Here’s Why Obama Is Worried About Democrats Losing the Midterms: The White Vote

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 21 2014 2:05 PM

Here’s Why Obama Is Worried About Democrats Losing the Midterms: The White Vote

479731773-president-barack-obama-speaks-on-the-south-lawn-of-the
Watch out below.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Earlier this week, in one of the "watch out below" speeches an increasingly embattled President Obama has to give, he warned his party that Democrats always get "clobbered" in midterms. Kate Zezima begs to differ.

[T]he President seems to forget the drubbings that Democrats have given Republicans in mid-terms past over the last 30 years.
Democrats trounced Republicans in 2006, picking up 31 House and six Senate seats, enough for a majority in each chamber. In 1998 the party vastly outperformed expectations, picking up five seats in the House and leaving Republicans unable to increase a 10-vote margin in the Senate. Democrats really won big in 1982, claiming 27 House seats, and even bigger in 1986, when they took control of the Senate.
Advertisement

I think this misses the point. Obama, very subtly, was confirming the new, scary conventional wisdom among Democrats that they can no longer win unless they bring out younger and nonwhite voters who traditionally skip midterms and off-years. It didn't used to be this way—Democrats were monumentally stronger in the South in 1998, holding most state legislatures and plenty of majority House seats. But in the Obama era, the Democrats have had to win without the white vote. Here:

In 2006 the electorate was 79 percent white. Didn't hurt the party; boosted by the Iraq War backlash, Democrats won 47 percent of the white vote, up from 41 percent in 2004.

Then came 2008, the best Democratic election in a generation. Barack Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote in an electorate that was 74 percent white.

In 2010 the electorate vanilla'd up again—77 percent white this time—and the white vote for Democrats collapsed. They won only 37 percent of it, and only 34 percent of white men.

Now, here's the part that worries Obama. In 2012 the president won re-election despite his share of the white vote tumbling to 39 percent. How'd he do it? Whites made up only 72 percent of the electorate. Michael Dukakis had won exactly as much of the white vote as Obama, and look how he turned out. Twenty-four years of growing racial diversity and a black candidate at the head of the ticket worked wonders.

In 2014 the Democrats fret that the electorate will slip back to 2010 levels of diversity. They prevented a similar tumble in Virginia last year, but Virginia's now a stronger Democratic state than the ones where most competitive Senate races are taking place—Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina. (Democrats already expect to lose South Dakota and West Virginia, both states that have fallen out of the competitive range in presidential elections.)

Take Louisiana, a state that had not elected any Republican to the U.S. Senate until 2004. In 2008, with Obama on the ticket, the electorate was only 65 percent white and Mary Landrieu survived despite taking 33 of that vote. In 2010 the electorate was 71 percent white. Democrat Charlie Melancon won only 22 percent of the white vote.

You can guess what happened to Melancon. If the same electorate showed up in 2014, Landrieu would lose handily. Obama was dog-whistling past the graveyard. 

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.