The Democrats’ 2012 Rust Belt Problem

Amid the rubble of the midterm results last week, two small signs of hope for Democrats—their strong performance among Latinos, which helped them save a handful of officeholders in the West, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, and their continued advantage among young voters—were widely noted in the press. Every wag loves counterintuition. So, at the apparent apogee of Democratic unpopularity it seemed worth noting that, if present trends continue, Republicans will be in for a rude awakening sometime between now and, oh, 2050, when the U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation. But 2050 is a long way off, and even then the electorate, which excludes noncitizens and children, changes more slowly than the population.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have a problem: if they remain as unpopular in 2012 as they currently are among older white voters, it could make them vulnerable in the Rust Belt states that have been essential to successful Democratic presidential campaigns and Senate majorities. The Rust Belt—the industrial stretch from upstate New York, where the Democrats just lost at least four House seats, through Pennsylvania, where they lost five seats and a Senate race, to the Upper Midwest, where liberal titans such as Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota were knocked off and a raft of Republican governors were elected—is essential to any Democratic presidential victory.

President Obama turned a handful of traditionally Republican states blue in 2008: Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana. But if the 2012 race is closer, and those states return to the Republican fold, Obama cannot win in 2012 while also losing all the big Midwestern swing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The drop-off in Democratic support among older voters and white voters from the last midterm election is remarkable. In 2006Democrats lost white voters by 4 points in House races, which are a fairly good indicator of party preference, and they tied among voters 65 and over. This year they lost whites by 23 points and lost older voters by 21 points. Luckily for Democrats, the electorate in 2012 will be younger and more diverse, as it always is in a presidential election. (Last week voters under 30 years old were only 11 percent of the electorate, but they were 18 percent in 2008.)

That demographic shift toward younger voters, however, may not be enough for Democrats in the Midwest. The populations of the essential Democratic Rust Belt states is older (except for Minnesota) and whiter than the country as a whole. In 2008, Latinos were 9 percent of all voters but only 4 percent of voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio and 3 percent in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Republicans will face challenges in retaining their high level of support among older voters. They will need, for example, to protect seniors’ cherished entitlement programs, which in turn means performing remarkable acts of intellectual contortion for a party whose last president advocated privatizing Social Security. But the short-term challenge for Democrats remains clear: they must win back some of these voters, at least in the crucial Midwest.

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