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The Democrats' Challenge to Winning Back the House, Pt. 1: Manufacturing, Race, and Education

This item is by TDS contributor Lee Drutman, senior fellow and managing editor at the Progressive Policy Institute. It is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.

As Democrats shift from licking their wounds to figuring out how to win back the House in 2012, the obvious question is: what will it take? Or at least, what will it take besides the obvious triumvirate of a solidly recovering economy, a healthy dose of Republican overreach, and a bit of luck?

Over the next several weeks, I'm going to be taking a closer look at the 66 seats (net 63) that Democrats lost, asking some questions about the character of these lost districts with the goal of putting a finer point on what Democrats need to pay attention to in order to get those seats back. In this post, I'm going to focus on the role of manufacturing, race, and education.

But first a quick look at the map: Democrats lost seats all over the country: 23 in the South, 20 in the Midwest, 15 in the Northeast, and eight in the West.

The bulk of post-election commentary has blamed the losses on the fact that the incumbent party almost always loses seats in a mid-term election and the fact that Democrats were being blamed for a bad economy.

But yet California, where unemployment is 12.4 percent, did not yield a single Republican pick-up (though California is famous for having very safe districts, so this may not be a fair test.). In Oregon, where unemployment is 10.5 percent, Democrats held the five (out of six) seats they maintain.

Manufacturing

One industry that has been hit particularly hard in the recession is manufacturing. Of course, the decline in manufacturing has been going on for a long time. In 1950, roughly three in ten U.S. employees worked in manufacturing. Today manufacturing jobs account for just 8.9 percent of U.S. nonfarm jobs. In the 2000s, manufacturing lost roughly one-third of its jobs, falling from 17.3 million people to 11.6 million people.

In most cases, these are jobs that are not coming back, leaving communities that depended on them demoralized and angry. How much of a factor was this in the 2010 elections?

Across the 66 Republican pick-up districts, manufacturing accounts for, on average, 11.9 percent of the jobs. That's three full percentage points higher than the national average of 8.9 percent. In roughly three quarters (73 percent) of the districts Democrats lost, manufacturing accounted for more than the national average of 8.9 percent of the jobs.

Not surprisingly, this was most pronounced in the Midwest, where the 21 districts Republicans picked up averaged 14.4 percent of manufacturing jobs as a share of total non-farm employment. But it was also pronounced in the Northeast and the South. In both regions, manufacturing accounted for 11 percent of the jobs in the districts Democrats lost, two points above the national average. Only in the West did the districts the Democrats lost have less manufacturing than the national average, averaging only 6.9 percent of the economy. This was the region in which Democrats lost fewest seats - only nine.

To understand the potential importance of declining manufacturing as a key to the Democrats' losses, consider Pennsylvania's 11th District, which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Democrat Paul Kanjorski had held the seat since 1985, but was ousted by Lou Barletta by a 55-to-45 percent margin. The district gave Obama 57 percent of its vote, and was one of only nine Republican pick-up districts that voted for Kerry. Manufacturing accounts for 16.9 percent of jobs in the district.

Or Wisconsin's 7th District (northwest and Central Wisconsin), where Republicans picked up a seat formerly held by long-time incumbent David Obey, and a district both Obama and Kerry carried as well. Manufacturing accounts for 17 percent of the jobs in the district. Likewise with the 17st District of Illinois (northwest Illinois) - held by a Democrat since 1983, went for both Kerry and Obama, and 14.3 percent of its jobs come from manufacturing.

Education and Race

Democrats also have a problem with non-college educated whites. This has been a long-standing challenge for Democrats. Many of these voters feel frustrated and left behind by economic changes related to the loss of manufacturing jobs and global competition. They don't see Democrats as helping them out. They wonder why they can't seem to get ahead, and they want answers and somebody to blame.

Democrats have not enjoyed parity with Republicans among white voters in 20 years (since Bill Clinton), but 2010 was especially bad, with white voters breaking 62-to-38 for Republicans in the mid-term elections.

This shows up in the districts that Democrats lost. The U.S. population is 65.9 percent white. The average Republic pick-up district was 76.8 percent white. In the Northeast, the average Republican pick-up district was 86.5 percent white, and in the Midwest, the average Republican pick-up district was 81.5 percent white. Overall, 82 percent of the Republican pick-up districts have white populations greater than the national average.

A decent number of these whites are blue-collar workers, we should note that those without bachelors' degrees who have been hit much harder in this recession (unemployment among those with college degrees is only 5.1 percent). In the 2010 elections, Republicans won among both voters with only a high school diploma (54-46 percent) and those with some college (56-41 percent) after Democrats won both categories in 2008.

In the United States, 27.4 percent of adults have at least a bachelor's degree. But the Republican pick-up districts are on average, less well-educated. Only 24.1 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree. The gap was greater in the districts Dems lost in the South, where only 20.8 percent were college-educated, and the Midwest, where only 23 percent were college-educated. Overall, 71 percent of the Republican pick-up districts have fewer adults with bachelors' degrees than the national average

One of the most poorly educated districts is the 18th District of Ohio (Eastern Ohio), where only 12.5 percent of adults are college educated. It had been a solid Democratic seat for 46 years until Republican Bob Ney won it in 1994. Ney resigned in 2006 and shortly thereafter wound up in prison on conspiracy charges. Zachary Space won solidly in 2006 and 2008 with more than 60 percent of the votes, but dropped 20 points this time around. It is also a high manufacturing district (17.4 percent of jobs come from manufacturing), and very white (96.3 percent)

Another poorly educated district is the 1st (and only) District of South Dakota. Just 15.1 percent of South Dakotans have a bachelor's degree. And despite one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country (Just 4.5 percent), they voted out three-term incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who had won easily in the last two elections, garnering 68 and 69 percent of the vote. South Dakota is 88.7 percent white.

Obama's problems among white, non college-educated voters are well-known, but these are both districts that Obama yet still went Democratic for the Congressional seat. That these voters have now lost faith in the ability of a Democrat to represent them in Congress, and in a rather remarkable way (both of these districts, for example, reduced their Democratic vote share by 20 percent in just two years) speaks volumes of the problems Democrats are having with non-college educated voters.

Takeaways

This analysis echoes others that point to the fact that Democrats are struggling among white working-class voters, many of whom had voted Democrat in the past, it adds a new way of parsing the data.

For all Democrats' talk about helping working class folk, they have not done much for those who have lost blue collar jobs other than extend unemployment benefits. This does little to assure those upset by the pervasive sense of decline and who want somebody to blame for their increasing feelings of powerlessness.

As Steven Pearlstein wrote shortly after the election, "For the president and his party, regaining the confidence of the industrial Midwest is now a political imperative. For the U.S. economy, its no less an imperative to find a way to revive the Rust Belt." Democrats have thus far only paid lip service to this with their "Make it in America" initiative, which appears to be mostly an apparently failed attempt at messaging as far as I can tell.

The problem for these districts is that the Democrats can't rely solely on a generally improving economy to bring back manufacturing. These are places where there is a real sense of decline, and where voters are surely feeling incredibly frustrated that Democrats really haven't done much to help them. If Obama and the Democrats want these beleaguered voters to give the Democrats another chance, they're going to need to show them that they are serious about investing in America again.

Certainly, making inroads with the white working class voters is not the only way that Democrats can win back the House. There are other paths to 218. But without making at least a few inroads in key swing districts, the Democrats will have a lot less room for error in any other strategic approach.