The Magazine

Go for the Bitter Bloc

Hillary shows McCain the path to victory over Obama.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By REIHAN SALAM
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It's true that these numbers were fairly grim, even before President Bush's reelection: For example, only about 20 percent in 2003 rated the economy as excellent. But the ideological landscape is far less favorable to Republicans today. When Pew conducted its most recent comprehensive report on trends in political values in 2007, it found that the gap between Democratic and Republican partisan identification was a mammoth 15 percentage points, a sharp shift from parity in 2002. And as the economy flirts with recession, the social issues that supposedly drive America's Bitter Bloc into Republican arms may be overshadowed. An October 2007 survey, for example, found that 65 percent consider "Energy" (gas prices) very important to their vote, while only 22 percent felt the same way about same-sex marriage. In October 2004, the numbers were 54 percent and 32 percent respectively. (And gas prices are appreciably higher today than they were last fall.)

Then there is the small matter that the Republican coalition is shrinking. In a survey released this month, Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz chronicle the long-term decline of the white working class, a decline driven in large part by education and income gains but also by sharp growth in the Latino population. When Republicans win elections, they tend to do so on the strength of super-majorities of white working class voters. Democratic success in 2006 derived not from winning these voters but merely from cutting the Republican advantage. Among non-college-educated whites in households making $30,000 to $50,000 a year, Bush won 62 percent to John Kerry's 38 percent. The same group went for Republicans in 2004 congressional voting by 22 points. Among non-college-educated whites in households making $50,000 to $75,000, Bush won by 70 percent to 29 percent, and congressional Republicans by 32 points. In the 2006 midterms, by contrast, the first group supported Republicans and Democrats equally, and the second backed Republicans by only 21 points.

In Building Red America, Thomas B. Edsall described the Republican party as a coalition of winners. Blue-collar Republicans tended to be non-college-educated women and men in intact families, who had successfully adapted to economic change and were inclined to believe that the market economy worked for them. It is easy to see how a tough economic climate will shrink the winners' circle. This is particularly true in the hard-hit Great Lakes region, where McCain has a chance to perform well against Obama. A reprise of 2006 in the form of Republican underperformance among white working-class voters would doom McCain. He needs to keep his edge with these voters well in double digits to blunt the growing strength of Republican-unfriendly constituencies like less affluent college-educated whites, unmarried women, and nonwhite voters. That is, McCain needs to win a bigger share of a shrinking slice of the electorate. That won't be easy, particularly since domestic issues aren't his strong suit, as his disappointing performance in the Michigan primary showed. If he pulls it off, however, McCain will have a shot at winning states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

If the old coalition is shrinking, can McCain break out of the Republican demographic box by winning more nonwhite voters? He has a better chance than any other Republican. The party has performed decently with some Latino constituencies, some Asian ethnic groups, and with small but significant minorities of culturally conservative black voters, as in Ohio in 2004. But in light of Obama's popularity among black voters, it seems safe to say that McCain doesn't have much of a shot with a constituency that has long been a Democratic stronghold. As for Latinos and Asian Americans, the so-called new minorities, the challenge is vexing because these groups are so diverse, and both are subject to what demographer William Frey calls "translation gaps." States with large Latino and Asian populations don't always have large Latino and Asian electorates, thanks to disproportionately high numbers of children under 18 and foreign-born residents who haven't yet acquired citizenship.