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Bush's "Reagan Lite" Coalition

In the latest American Prospect, John Judis and I consider the results of the 2004 election and assess whether and to what extent an "emerging Democratic majority" is still feasible in light of these results.

Here are some key excerpts where we stress the "Reagan lite" nature of Bush's victory, but the entire article is now available online.

There were certainly reasons to despair after the 2004 election -- chiefly, the awful thought that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress could find the means to exceed the egregious irresponsibility, the xenophobia, the sheer partisan pettiness, and the callous disregard for life and law of Bush’s first term. But the election itself, and Bush’s margin of victory over Democrat John Kerry, were not reasons to despair. Bush won re-election by a smaller margin than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower -- and against a deeply flawed Democratic opponent.

And there was little sign of a party realignment. In the great realigning elections of 1932 and ’36, and ’80 and ’84, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, respectively, created majorities by winning over new blocs of voters from their opponents. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Bush and the Republicans had to patch together what remained of Reagan’s older coalition -- without those states and voters that had earlier begun moving toward the Democrats. Bush’s victory in 2004 didn’t represent the onset of a new majority but the survival of an older one.

The Democrats surely showed weaknesses in the election, particularly in the Deep South and among white working-class voters, but they also displayed continuing strength among constituencies that will command a growing share of the electorate in years to come. These include minorities, single men and women, and college-educated voters. The Democrats also demonstrated surprising strength among younger voters -- partly, to be sure, because of the Iraq War, but also because these voters are in tune with the cosmopolitan sensibility that the Democrats represent. And in this election, the Democrats benefited from a new Internet-based popular movement that could do for this era’s Democratic Party what the labor movement did for the old party and what the religious right has done for the Reagan Republicans.

In 1980, Reagan won a new majority that combined long-standing Republican support among upscale voters, farmers, and businesspeople with new levels of support from white working-class Democrats in the South and the North. He fused a traditional Republican attack on high taxes with militant anti-communism, opposition to racial preference, and support for a cultural conservatism rooted in church and family. With this appeal, Reagan not only carried the South and the Plains but, drawing on the suburban vote, states like California, Illinois, and New Jersey. In the ’90s, Republicans maintained their support in the South and the Plains, but the Democrats under Clinton won over a new generation of upscale suburbanites and city dwellers who lived in postindustrial metropolitan areas. By winning back a modest share of the white working class and maintaining Democratic support among minorities, Clinton obtained a plurality of votes in ’92 and ’96. He also turned California, Illinois, and New Jersey into Democratic enclaves.

.....Bush failed to capture any of the northeastern or Pacific Coast states that Reagan had won easily in 1980 and ’84, and he failed to make dramatic gains nationally among the voting groups that had moved into the Democratic Party in the 1990s. Rather, the key to Bush’s victory was reviving Reagan’s support among the white working class. According to the post-election survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps/Institute for America’s Future, Bush enjoyed a whopping 24-percent edge among non–college-educated whites, compared with a 19-percent advantage in 2000. (Clinton had actually carried this group by a point in each of his election victories.) Insofar as whites still make up 77 percent of the electorate and non–college-educated whites represent a majority of the white vote, that increase alone accounts for most -- perhaps 70 percent -- of Bush’s improved performance in 2004.

....In the wake of the election, some commentators argued that Bush had dramatically altered the electoral map of the last two decades, but as the corrected exit polls and other post-election surveys have appeared, it has become clear that Bush’s successes were primarily tactical.

....Much was also made of Bush’s support in exurban and rural areas. The president did increase his support in these areas, but that is part of a trend that began in 1980. It did not decide the 2004 election. Only 13 percent of Bush’s gain in overall vote could be attributed to his increased support in the fringe or exurban counties of large metropolitan areas. And this support is unlikely to prove decisive in the future. Despite the fact that exurban areas have been growing fairly rapidly, they start from such a small base that their share of all voters has increased only modestly over the last 20 years, from 3 percent to 5 percent. Together with rural counties, which have been declining in population, these areas have stalled at 25 percent of the vote between 1984 and 2004. Exurbia and rural America don’t make for much of a political growth stock. They help make Republicans competitive, but they don’t give them a new and enduring majority.

....Barring [successful Republican exploitation of a new terrorist attack], the Republicans’ “Reagan-lite” coalition does not appear to have broad enough support to dominate American politics for the rest of the decade. That should open the door to the Democrats and their new coalition -- especially if they can find a way to both mobilize their new center-left and nominate candidates with some comfort level among white working-class voters. The results of the 2004 election suggest that’s the right formula. If Democrats want to win and bring their majority into being by the end of the decade, they should adopt it.

It is interesting to note that John Kenneth White of Catholic Univeristy makes many of the same points that Judis and I do in his very interesting paper on the election, "The Reagan Coalition Meets the Twenty-First Centure" (The paper was written for Zogby and is available on the subscription part of his website; if you can possibly arrange to access this document, I urge you to do so.)

Here are some relevant excerpts from the White paper:

Despite George W. Bush’s win, the Reagan coalition is not nearly as potent as it once was. Contrast George W. Bush’s vote in 2004 with the support his father received sixteen years earlier. While the figures are similar, the power of the Reagan coalition translated Bush Sr.’s 53 percent of the popular vote into 426 electoral votes thanks to victories in 40 states. This year, Bush’s 51 percent garnered him just 286 electoral votes and 30 states. Bush’s puny electoral vote margin ranks among the smallest in history– close to his 271 votes in 2000, Woodrow Wilson’s 277 votes in 1916, and Jimmy Carter’s 297 votes in 1976. Unlike the comprehensive Reagan and George H. W. Bush victories, the 2004 contest came down to a single state: Ohio. If Ohio’s twenty electoral votes had switched from Bush to Kerry, then the Democrat would have become President-elect, and Republicans would be singing the post-election blues.

A principal reason the Reagan coalition is losing its clout is that the United States is experiencing profound demographic and societal transformations–changes that will only accelerate in the years ahead.

....Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political guru, maintains that Bush’s
tenure is reminiscent of William McKinley’s. McKinley, it should be recalled, sparked a Republican revival that broke a twenty year two-party deadlock that often resulted in minority presidents and disputed presidential outcomes (e.g., 1876, 1884, 1888, and 1892).

....In reality, George W. Bush has not lived up to his McKinley-like potential. McKinley “natural harmonizing” skills created a broad coalition of Northern labor and industrial capital. But Bush’s has hardly been “a uniter” and his partisan base (both ideologically and in sheer geographic size) has shrunk. While the red states loom large following Bush’s victory, it is worth remembering that in four straight presidential elections Republicans have ceded the entire West coast (including Reagan’s native California) to the Democrats. Recall that Reagan won every state in the Far West twice. During the same period (1992-2004), Republicans lost every Northeastern state, except New Hampshire in 2000, which went to Bush only because third-party candidate Ralph Nader was a spoiler. Reagan, on the other hand, carried every Northeastern state twice, save Rhode Island.

Far from creating a renewed Reagan-like majority based on the transformational demography and economy of the 21st century, it seems clear that the base of the Reagan/Bush coalition has shrunk to the South and the interior heartland.


Ruy: is there any way you could share your election data with the public? Would you be willing to post a spreadsheet with presidential vote by subgroup, including some of your key subgroups like white working class, upscale suburban, etc.? Your book with Judis, unfortunately often fails to cite specific numbers. It would be very helpful for the rest of us if we could see the numbers.

Nice analysis. The problem is white working-class and non-college educated MEN and the wives who are inclined to vote with their husbands and in some proportion, that's vice versa). An underrated phenomenon in this electorate is machismo--Anglo machismo. Who is more of a "real man?" With whom can I identify? Which often means who will pander to me the most, who will tell me that we are undoubtedly the greatest nation on Earth, a nation (a man) that no one can afford to mess with. And a subtext of enough of this faggoty, affirmative action, hip-hop minority coalition stuff. Bush and candidates like him appeal to traditional values that include, on an acceptably subtle level, white pride, traditional sex roles, conventional Christianity, and anti-intellectualism. Consider the appeal to NASCAR dads or the country music world--this resonates completely with the appeals I have listed above.

The dilemma of the Democrats is that it is very difficult to reach this popujlation without abandoning central principles and constitutencies that have earned the real and symbolkic support of the Party. It is impossible to reach it on cultural keys because the Republivcans are really more in line with those cultural values and trying to outdo the Republicans on this level is a disastrous Republican-lite and transparently phony presecription for failure. The only way to chip off a
significant segment of this population is on economic issues, specifically jobs and healthcare.
The Kerry campaign was a disaster on these issues, in large part because Kerry has no real core of beliefs and can't maintain focus. As a constitutent of his for twenty years I have been amazed at his lack of accomp[lishments and follow-through. A process that resulted in identifying him as the best caniddate is a broken process--but that's a different topic. A focused campaign must explain, in basic ways, OVER AND OVER again what a Democratic administration will do to reduce outsourcing of jobs, create incentives for job creation and re-training, support public higher education, and make health care more affordable and better--with specific personal stories/examples. Democrats will not win on the basis of personal biography, "ready to serve" bullshit and attempts to seem more like a regular guy.

I agree with the notion that the Democrats have been building a Center-Left coalition that can work. Perhaps this election was more about fear than it was about morals? My only question is whether or not the Democrats can find their voice and chip away at the security/fear issue Bush exploits so masterfully. I think Peter Beinart had it right when he wrote in The New Republic that the liberal core of the party needs to declare its position on terrorism much as it did with Communism in 1947. I think that if we can make our position clear on defending the country, the Center-Left coalition will win for us.

I was so excited when I first read the EMD theory after it first came out. How hopeful because it seemed so substantial. Now, however, I am growing more and more doubtful. Your explanation after the 2002 elections seemed to have the aura of 'let's plug the leaks', but your post-2004 explanation definitely seems to be that. After reading your recent article I came across one on Breakthrough.com that spoke almost exactly what I was feeling:

"One of the most thoughtful recent analyses contends that progressives may appear to be losing but are in fact ascendant -- at least politically. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira used polling data to argue in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, that "progressive centrists" will become dominant by 2010 because of demographic and economic changes. In an afterward for the book's 2004 paperback edition, the authors ascribe the 2002 Republican victories to Bush's popularity and his manipulation of terrorism fears.
"What Judis and Teixeira don't address is how Bush's 2002 victories fit within a larger pattern of how Republicans and Democrats use language, frame debates, and do politics differently. In fact, Judis and Teixeira spend almost no time on how politics – from presidential campaigns to strategic initiatives like "partial-birth abortion," "tax relief" and "school choice" – is done. Instead they assume that the categories of class, race, age, income, and geography neatly correspond with party support. As a result, they fall into a demographic determinism that can't explain why most progressive "issue advocates" -- including well-financed and popular environmental and abortion rights organizations -- are losing so many battles at the local, national and international levels."


My mind is not closed to your interpretation. I am searching along with so many to find/develop models for a New Democratic Party. Yours is still on my list, but is definitely on a backburner at this point.