cohn's basic argument will be familiar to readers of this blog and many others, because it's been around a while. What it boils down to is that while the post-2010 redistricting dominated by Republicans didn't help Democrats' prospects of taking back the House, the real problem for them lies in the way the two party's voters are distributed throughout the country. Democrats are more concentrated in cities, where many of their votes are essentially surplus; if all it takes to make a district an iron-clad lock for your party is something like a 65 percent majority, having a 90 percent majority doesn't do you any more good. Republicans, on the other hand, are distributed much more efficiently; they have almost no districts with that near-unanimous majority, but lots with safe majorities. Which is why it's possible for them to win a minority of House votes nationwide but still control the body with a comfortable majority, as they did in 2012.

So far, so familiar. But the natural question is, is there anything Democrats can do about it? Here's part of Cohn's article:

To retake the House, Democrats would not just need another great election year, like 2006 or 2008; they would need to build a much broader coalition than the one they currently focus on in presidential elections. They would need to attract the voters that some liberals thought they could abandon: the conservative Democrats of the South and Appalachia, where the vanquished Blue Dogs once reigned.

The best hope for Democrats may be reclaiming some of these voters once President Obama is out of the White House. That won't be easy. The Democratic voter-registration advantage has shrunk in Appalachia, in part because many of the oldest voters, who came of age during the era when Democrats were dominant, have disappeared from the electorate. Nonetheless, many of the voters who remain are still self-identified Democrats, vote for Democrats in statewide elections and could plausibly support a conservative Democratic candidate.

There's a difficulty there, which is that the Democrats who have even a ghost of a chance in those places have to spend most of their time telling voters how much they hate the national Democratic Party. It winds up being a very individual thing: A voter might conclude, "Well, I can't stand that Barack Obama, but I suppose old Joe Manchin's all right." Because of that, there isn't much Democrats as a party can do to hang on to those voters.

Should they change their position on marriage equality, or reproductive rights, or guns?

In his article, Cohn doesn't discuss exactly how Democrats are supposed to go about attracting these more conservative whites. Should they change their position on marriage equality, or reproductive rights, or guns? That's not going to happen, because the party as a whole is responsive to the people who make up the majority of its voters, not a sliver who disagree with that majority on a bunch of important issues.

That's true despite the fact that the Democratic economic agenda is overwhelmingly popular with those voters, just as it is with the broader electorate. But many of those voters remain out of reach, and the reason is suggested by the phrase "once President Obama is out of the White House." At that point the leader of the Democratic Party, whether it's Hillary Clinton or somebody else, will be a white person, and the party's attraction to them may improve—but only by a little.

Now, before we go any farther, let me be clear that I'm not saying all or even most of the opposition to Obama is based on his race. But race plays an unmistakable part in the Democratic challenge in conservative states and districts. And it's deeper than just antipathy to Obama; in fact, it goes back half a century. There's a succinct explanation of the turning point, in the 1960s, in this 2007 paper by political scientists Christopher Ellis and James Stimson:

The New Deal had for clients the working people of America. In one phrase it was "the common man." Thus liberalism was conjoined with pictures of workers, often unionized, hard-working people, playing by the rules, and trying to get ahead. It is hard to imagine an image better suited to politics than being with and for the common man. And in an era where African Americans were "invisible," the common man of political imagery was white.

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With the coming of the Great Society there was a new clientele of liberalism, the poor—and the nonwhite. The focus of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty was the underclass of people whose usual defining characteristic was that they did not work. And although there were—and are—more poor white people than Black people, the image of poverty from the very beginning was Black.

Even if they do it more subtly than they use to, conservatives still work very hard to convince white voters that the clientele for liberalism remains people of color. This is a topic I've been harping on for the past six years, but if you aren't a consumer of conservative media you cannot appreciate how often white conservatives are told that Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular are trying to screw them over so they can give their money to shiftless, undeserving blacks and Hispanics. Long before Ta-Nehisi Coates tried to initiate an actual discussion about reparations, the term made regular appearances on conservative talk radio, attached to whatever policy the Obama administration happened to be pursuing. The economic stimulus was reparations, the Affordable Care Act was reparations, Barack Obama's entire presidency, in fact, was and is an effort to exact vengeance upon innocent white people for sins long past, and in which they had no part.

That message, and the story of racial mistrust and antipathy, is only part of the story; there are other components to the way people in more conservative areas feel culturally alienated from the Democratic Party. And it's a self-perpetuating cycle—the more absent Democrats are from those areas, the easier it is for Republicans to characterize them as a bunch of alien, coastal cultural elitists who don't understand us and our values (and of course, Democrats are able to do something similar in areas that they dominate). But race helps establish the context in which those appeals either fail or succeed. So let's step back and look at a little presidential campaign history. I made a chart of the difference between the total vote received and the white vote received by every Democratic presidential candidate in the last 60 years:

While there are many elections in this set that have unusual dynamics because of strong third-party candidacies, there's fairly clear pattern. There was almost no difference in the Democrats' white vote and total vote through 1964, but after that the two parties start to diverge. Lyndon Johnson's huge victory was the last time a Democrat got a majority of the white vote, despite the fact that Democrats won five of the subsequent twelve elections. Between 1968 and 2004, Democrats did, on average, 5.5 points worse among white voters than among the entire electorate. But in 2008, Obama underperformed among white voters by 10 points, and that margin increased to 12 points in 2012.

In the 2016 election, a couple of things could happen. With a white candidate leading the Democratic ticket, the gap could fall back to five or six points. Or the hyper-racialization of American politics in the Obama era could linger, and the gap could be somewhere in between—larger than that 5.5 point average, but smaller than Obama's 2012 gap of 12 points. (That would be my guess, but there's no way to know yet.)

To return to where we started (the House), there are two parallel processes happening, one of which benefits Democrats and one of which benefits Republicans. By appealing to white voters and characterizing Democrats as the party of the non-white, Republicans can hold onto the House. But the more they're perceived to be the party of white people, the harder it is for them to win presidential elections. As we've seen time and again over the last couple of years, even when national Republican leaders would like to make the party friendlier to minorities, right now the GOP is defined by the one place where it holds power: the House.

One answer to the question of what the Democrats can do to make taking back the House a possibility is simple: They can wait. The demographic groups that make up their coalition are increasing in size as a proportion of the population, while the group that makes up almost the entirety of the GOP's base is shrinking. It's a slow process, but as whites become a smaller and smaller portion of the American populace, it'll be tougher and tougher for Republicans to maintain their lock on the House. They may have it for a while yet. But it won't last forever.