Why the Republicans should be very afraid

Iraq and the "war on terror" may prevent the Democrats from seizing control of Congress, but long-term trends are all working against the GOP.

Published October 31, 2002 6:14PM (EST)

It's now clear that the GOP peaked too soon. After a period from late August through early October when the Iraq debate was dominating headlines and preventing Democrats from gaining traction on domestic issues, momentum has now switched back to the Democrats. They appear to be in a good position to hold and possibly increase their margin in the Senate, and perhaps even take back the House, though Iraq and al-Qaida will probably protect the Republicans from losing Congress entirely. But the Democrats also stand to make substantial gains in the nation's governorships -- a little-noticed development that provides strong evidence of an unfolding political realignment.

Recent surveys illustrate how the terrain has shifted in the Democrats' favor. The Gallup poll, for example, finds a sharp increase in negative feelings about the economy and a widening lead for the Democrats in dealing with economic conditions. And almost all polls have the economy as the No. 1 voting issue in this election.

It doesn't stop there. The Democrats also have healthy leads on dealing with prescription drugs, healthcare, Social Security, education and the environment. Moreover, voters who say one of these issues is a key voting issue all tend to favor the Democrats for Congress. Voters who select the situation with Iraq as one of their top voting issues also favor the Democrats for Congress by a wide margin -- defying the conventional belief that voters with strong feelings about Iraq tend to be hawks.

Of course, the outcome of the elections will be partly shaped by more general concerns about national security, which should help Republicans limit their losses. A projected low turnout, which favors Republicans, also could help the GOP. But the Democrats are still likely to make some important gains.

What ought to trouble Republican strategists is that these gains reflect a continuing sea change in the American electorate, one that points toward the emergence of a new Democratic majority. That majority is based in America's most dynamic metropolitan areas and rooted in growing pro-Democratic constituencies such as professionals, women and minorities. The Democrats' basic stance of support for necessary government spending and environmental protection, along with respect for diversity and women's rights, is congenial to all these voters.

The fact is that the core Republican constituencies -- white men, rural voters, small businessmen -- are being slowly but surely overtaken by a Democratic coalition of women, minorities, service workers and a new class of college-educated professionals, one more concerned with social justice and less likely to reflexively vote by tax bracket than the old doctor-lawyer-executive elite. In the post-industrial age, demography favors Democrats: The numbers of "Reagan Democrats" -- blue-collar workers who helped boost the GOP in key mid-Atlantic industrial states -- are shrinking, while the new professional class and the service class, which both skew Democratic, are growing. Iraq and the war on terrorism can impede the Dems' eventual triumph, but they can't stop it.

This emerging majority can be seen most clearly in some of the governors' races. In these, hopes and fears about national security and terrorism count much less than concerns about the economy and education. That should particularly favor Democrats, and there are good signs from the polls that it does.

Heading into the election, Republicans enjoy a 27 to 21 edge among governorships, with two Independents. Based on current polling data, Democrats are likely to gain six statehouses from the Republicans and it could easily be more. That means that after the election, Democrats should actually control the majority of governorships. Their biggest pickups should be in Midwestern and mid-Atlantic battleground states that have been governed recently by Republicans, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat and former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, building on his dominance of Philadelphia and its fast-growing suburbs, is cruising to victory over Republican Mike Fisher. The socially moderate Rendell has also successfully reached out to the rest of the state with a message of economic revitalization and public school improvement. The combination has made him essentially unbeatable.

In Michigan, Democrat Jennifer Granholm is dominating her race against Republican Dick Posthumus. Granholm is just the kind of candidate who can appeal to women and professionals in upscale Detroit suburbs like Oakland County, even as she consolidates the Michigan Democrats' traditional base among union households and blacks.

The Illinois race matches Republican Jim Ryan, a protégé of Gov. George Ryan, who decided not to seek a second term amid reports of corruption, against Democrat Rod Blagojevich. The association with ethical problems has obviously been one reason candidate Ryan has been consistently trailing Blagojevich. But another reason is that Illinois is such a strong Democratic state now that it is really just snapping back to its natural political configuration. Chicago and suburban Cook County cast about 40 percent of Illinois' vote, and are so heavily Democratic that a Republican has to carry about two-thirds of the vote in the rest of the state just to be competitive. That's a tall order and Jim Ryan isn't the candidate to fill it.

In Wisconsin, the race between Democrat Jim Doyle and Republican Gov. Scott McCallum is tighter, but Doyle has been consistently ahead in the polls. He has been able to take advantage of Democrats' strength in Milwaukee and fast-growing Dane County, home of the University of Wisconsin. A Democratic candidate who runs strong in these areas is hard to beat, provided he can reach out to the rest of the state, as Doyle has done with a message of fiscal responsibility and support for public education.

But signs of this new majority aren't limited to the Democratic "blue" states of the 2000 election. Democrat Janet Napolitano is also favored to defeat Republican Matt Salmon in Barry Goldwater's Arizona, which has slowly been turning Democratic under the impact of Hispanic, women and professional voters. In another intriguing indicator of change, Grant Woods, the co-chair of Salmon's election campaign, is reported to be considering a party switch to the Democrats after the election. The reason? Woods has become increasingly upset by the Republicans' lack of outreach to Hispanics and the conservative wing's domination of the GOP's agenda.

Or take Florida, where Democrat Bill McBride is locked in a tight contest with the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. McBride may not win, but if he does it will be because of the non-Cuban Hispanics and professionals who have flocked into South and much of Central Florida and helped deliver the state to Clinton in 1996 and (almost) to Al Gore in 2000.

Several of the hotly contested Senate races are also suggestive of this emerging majority. In Colorado, for example, the high-tech Denver-Boulder area has increasingly gone Democratic and could enable Democrat Tom Strickland to upset Republican incumbent Wayne Allard.

In New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has an excellent chance of beating conservative Republican John Sununu. A key reason is the development of the Nashua-Portsmouth high-tech corridor, whose voters, like professionals elsewhere, are beginning to prefer moderate Democrats.

North Carolina's race is tightening as Democrat Erskine Bowles tries to upset heavily favored Republican Elizabeth Dole. He's trying to build on pro-Democratic trends in North Carolina's most dynamic areas, the Research Triangle area around Raleigh and the Charlotte area in Mecklenberg County, which helped to elected North Carolina's other senator, Democrat (and presidential hopeful) John Edwards. If he can generate enough support in these areas, he will win the election.

And if Ron Kirk beats John Cornyn in Texas, or even comes close, it will show that the burgeoning minority -- particularly Hispanic -- population is shifting the state Democratic. In the 1990s, Texas' Hispanic population grew from 26 to 32 percent and is projected to continue to rise rapidly in the future. Combined with the 12 percent of Texas' population that is black, it gives the Democrats a formidable and growing base in the president's home state.

These contests show that, as America is changing -- becoming a more diverse, post-industrial society - so are its politics. And those politics favor Democrats, not Republicans. Clear signs of this change started appearing in the early 1990s, as the Republicans began to suffer divisions within their ranks and the Democrats began to win elections. The Democrats' new support has partly come from the return of some white working-class voters in the North who had deserted the party in the Reagan years; but it has chiefly come from the constituencies that loom so large in the races discussed above: professionals, women and minorities.

Professionals: Professionals are college-educated white-collar workers who produce ideas and services. They worry about the quality of their products and services, rather than simply whether it produces a profit, and tend to be socially liberal. They include doctors and nurses, software programmers, actors, teachers, engineers and fashion designers. In the 1950s, professionals made up about 7 percent of the working population, and were the most Republican of all the occupational groups. But as the American economy has changed -- as the production of ideas or services has displaced the production of things -- professionals have more than doubled to about 16 percent of the workforce. They are even more heavily represented among voters, comprising about a fifth of the national electorate and even more than that in some Northeastern and far Western states. And a majority of them have become Democrats. In the last four presidential elections, they backed Democrats over Republicans by an average of 52 to 40 percent.

Women: Women used to vote more Republican than men. But in 1964, a pro-Democratic gender gap first appeared; in 1980, it widened, and in subsequent elections, women not only voted more Democratic than men, but they began to vote Democratic in absolute terms. What made the difference was the entrance of women into the workforce and the Republican identification with the religious right's view of women and the family. Democrats are particularly strong among working, single and highly educated women, all of whom are growing proportions of women voters.

Minorities: Blacks did not always support Democrats. As late as 1960, a Republican presidential candidate could get a third of the black vote. But after the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, blacks abandoned the Republicans, and now support Democrats by 9-1 margins. Hispanics -- except for Cubans -- Japanese-Americans and Filipinos had been Democrats since the New Deal and have remained so. But in the '90s, Chinese-Americans, turned off by Republican opposition to immigration, also began voting Democratic. In 1972, the combined minority vote made up about 10 percent of the electorate. But in 2000, minorities made up almost a fifth of the vote and voted 75 percent Democratic overall. And by 2010, they could make up as much as a quarter of the electorate.

The support of professionals, women and minorities has transformed the Democratic electorate. The older New Deal Democrats used to be the party of Southern whites, urban ethnics and Midwestern blue-collar workers. Now the Democrats are the party of teachers, nurses and janitors.

But the change in the Democrats doesn't end with its constituents. The New Deal Democrats used to be based primarily in the deep South and in the urban North; the new Democratic Party's greatest strength is in post-industrial metropolitan areas, or "ideopolises." These new communities were spawned by the transition to post-industrial capitalism. They specialize in the production of ideas and services. Their workforces are dominated by professionals and by lower-level service workers, many of whom are minorities.

Many older industrial cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia have become ideopolises. In 1983, Los Angeles had three times as many aerospace workers as workers in the movie industry. By 2000, the proportions were exactly reversed. Many of these areas, like Silicon Valley in California and Bergen County in New Jersey, used to be solidly Republican, but have become Democratic. They are concentrated in the Northeast, upper Midwest and Far West, but they are also found in North Carolina's Research Triangle, Orlando's entertainment and computer service complex, and in the Denver-Boulder area. In 2000, Gore won these areas of the country by 55 to 41 percent.

In that election, ideopolis counties accounted for 44 percent of the electorate. And they are growing much faster than the non-ideopolis counties in rural areas or in areas centered around towns like Muncie, Ind., or Charleston, W.V. Between 1990 and 2000, ideopolis counties grew by an average of over 22 percent, compared to 10 percent for the average non-ideopolis county. And they start from a larger population base -- an average of 475,000 compared to 54,000 for the average non-ideopolis county. The Republicans may capture West Virginia, but the Democrats will likely have a firm hold not only on California, New York and Illinois, but also on Florida, Colorado and even, perhaps, Texas.

Democratic prospects could change, of course, if the U.S. goes to war -- and if war and international turmoil last a decade, the Democratic majority could be put on hold. In the wake of Democratic divisions over the Vietnam War, voters came to see Republicans as the party of national security. Sept. 11 -- and Bush's initial success in uprooting the Taliban in Afghanistan -- revived that perception and has contributed to Bush and the Republican Party's popularity. Even now, the public's preoccupation with national security will probably limit the Democrats' gains in the 2002 elections. If turmoil were to continue and, especially, escalate, then the issues that favor Democrats would be of less importance, at least for a time.

In 1969, after all, Kevin Phillips predicted an "emerging Republican majority." But Phillips couldn't foresee that Watergate would delay the emergence of a Republican majority by six years. The same thing could happen in the coming decade. But, eventually, the party that best reflects the new post-industrial society of the 21st century should prevail. And at this point, that party is the Democrats.

By John B. Judis

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By Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. His is the coauthor, with John Judis, of "The Emerging Democratic Majority," just reissued in paperback with a new afterword on the 2002 election.

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