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A post-election numbers game

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In an exclusive interview with "60 Minutes," President Obama speaks with Steve Kroft about voter frustration and the losses by Democrats in the midterm elections.

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By Harold Meyerson
Friday, November 5, 2010

Elections always yield a cascade of numbers that nerds such as I rummage among in search of meaning. Here are a few that I think help explain Tuesday's results:

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Zero - The number of newly elected Republican senators in genuinely contested Senate races (excluding, therefore, those like North Dakota's) who carried voters ages 18 to 29. Republicans may have picked up seats in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin, and held them in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, but young voters in those states voted Democratic. Even in Ohio, where Republican Rob Portman beat Democrat Lee Fisher by 18 percentage points, Fisher won the youth vote 49 percent to 45 percent. In the national exit poll on House voting, the Republicans lost the 18-to-29-year-olds by 17 points, and did better the older the voters got. Moral: There was absolutely a Republican wave on Tuesday, but it looks more like the wave of the past than the wave of the future. Then again, as Faulkner reminded us and as the Republicans continually hope, the past isn't necessarily dead.

One - The number of white Democratic House members in the next Congress who will come from the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina). Democrats still send nine members from this long-ago Democratic region to the House, but eight of them are African Americans from districts in which whites don't make up a majority. Democratic strength in the white South began its downward plunge when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, but until Tuesday, there were still seven white Democrats in Congress from the Deep South. Now there's just one, Georgia's John Barrow.

Twenty-four - The gap, in percentage points, between the levels of support for Democrats and Republicans among white voters without college degrees who have union members in their household and white voters without college degrees who don't. In Tuesday's national exit poll on House voting, working-class whites voted overwhelmingly for Republicans - unless they lived with or were themselves union members, in which case they supported Democrats by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent. Working-class voters from nonunion households backed Republican candidates 68 percent to 31 percent - a huge difference. It's not because unionized UPS drivers and nonunion FedEx drivers, say, are two different species of human. It's because the unions' political education and mobilization programs are very effective.

But the other numbers to keep in mind here are those that document the shrinking of unions - from representing 35 percent of the workforce at their post-World War II peak to just 7 percent of private-sector workers today. The deindustrialization and concomitant deunionization of the Midwest are the tectonic shifts underlying the Republicans' strong successes Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and even Upstate New York (not Midwestern, but Rust-Beltish just the same).

Twenty-two - The percentage of California voters Tuesday who were Latino - amazingly, an increase of four points over their share of the California electorate in 2008. It was strong Latino turnout and strong Latino support for the Democrats that led to the Democrats' thunderous sweep in California (winning all statewide offices and adding to their strength in the legislature) and their victories in the Nevada and Colorado Senate races. This poses a long-term strategic conundrum for nativist Republicans: As America grows more Latino, the perils of immigrant-bashing will begin to outweigh its rewards. After Sharron Angle's and Tom Tancredo's campaigns, Republicans, at least in Nevada and Colorado, should understand this.

Fourteen - The percentage-point margin by which Americans who blamed Wall Street for the nation's economic problems favored Republicans over Democrats in the national exit poll of Tuesday's voters. The poll asked voters whether they blamed Wall Street, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Those who blamed one president or the other, not surprisingly, voted overwhelmingly for the opposite party, but those who blamed Wall Street (a plurality of respondents) gave 56 percent of their vote to Republican candidates and 42 percent to the Democrats.

If Democrats want to know why they lost, they should ponder this number and the 9.5 percent unemployment rate. The president's decision to defer financial reform until 18 months after the bank bailouts, and his decisions not to press for a bigger and more visible stimulus or to keep his focus on job creation were fateful mistakes that cost his party dearly.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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