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Blacks, Latinos stick with shrinking Democratic base

The coalition that sent Barack Obama to the White House two years ago is losing whites, independents, seniors — and even women — along with regions where the party thought it had made lasting inroads.

November 05, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey and James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Democrats searching for good news amid the rubble of Tuesday's midterm election results can look to Latinos and African Americans, two groups of voters that stayed with the party in large numbers.

But that, in a sense, is like taking comfort in that fact that as your house is falling down around you, it isn't also on fire.

The Democratic Party was overwhelmingly rejected by whites, independents and seniors. Perhaps most troubling to Democrats was that increasing numbers of women also turned toward the Republican Party.

Young voters, so crucial to President Obama's historic victories two years ago, showed up in lower numbers Tuesday, and many more voted Republican than before.

To make matters worse, while black and Latino voters remained relatively loyal to the Democratic Party, they voted in far fewer numbers than in 2008. And even in those groups, 3% to 5% defected from Democrats to Republicans.

Geographically, Democrats were largely pushed out of states where the party believed it had made lasting inroads, such as Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The result is a national electoral map that more closely resembles that of the early 2000s, with the Democrats by and large confined to the East and West coasts, with the GOP dominating the heartland and the South.

All in all, such a stunning whiplash of a reversal from two years ago suggests that neither party can claim to have a hold on the American electorate.

Voters "have the clicker in their hands and they have no problem hitting the next button," said Paul Maslin, a pollster and Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. "It's now at warp speed. You can see it in two -year cycles."

The Democratic erosion was perhaps most accentuated by the flight of women, who were among the party's most enthusiastic supporters in 2006 and 2008. According to exit poll data, women essentially split their votes evenly between Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday. The last time that happened was in 2002.

White women in particular defected from Democrats, giving their votes to Republicans by an 18-point margin. Similarly, 57% percent of married women voted for Republicans, while unmarried women — a more liberal group — turned out in smaller numbers than in 2008.

That's a dynamic Democrats must reverse if they are to hold the White House, said Page Gardner, a Democratic strategist and founder of the advocacy group Women's Voices, Women Vote. "Clearly, these guys were not speaking to these women," Gardner said. "Candidates were not; the White House was not."

Women were especially pessimistic about the economy, an issue that also undermined support for Democrats among voters in the political middle.

"It's not about turnout, or the base, or enthusiasm," said Maslin, the Democratic strategist. "We have to have a bread-and-butter economic message that convinces people to trust us again. We have to deliver."

Overall, Republicans claimed 60% of the white vote Tuesday, with seniors, an expanding part of the electorate, overwhelmingly supporting the GOP.

Meanwhile, African Americans remained one of the Democrats' most reliable voting blocs, and their turnout on Tuesday appears to have matched that in 2006, the midterm election that brought Democrats to power in the House. But there was still evidence of those voters' deflated hopes in the president and his party.

Blacks made up 13% of the electorate in 2008, but only 10% Tuesday night. While just 4% of black voters cast ballots for Republican John McCain two years ago, 9% said in exit polls that they voted for GOP House candidates on Tuesday.

Latino voters may have supplied Democrats with the biggest reason for optimism Tuesday, particularly in states where they were needed most. Although their support for Democrats declined slightly from elections in 2008 and 2006, their turnout appeared to hold steady or even increase.

Such support was likely crucial in Nevada, California and Colorado, where Democratic Senate candidates fended off strong challenges.

In Nevada, Latinos made up 15% of the electorate, and Sen. Harry Reid won 69% of their votes, according to exit polling, which experts have suggested may undercount Latino voters.

His opponent, "tea party" favorite Sharron Angle, alienated many Latinos with negative advertising and awkward comments on race. But Reid, the Senate majority leader, made a string of promise to Latino voters that Democrats in Congress may be hard-pressed to fulfill.

Reid pledged to revive comprehensive immigration revisions and push for a vote on the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow students living in the U.S. illegally to earn legal status if they graduate from high school and complete two years in college or the military.

Still, if there is one element of this week's thrashing in which Democrats can find solace, it's that history has proven voters can shift easily.

"I don't think any party is going to have a lock on elections in this country considering how closely divided our political values are," said Scott Keeter, a pollster with the Pew Research Center in Washington.

Keeter said Republicans basically won this election by the same margin Democrats did two years ago.

"In the best possible climate for Democrats, they can get 53% of the vote," he said. "In the best possible climate for Republicans, they can get 53% of the vote."

The climate at the moment favors Republicans. According to polls, the number of voters who identify themselves as conservative continues to grow, up to 41% in the most recent election, from 32% four years ago.

But that's happened before. In 1996, two years after Democrats were routed by Republicans in the 1994 midterms, 37% percent of the electorate identified themselves as conservatives. That same year, Bill Clinton was elected to a second term.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

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