Poll Shows Democratic Gains With Key Voters
By Thomas B. Edsall and Claudia Deane
Democratic candidates performed much better than expected yesterday by building a strong coalition of organized labor, black and Hispanic voters, and by making strong inroads among white men and the middle class, exit poll data show.
Republicans did not win the broad mandate they were seeking, but the GOP nonetheless stopped the hemorrhaging among one key constituency: white women, who had been leaving the party in droves.
Overall, it appeared that the Republican's multimillion-dollar drive to turn the election into a referendum on President Clinton ran head-on into an electorate less interested in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal than in maintaining the status quo of a healthy economy. As a result, Democrats picked up support from those whose fortunes are improving, including not just the middle class, but also the country's most affluent.
Democrats also appeared to have proven more successful than the GOP in mobilizing key constituencies during the final days leading up to yesterday's election, gauging by interviews conducted for The Washington Post with voters around the country. The Christian right, organized labor and African American leaders, among others, all had deployed vast armies of volunteers to staff phone banks and send out fliers in an aggressive, frenetic effort to push people to the polls.
That endeavor appeared to have succeeded most with the labor vote: In 1994, voters from union households made up just 14 percent of all voters; this year, that group made up 22 percent of the electorate.
Black voters also turned out more heavily this election, moving from 9 percent to 11 percent of the electorate, polling data suggested. In a few states, including Maryland and Illinois, their numbers were particularly strong. While still a smaller fraction of the electorate, the Hispanic vote jumped substantially, from 3 percent in 1994 to 5 percent this year.
At the same time, white Christian conservative voters the one group Republicans said would stage an overwhelming turnout to express condemnation of the president declined from 15 percent of the electorate to 13 percent, polling data showed. These voters have been a mainstay of the Republican Party since 1980, and represent the GOP's most potent counterpoint to the Democrats' strong labor and African American support.
Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council and a prospective GOP presidential contender in 2000, said the low turnout among Christian conservatives is likely the result of Republican candidates who did not push an agenda of major tax cuts and other issues important to this constituency.
Christian right voters "cannot be mobilized if there is not a clear difference" between the candidates of the two parties, said Bauer.
By contrast, Democrats won back a key religious constituency: Catholic voters. Although the Democrats have traditionally fared well with this group, they lost support among Catholics in 1994, when these voters went with Republicans by a 52-46 percent split. This year, Democratic congressional candidates decisively carried the Catholic vote, by 53 percent to 44 percent. Democrats continued to do well with those voters who profess no strong religious views they favored Democrats by 65 percent to 33 percent, a stronger edge than in 1994.
Democrats also owed some of their success at fending off large-scale midterm losses to increased support among independents. In 1994, voters who identified themselves with neither party were key to the Republicans' triumphs when these independents broke decisively for the GOP. This year, the Democrats ran even with Republicans in drawing these voters.
Perhaps the most important development in shaping yesterday's results was the Democrats' gains in wooing the middle class, exit polls suggest. In 1994, Republicans drew solid support from Americans making between $30,000 and $50,000. This year, Democrats pulled ahead of Republicans, claiming a majority of that crucial constituency.
In addition, Democrats made gains in a traditional Republican constituency those making more than $100,000 a year. During the booming economy of recent years, these voters have come to represent a growing share of the electorate, climbing from 7 percent of voters in 1994 to 12 percent today, and they are increasingly pulling the lever for Democrats. In 1994, these upscale voters supported GOP congressional candidates by a 63 percent to 36 percent split; in 1998, the Republican margin fell to 52 percent to 46 percent.
These Democratic trends among middle and upper income voters are blurring the lines between the two parties demographically, if not ideologically. Republicans used to have a lock on the most affluent and best-educated voters. Now, these voters are more evenly divided between the two parties, exit polls show.
While the Democrats gained substantially among white men, and the GOP among white women, the overall result produced a net pickup for the Democrats. These trends may parallel developments in 1992, when allegations that Bill Clinton had an affair with Gennifer Flowers resulted in a sharp decline among women voting Democratic and boosted support among men, according to Clinton pollsters at the time. A similar pattern with men and women may have emerged this year in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal with white women no longer leaving the GOP and white men moving toward the Democratic Party.
These two trends resulted in a narrowing of the "gender gap" In 1994, men voted Republican by a 57 percent to 41 percent split, a margin of 16 points, while women voted Democratic by 52 percent to 47 percent, or 5 points in the opposite direction, for a total gender gap of 21 points. This year, the total gender gap is just 12 points, with men voting Republican 51 percent to 47 percent, and women voting Democratic by 53 percent to 45 percent.
Education and the importance of morals and ethics ranked as the top issues by voters. Those who listed education as the most important issue favored Democratic candidates by better than 2 to 1, while those who ranked morals and ethics as their top issue cast Republican ballots by nearly 5 to 1.
The strong economy clearly worked to the advantage of Democratic candidates: Those voters who said the economy and the job market were top considerations in casting their ballots voted Democratic by nearly 2 to 1.
Those voters whose financial situation has improved voted for Democratic congressional candidates by a 60 percent to 38 percent split, while those who saw their finances worsen voted Republican, 55 percent to 42 percent.
The nationwide exit poll is based on interviews with randomly selected voters exiting polling places around the country on Election Day. The poll was conducted for The Post by Voter News Service.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company