I’ve been holding the somewhat controversial position that Barack Obama’s ascendence within the Democratic Party is a bad thing for the Democrats. To understand why, the first place to start is with Ronald Brownstein’s look at the new face of the Democratic Party. The Democrats are becoming a party that is younger, more affluent and more liberal:
In the Democrats’ longtime upscale-downscale divide, these changes are tilting the party away from blue-collar and often gray-haired “beer track” voters toward younger and more affluent “wine track” voters.
Since 1968, Democratic presidential candidates who relied on beer track voters (such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore) routinely defeated rivals who depended mostly on wine track supporters (Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and Bill Bradley). But now Obama, an upscale candidate, is on the brink of capturing the nomination from Clinton, who has constructed a classic beer track coalition.
Obama is succeeding where his wine track predecessors failed, largely because he has won overwhelming majorities of African-Americans, who in the past generally sided with beer track candidates. But his success is also tied to the party’s changing composition. Two of Obama’s most supportive groups — the young and the affluent — are expanding their influence in the party. Clinton’s strongest support has come from seniors and noncollege white voters, two groups that are waning in significance.
These shifts could create long-term strains for the Democratic Party. In particular, Democratic candidates may face tensions in reconciling their growing reliance on upper-income voters with the party’s increasing emphasis on an edgy populist message that portrays the economy as unfairly tilted toward the affluent.
If one takes a look at the exit polls from this Tuesday’s primaries the same pattern emerges: Clinton won older voters, voters who were concerned about the economy, and women. Obama won young urban voters and black voters. All the data supports Brownstein’s thesis: that the Democratic Party is becoming younger, richer, and more urban.
The Democrats’ Divide
Obama is appealing to the new face of the Democratic Party, while Clinton is appealing to the old face of the Democratic Party. The argument against Obama being the savior of the Democrats is this: Obama’s appeal is with voters who are likely to vote Democratic anyway. For all the insistence that Obama has massive appeal with independents and even Republicans, there’s little solid evidence which supports that conclusion. Secondly, what happens to that new Democratic Party when Obama passes into history? Is this new Democratic Party a durable political movement?< ?p>
Look at the demographics of the country: the nation is getting older. In the next few years, the number of 20–64 year-old voters will decrease while the retiring Baby Boomers will remain a potent demographic force. Like most industrialized democracies, the United States is seeing a demographic shift from old to young. In the near-term (until the middle of this century) older voters are going to be the key voting bloc that parties will need to target to win. Barack Obama has very little appeal to older voters, while McCain and Clinton can capture that crucial bloc. The demographic tide is against the new face of the Democratic Party.
One of the fastest-growing segments of the population are Hispanics. Hispanics are culturally conservative, which gives some advantage to the GOP. Hispanics do tend to vote Democrat, but not by the incredibly lop-sided margins that we see with African-American voters. Clinton carried the Hispanic vote in Texas by a wide margin. Can Obama reach out to Hispanics? It’s possible, but McCain will be far more competitive with Hispanics against Obama than Clinton. Again, the demographics don’t favor Obama.
Finally, there’s no certainty that the youth vote will remain Democratic forever. One of the biggest shifts in voting activity involves marriage and family: married women tend to vote Republican far more than their single counterparts. Affluent voters tend to vote Republican, especially those voters who start to notice when Democratic tax increases hit their wallets. As voters get older, they tend to become more conservative rather than less.
Why Clinton Is The Stronger Candidate
Forget the conventional wisdom. Hillary Clinton is the stronger of the two candidates. She is a known quantity. Her negatives may be high, but they’re not insurmountably high. The people who hate Hillary Clinton with a passion are not likely Democratic voters, and the people who support Hillary tend to be the same voting blocs that got her husband elected. The Democrats cannot win on the backs of rich white liberals and African Americans. They have to get soccer moms, NASCAR voters, gun owners, Southerners, and a majority of independents. Obama’s appeal is strong with groups that are already reliably Democratic, and if he can’t pull in a clear majority of Democrats in Democratic primaries, can he really pull of a major victory against McCain? Obama won states like Georgia by a wide margin, but there’s absolutely no chance of Georgia flipping to the Democrats any time soon. If one takes a hard look at the electoral landscape, where can Barack Obama make against against McCain? Perhaps Iowa, but the Republicans can win without Iowa. Can he get Ohio back in the Democratic column? It’s unlikely. Florida? Same story there? What swing states will Obama be able to bring into the Democratic fold? I’m hard-pressed at this point to see him bringing any key states over to the Democratic side, and there’s a good chance that states like Pennsylvania, Washington or New Hampshire could flip over to the Republicans.
Hillary Clinton can reach out to Reagan Democrats. Barack Obama will have a much harder time doing so. Hillary Clinton can appeal to voters concerned about national security. Obama so far has not reached beyond his anti-war base. The saliency of the Iraq War as a political issue is decreasing as American casualties drop and signs of success become unmistakable. Does Obama really think tying the war to McCain will hurt him? When McCain can say that it was his policies that helped win the war, and he was the one who pushed Bush into changing course? That doesn’t seem like a very strong argument.
In the end, Hillary has demographics on her side. The Democratic Party is changing its face, just as Brownstein observed. The problem is that in doing that the Democratic Party is painting themselves into a demographic corner. As they become younger and liberal they leave behind the moderates, middle class voters, and older voters behind—and John McCain is the candidate with the most appeal with those voters. Obama’s surface appeal is just that—surface appeal, and for all the hype about his brand of “hope” it will not be enough to build a lasting political legacy and it will lead the Democrats into becoming a minority party at the same time the Republicans have the opportunity to reach out. 2008 could prove to be a realigning election, just as many Democrats hope, but it won’t necessarily be the sort of realignment they would like.