The GOP's Weakness: Reagan Democrats -- or Obama Ones?
By Alec MacGillis
As the Republicans engage in a heated contest to determine the next leader of their national party, they are spending some time taking a closer look at the root causes of their political plight.
This week, there was another indication that some of them may be misdiagnosing the problem. At a session in Washington where the half-dozen candidates for Republican National Committee chairman made their case, candidate Saul Anuzis, the chairman of the Michigan GOP, repeated a notion that has gained some currency since Nov. 4. "If you take a look at the constituency that we're losing today, it's the Reagan Democrats," Anuzis said.
The evidence suggests this isn't the case. It is true that Barack Obama performed better than many expected with so-called Reagan Democrats -- conservative, older, working and middle class white Democrats of the sort who voted for Reagan and also voted in large numbers for George W. Bush. Obama held his own with these voters, whom many Democratics feared would avoid him, and actually improved slightly over John Kerry's performance with white voters who do not hold a college degree. He also carried traditionally blue-collar Democratic redoubts like Scranton and the Mahoning Valley in Ohio.
But a far bigger factor behind Obama's victory, and the Republicans' current plight, was his strong performance among an entirely different sector of the electorate -- moderate, independent-minded, college-educated white voters in the suburbs. Obama made up more ground with college-educated white voters over Kerry's 2004 performance than he did with non-college educated white voters. And he picked up key swing states based in large part on the huge gains he made in formerly Republican, upper-income suburbs such as Northern Virginia, suburban Denver, the Raleigh-Durham triangle and suburban Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the places where he performed worse than Kerry were ones dominated by conservative, working-class Democrats, such as southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
This was the culmination of a trend that has been underway for more than a decade, as Democrats have pushed out from their strongholds in the cities and inner suburbs to claim an ever greater share of the outer suburbs, and the professional and managerial workers who live in them.
If anyone should understand this, it is Anuzis, because this has been playing out as clearly as anywhere in Michigan, his home state.
Michigan's Macomb County is the original home of the Reagan Democrats, the county where pollster Stan Greenberg in 1984 first used the term to describe working-class Democrats voting for Reagan. But Democratic gains in recent years have been biggest in nearby Oakland County, the more upscale Detroit suburb that used to be a Republican stronghold.
Consider: in 2000, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush by fewer than 10,000 votes in both counties. Obama's margin was bigger in both counties -- but it was far bigger in Oakland, which he won by 96,000 votes, compared with a margin of 36,000 votes in Macomb. His dominance in Oakland County was so striking -- and so in accordance with his dominance nationwide in higher-income suburbs -- that Greenberg himself penned an op-ed after the election titled "Good-bye, Reagan Democrats," declaring that he was from now on going to stop using Macomb as his leading national indicator and use Oakland instead.
Anuzis, and other Republicans, might want to do the same.
Posted at 4:40 PM ET on Jan 7, 2009
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