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Morning Jay: Goodbye to the Clinton Majority, Those Lucky Dems, and More!

6:30 AM, Sep 24, 2010 • By JAY COST
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1. Goodbye To The Clinton Majority?  Recently, Franklin & Marshall College put out a poll of Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, in the Philadelphia suburbs, that shows incumbent Democrat Patrick Murphy down an eye-popping 14 points to his Republican challenger, former Republican representative Mike Fitzpatrick.

What explains this?

All the way back in November 2009, Sean Trende looked at the off-year election returns, and noticed a fascinating pattern in New Jersey and Virginia: the Clinton majority was falling apart:

Clinton inherited a coalition consisting of minorities, liberals, urban voters, and a decent remnant of Jacksonian voters in the Ohio River Valley and the South, who still preferred a moderate-to-conservative Democrat to a Republican. This coalition became a majority coalition when Clinton used a combination of fiscal conservatism and social moderation to bring suburban voters on board. This was a huge innovation for Democrats; suburbs like Nassau County, NY, Orange County, CA and Fairfax County, VA had fueled the rise of the Republican parties in those states. Clinton moved them substantially toward his side. This coalition allowed him to win by eight points in 1996; absent Perot and a last-minute fundraising scandal, he probably would have won by more.

Trende’s article is over a year old, but it is well worth reading again in full.  It points to an essential point about this midterm.  I suspect that when the dust settles, smart commentators will draw two conclusions about the 2010 congressional elections. The first is that the Democrats were badly mistaken when they interpreted the 2008 election as a realignment (although Trende and I warned them to temper their enthusiasm!).  It was instead the West and the Midwest doing what they have long done, swinging one way or the other.  They swung heavily to the Democrats in 2008, now they are set to swing heavily to the GOP in 2010.

The second will acknowledge this phenomenon that Trende discovered nearly a year ago.  Those upscale, socially moderate, fiscally conservative suburban voters in the wealthier cities are fleeing the Democratic coalition. That is an essential part of the story of how Deeds was gobsmacked in Virginia last year, why Kirsten Gillibrand in New York has a fight on her hands (and according to SurveyUSA trails by twelve points in the NYC suburbs!), why Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania is so far behind, and why Patrick Murphy is down by a baker’s-dozen-plus-one in independent polling.  And if this pattern does indeed hold in the big urban centers in the East, it should also manifest itself in the Chicago suburbs, and be enough to make Mark Kirk the next senator from Illinois.

The Clinton coalition was a political winner, for a while.  But liberal Democrats were none too pleased with Clinton’s style of governance. Al Gore had to fend off a primary challenge from Bill Bradley, then Ralph Nader played spoiler, blasting Gore and George W. Bush as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," then finally the left rebuked Hillary Clinton in 2008.  

Will President Obama and his Democratic allies adapt this time around?  That remains to be seen. Staying the course might leave him with little more than the McGovern coalition, so the demands of electoral victory seem to require some genuine movement toward the center. But on the other hand, Obama is in office in part because of the McGovern wing of the party; all those liberals who hated Clintonian triangulation finally got the last laugh, triumphantly nominating him amid shouts of "Yes We Can!" What's more, I suspect that President Obama actually believes he is in the political center, that he doesn't see all the strawman nonsense as strawman nonsense.  He looks over his left shoulder and really sees "the professional left," then looks over his right shoulder and really sees "dangerous" Tea Party "extremists."  So, I don't know...

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