On the first day of the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, I was quoted in the lead story of the Wall Street Journal as saying that Walter Mondale’s nomination represented the last hurrah of his wing of my party.
“The Last Hurrah” is Edwin O’Connor’s classic political novel, in which Frank Skeffington, his fictional mayor, lost his re-election bid because he could not keep up with changing times.
Needless to say, my quote was not well received at a convention about to anoint Mondale as its candidate for president. But that November, I was proved right. Mondale’s landslide loss — he lost 49 states to President Ronald Reagan — triggered the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council that spawned the New Democrat political movement.
Eight years later, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the first New Democrat candidate, became the first Democrat elected to the White House in 16 years. With one exception, Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election since.
Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham are the embodiments of Frank Skeffington in American politics today. They represent the last hurrah of a political coalition forged more than half a century ago that no longer speaks to or for a majority of voters in an America that has dramatically changed racially, ethnically and culturally in the last three decades.
That’s why so much of President Trump’s re-election campaign is focused on suppressing the vote of growing minority constituencies. And, it’s why McConnell and Graham are fighting so hard to rush the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Justice on the Supreme Court through the Senate.
It’s all about clinging to power. They are desperately trying to hold on to the last vestiges of power of a dying electoral coalition – a coalition that is less and less able to produce popular vote victories at the ballot box with each political cycle.
The Republican coalition was forged in the late 1960s as the New Deal coalition ran out of steam. Starting with Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, Republicans won five of six presidential elections. Twice they won 49 states. Only Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal kept them from a clean sweep.
So powerful was the GOP’s national coalition that in the three landslide elections in the 1980s, Republican candidates won a higher percentage of electoral votes than any party’s candidates had won in three consecutive elections since the advent of modern parties in 1828.
The Congressional vote, in large part because of the power of incumbency, lagged behind presidential voting. But during the 1980s, Republicans began building strength in the House and Senate, and in 1994, they won control of both Houses of Congress for the first time in four decades. Notably, Mitch McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984 and Lindsey Graham to the House in 1994.
That Republican coalition was nearly entirely all white – white Southerners who were former Democrats, white urban ethnics (the so-called Reagan Democrats), and whites in suburban and rural areas. It included large majorities of white Christians, regular church goers and evangelicals.
Educationally, the Republicans ran strongest among non-college white voters. Regionally, they dominated the Southern and border states and sparsely populated small rural states of the heartland and Mountain West where voters were nearly all white, many without college educations, and predominately Christian.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the national electorate was about 90 percent white. So as long as they won a significant majority of white voters, Republicans could dominate presidential elections. As late as 1992, 88 percent of voters were white and most of the rest African Americans. Too few Hispanics voted in 1992 to register in the exit polls.
But, beginning in the early 1990s, our country began to change demographically, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, less white, less religious, and more educated. In the next quarter century, the electorate changed dramatically. By 2016, according to CNN exit polling, just 71 percent of the electorate was white, 12 percent African American, 11 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian. This year the white vote will likely be below 70 percent for the first time.
Citing the work of demographer William Frey, political writer and analyst Ron Brownstein chronicled the impact of that change in a recent piece on the CNN website. In today’s America, he writes:
- Young people of color make up about 45 percent of millennials, nearly 49 percent of Generation Z and represent a 51 percent majority of the younger generation behind them.
- Among adults younger than 30, only 29 percent identify as White Christians, well below the nation overall (around 43 percent) and only half the number among the nation’s seniors 65 or older.
- Adults under 30 are also the best-educated generation in American history.
But because of the small state bias of the Electoral College and the Senate, those institutions have not kept up with the pace of change.
As a result, Trump and the Republican-led Senate were, Brownstein writes, “put in power almost entirely by the parts of the country most insulated from these changes – states with few immigrants, more White Christians and relatively fewer college graduates. Fully, 26 of the 30 states Trump won rank among the 30 states with the smallest share of immigrants, according to census data; those same states elected 45 of 53 Republican senators.
“Likewise, 43 of the 53 Republican senators were elected by the 29 states in which White Christians, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, compose at least 47 percent of the population,” he continues. “Those same states accounted for 25 of the 30 states that Trump carried last time. The patterns are similar when ranking states by their share of college graduates. After this election, Republicans may hold none of the 24 Senate seats in the 12 states with the most college graduates.”
In part, because of those demographic changes, the Democrats reversed their fortunes in presidential elections. Starting with Bill Clinton’s victory, their candidates have won the popular vote six times in the last seven elections – and once the votes are counted in 2020, it will be a record setting seven of eight. Never before in American history has a party won the popular vote seven times in less than nine elections.
President Trump is the second president in the last three to be elected while losing the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won it by 2.1 percent, a greater margin than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Think about this. In the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century, no president won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. But in the five elections in this century, that has already happened twice. Although the Democrats have won the popular vote in four of those five (80 percent), they have only held the White House for eight of those 20 years (40 percent).
Judge Barrett, if confirmed, will be the third justice in three years nominated by a president who lost the popular vote, confirmed by Senators representing a minority of voters.
If polls are correct, after November 3, there is a good chance that will change, and both the president and the Senate majority will once again be elected by a majority of American voters. But with Justice Barrett seated, the Supreme Court, the third branch of our government, will continue for a decade or more to reflect the views of voters in the country we used to be, not the diverse country we have become.
President Trump is campaigning blatantly to undermine our democratic electoral process and to intimidate minority voters to discourage them from voting. And, in state after state, Republicans through executive and legislative actions and through the courts have tried to follow his lead, to make it harder for all Americans, particularly minority Americans, to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. They are hoping against hope that if they can suppress the vote enough, their declining coalition can survive for just one more election cycle.
The President will almost certainly lose his fight for re-election — I believe he will lose in a popular vote landslide. Senators McConnell and Graham may survive their own re-election campaigns next month, and they will likely succeed in confirming Judge Barrett. But for all three, 2020 will be their last hurrah. The power that came from a dying Republican coalition is slipping from their grasps. And, once it’s gone, it’s not likely to return anytime soon.
Al From is an adjunct professor at the Krieger School at Johns Hopkins University. He is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of The New Democrats and the Return to Power, featured in the documentary film, Crashing the Party.