Opinion writer

This week’s electoral rout of Democrats may indicate that the party doesn’t just have an economic problem. It may have a cultural problem, too.

As Ron Brownstein explains in a new analysis of the results, they revealed once again that the coalition that is powering Democratic victories in national elections cannot be relied on to show up in Congressional elections:

Democrats remain dangerously dependent on a boom-and-bust coalition of young people and minorities, whose turnout is much lower in midterms than in presidential elections….Democrats performed almost exactly as well with millennial voters (including whites) and most minorities as they did in 2010…But the share of the vote cast by those under 30 was 6 percentage points less in 2014 than in 2012; the minority share dropped 3 points. On both fronts, the pattern exactly followed the sharp falloff from 2008 to 2010, despite this year’s huge Democratic investment in turnout.

That suggests Democrats cannot compete for Congress without more support from middle-class and older whites….Democrats again have shown they cannot win enough whites to consistently hold Congress.

As I’ve reported, Democratic pollsters believe the inability to win enough working, middle class, and older whites is partly due to the Dem failure to address anxieties rooted in stagnating wages. But today Michael Gerson suggests there’s a cultural component as well:

Democrats need to contend for rural and small-town voters, for older voters, for working-class white voters, for white Catholics, even for suburban evangelicals. This requires not just a populist economic message (which is important) but the recognition of a set of values — a predisposition toward social order, family and faith — that is foreign to most liberal bloggers and Democratic strategists.

As it happens, multiple leading Dem strategists I spoke to this week made similar observations about the party’s cultural perception problem with these voters, particularly southern whites, arguing they see the national Democratic Party as having a “liberal brand.” This is rooted in the party’s focus on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, and a sense that the party views the role of government as fostering “equality” and even the transfer of wealth to “takers.” As one strategist who worked on multiple races put it, a key obstacle is these voters’ gut sense that “Democrats don’t represent hard-working folks who have good fundamental values.”

It’s hard to know how widespread or consequential such views are, but these strategists did identify it as a problem with the voters Democrats need to improve among if they are to win Congressional majorities anytime soon. As Ron Brownstein has also noted, the alienation of these voters is the natural outgrowth of Obama’s efforts to reshape the national Dem coalition — millennials, minorities and college educated whites, particularly women — around cultural priorities such as gay rights, women’s health issues, climate change, and immigration reform.

It’s possible Democrats can continue to win presidential elections without improving among culturally conservative whites, as Obama did twice, particularly if national demographics continue trending the Democrats’ way. But a big question for 2016 is whether the next Democratic nominee will be able to get out the Obama coalition in the same numbers Obama did. (Hillary Clinton’s advisers are already eying a Hillary coalition comprised of Obama voters and working class white women.) Meanwhile, if Democrats’ travails among those voters prevent them from regaining Congress, that will continue to frustrate any hopes of progress on the national Democratic agenda.


UPDATE: To clarify, the point these consultants were making, as I understand it, isn’t that the Democratic Party should “move right” on the cultural priorities of its new national coalition. It’s that economic and cultural perceptions of the party among non-college and older white voters are intertwined — hence perceptions of the party as “not on their side” — and that Democrats need to sharpen their economic values pitch and develop a more comprehensive economic agenda to deal with the problem.


 * A DECENT JOBS REPORT: The new jobs report finds a gain of 214,000 jobs in October, and the unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent. Danny Vinik provides the key context:

August and September’s job numbers were revised up to 23,000 and 8,000 respectively. That’s good news. But job growth is only part of the story. Wage growth also matters and on that front, workers continue to come up short. Wages grew just 0.1 percent last month and have risen just 2 percent over the past year. That’s barely keeping up with inflation. If you’re wondering why so many Americans listed the economy as the most important issue facing the country in Tuesday’s elections, you don’t have to look much further than that. Median household income is still below its 2008 levels.


* HILLARY GEARS UP TO RUN AGAINST GOP CONGRESS: The New York Times reports that advisers to Hillary Clinton believe the election results offer the outlines of a strategy for her presidential run:

A Republican-led Senate creates a handy foil for her to run against: Rather than the delicate task of trying to draw a stark contrast with an unpopular president in whose administration she served, her loyalists say, Mrs. Clinton can instead present herself as a pragmatic alternative to what they predict will be an obstructionist Republican Congress….Mrs. Clinton’s supporters describe what they envision as a “New Clinton Map” that they believe could create a winning coalition for 2016, drawing on the white working-class women who have long supported Mrs. Clinton and the young voters and African-Americans who helped elect Mr. Obama.

Key to running against the GOP Congress and winning working class whites in larger numbers than Obama, I think, will be developing a comprehensive agenda to address stagnating wages and a recovery whose gains are flowing largely to the top.

* IS DEAL ON TAX REFORM AND INFRASTRUCTURE POSSIBLE? Jonathan Weisman looks at internal GOP deliberations over how to move forward in two areas where compromise is thought to be possible — an overhaul of the tax code, and more spending on infrastructure — and offers this key context:

Mr. Obama [in 2012] proposed a novel deal: Simplify the corporate tax code and allow multinational corporations a one-time low tax rate to bring home billions of dollars in profits parked overseas, but use the windfall from that “tax holiday” for infrastructure spending. It did not happen. But on Tuesday, the incentives changed. Mr. Obama wants to rebound after Democrats’ midterm-election drubbing. Republicans want to show themselves to be a governing party ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.

I don’t know if Republicans will try to prove “they can govern,” but Obama has already offered Republicans a deal on tax reform in exchange for infrastructure spending. The question is whether Republicans will be more open to the latter this time around.

* GOP LEADERS WANT LONG TERM SPENDING BILL: The Post reports that Congress is going to try to pass a few last minute policies before the GOP takeover next year, which appears to mean GOP leaders are poised to agree to fund the government through next fall:

Some conservatives are agitating for a temporary measure that would allow Republicans to revisit agency funding levels when they take charge early next year. But Republican leaders, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, would rather get the bills for fiscal 2015, which began in October, out of the way so they can focus on crafting a budget for fiscal 2016.

More detail is required here, but it might mean GOP leaders may not use government funding battles in the near term as leverage against Dems on things like fighting Obama’s coming executive deportation relief.

* GOP POLICIES DESERVE MORE SCRUTINY: Paul Krugman urges the press corps not to give the new GOP Congress’ policies a pass once it gears up next year:

The midterm results are no reason to think better of the Republican position on major issues. I suspect that some pundits will shade their analysis to reflect the new balance of power — for example, by once again pretending that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are good-faith attempts to put America’s fiscal house in order, rather than exercises in deception and double-talk. But Republican policy proposals deserve more critical scrutiny, not less, now that the party has more ability to impose its agenda.

Also worth watching: Whether media figures who profess to want bipartisan compromise genuinely hold both sides responsible — Republicans, too, and not just Obama — for making concessions in the quest for that compromise.

* OBAMACARE NOT A BIG FACTOR IN ELECTION: The Los Angeles Times has a good analysis of new Republican polling — repeat, that’s Republican polling — and media exit poll data that shows, once again, that the health law was probably not a determining factor in the election, after all. This, from the exits, is key:

One in 4 voters chose healthcare as their top issue, and of those voters, 59% voted for a Democrat, the exit poll found, while 39% chose a Republican.

It’s hard to see a GOP mandate to keep going after Obamacare in these numbers.

* BAD NEWS FOR SCIENCE AND THE ENVIRONMENT: Rebecca Leber spells out another consequence of the GOP Senate takeover:

The Senate’s worst climate change denier, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, will likely chair the Environment and Public Works Committee. But it’s also bad news for science:  Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another climate denier, may be next-in-line to become chair of the Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In a February interview with CNN, Cruz said he doesn’t think the Earth is warming.

Well, okay then. It’s going to be interesting to watch the GOP presidential primary candidates try to out-do one another in climate science “skepticism,” too.