the national interest

Is the Emerging Democratic Majority Already Dead?

U.S. President Barack Obama lifts a baby handed to him from a supporter during a campaign rally at Elm Street Middle School October 27, 2012 in Nashua, New Hampshire. With ten days before the presidential election, Obama and his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are criss-crossing the country from one swing state to the next in an attempt to sway voters.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s election and reelection vindicated the argument “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” first put forward a dozen years ago by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis. Echoing Kevin Phillips, whose 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority predicted the majority coalition that would win every presidential election but one until 1992, Teixeira and Judis described the outlines of a majority taking shape. The strongest Republican constituency, whites who lack a college degree, has been contracting as a percentage of the electorate, while the strongest Democratic constituencies have been expanding.

Judis has now recanted his own analysis. In an election postmortem, Judis now argues, “the idea of an enduring Democratic majority was a mirage.” His essay, headlined “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” now swings in the opposite direction. To say that conservatives have welcomed Judis’s apostasy would be an understatement. A sampling of the giddy responses on the right include Karl Rove, Fred Barnes, Megan McArdle, Conn Carroll, Henry Olsen, Sean Trende, David Frum, Noah Rothman, Walter Russell Mead, and Michael Barone. The outpouring of conservative celebration takes as a given that Judis’s concession proves the emerging democratic majority is dead, or was never alive. But the evidentiary basis for the original thesis is as strong as ever.

Prescient as it was, the original emerging democratic majority thesis overstated the scope of the Democratic coalition. Teixeira and Judis correctly described the Democrats’ strength with their most favorable constituencies, but they incorrectly assumed the party would maintain its standing with its weakest. The book fails to project the defection of areas along Appalachia, like West Virginia and Arkansas, along with similar areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, to the Republican Party. The national dominance Teixeira and Judis forecast therefore never quite happened. Instead, rather, Democrats have gained strength in some areas and lost strength in others. The trade-off has worked generally in their favor; every election cycle replaces older, whiter, Republican-leaning voters with younger, more racially diverse, Democratic-leaning ones.

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Teixeira and Judis also failed to anticipate the problems this new coalition would present to the Democrats in Congress. The party’s new base is heavily concentrated in urban areas, whose voting strength underrepresented in both the House and the Senate. Additionally, they are far more likely than core Republican voters to stay home during midterm elections. This has allowed the Republican Party to gain a near lock on holding the House, and a strong geographic advantage in holding the Senate. The Emerging Democratic Majority thus comes with the very important caveat that it applies only to one branch of government. (Likewise, Phillip’s Emerging Republican Majority coincided with a period of continuous Democratic control of the House.)

But the core insight of the emerging democratic majority thesis has held up remarkably well. And Judis does not actually refute it in any convincing way. He does not mention continuing Democratic strength among the fast-growing bloc of Latino voters. He does cite exit polling that showed Republicans splitting the Asian-American vote in 2014, a shocking finding that is almost certainly wrong. He does cite a Harvard poll of young voters, which appears to show weakening support for Democrats. But that poll has yielded unusual findings in comparison with other surveys. (The Harvard poll predicted a majority of young voters would vote for Republican House candidates in 2014; in reality, they voted Democratic at the same rate as in 2010.

Judis focuses on white middle-class voters, whom he sees as moving steadily toward the GOP. But the trend he cites begins with (depending on which example he uses) either 2006 or 2008, which were Democratic wave elections, a high point from which at least some regression both would be expected and would still allow a margin of error, given the massive Democratic sweep in both elections. Judis does not mention that Republicans need to ratchet up their share of the white vote continuously, or else dramatically improve their standing among nonwhites, merely to remain competitive.

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

What’s more, as his former co-author Ruy Teixeira points out to me, via email, Judis’s description of the white middle class proves much less than it might appear:

I am not convinced by his data analysis. He defines middle class as four year degree only and between 50-100k in income. And really it’s about whites in that group. An interesting demographic to be sure. But white four year degree only 50-100k income voters are at best 9 percent of voters. He has almost no data that are directly about this group but instead proxies it with much larger groups like for example 50-100k overall. But these are not good proxies at all. If we look for example at whites 50-100k, slightly more than half of this group are white working class (that is non college educated); white four year degree only are less than a third of this group.

The explosive power of Judis’s revelation lies less in a new analysis he has reached about the middle class, and more in the simple fact that the emerging democratic majority thesis is being repudiated by one of its co-authors. “If even John Judis has given up on the Emerging Democratic Majority, everyone else should give up, too,” writes McArdle, “It’s over.

Taking seriously the conclusions of an analyst as formidable as John Judis is generally a good idea. But Judis’s renunciation of his thesis is not new. He interpreted the 2008 election as a vindication of the emerging democratic majority prediction. (Obama’s “election is the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election, he wrote.”) After 2010 the Republican midterm sweep, he retreated. (“Republicans can certainly make the case that this election cuts short the kind of Democratic majority that Ruy Teixeira and I foresaw in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. But they would not be justified in suggesting that it revives the older Republican majority.”) The 2012 election temporarily restored Judis’s faith in the emerging democratic majority thesis. (“Barack Obama’s reelection is evidence of a Democratic realignment that dates back almost two decades.”)

The midterm election has revivified his earlier doubts. And it is always possible he is correct, because predictions are hard, especially about the future. Still, the long-term demographic patterns that Teixeira and Judis (mostly) predicted have continued to work as they foresaw. As recently as 2012, critics like Trende maintained that the Latino vote was flattening out. In fact, contrary to their predictions, the Latino vote continued its historic pattern and again rose in 2012. Indeed, the growing share of nonwhite voters in the electorate is what allowed Obama to win reelection with relative comfort in a tough economy despite registering Dukakis-level support among white voters. It may be a long, long time until the Democrats’ national majority is wide enough to overcome the GOP’s structural advantages in Congress. But at the presidential level, the Democratic majority has already emerged.

Is the Emerging Democratic Majority Dead?