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Red, White and Voting Blue -- Where Dems Made Gains in '06

The Fix is a firm believer that only by understanding past elections can we hope to make accurate predictions about future contests.

Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, has produced a study of the 2006 electorate that goes a long way to explaining where Democrats made gains last November and how (and whether) they can make those trends durable through 2008 and beyond.

Entitled "Looking Red, Voting Blue," the study -- conducted by Jim Kessler, vice president for policy, and Anne Kim, director of the Middle Class Project -- aimed to deconstruct the profile of the roughly 4.7 million voters Democrats gained between 2004 and 2006. (The "how" behind the study's methodology is rather complicated; we've included at the end of the post.) Finding out what those 4.7 million voters look like, where they live and and what issues motivated them are at the center of Third Way's study.

Disclaimer: Read any survey sponsored by an interest group with something of a jaundiced eye. Third Way is a centrist Democratic group that advocates policies aimed at growing the party beyond its traditional liberal base. As such, it's not terribly surprising that this study suggests potential for luring more votes from voter groups outside the normal Democratic constituency.

Let's start with the overall shape of the electorate as laid out in the Third Way survey. "Compared to 2004, the 2006 electorate was wealthier and whiter, and more religious, male, married and rural," the authors write.

The average 2006 voter had a median income 13.4 percent higher than that same voter in 2004; the percent of white voters went from 77 percent in 2004 exit polls to 79 percent in those same polls in 2006. Men made up 48.3 percent of the 2006 voting pool, a two percent increase over 2004; married people accounted for nearly 70 percent of the 2006 vote as compared to 63 percent in 2004.

"Not only did Democrats win, they picked up nearly all of their new votes among those who fall into the typical Republican profile of voters," says the study. "Millions of voters from constituencies that had given up on Democrats in the past -- whites, men, couples, the well off, rural Americans, and yes, even the middle class -- switched sides in 2006."

Of the 4.7 million new Democratic voters in 2006, nearly 90 percent were men wand five out of six were white. Half of the new Democratic votes came from rural areas where Democrats lost the overall vote to Republicans by less than three percent -- far less than the 13 percent margin Republicans claimed in 2004 among rural voters. (Interestingly, just 12.4 percent of the new Democratic voters came from cities with populations of 500,000 or more.)

Economically, these 4.7 million new Democratic voters came overwhelmingly from households earning more than $75,000 a year. In fact, approximately 70 percent of new Democratic voters were part of a household that earned $100,000 or more. Democrats won the "middle class" (as defined as those voters earning between $30,000 and $75,000) for the first time in more than a decade, according to the survey, and the so-called economic tipping point -- the median income where white voters go from Democratic to Republican voters -- rose from $23,700 in 2004 to more than $40,000 in 2006.

The prime issue that drove these atypical Democratic gains was -- you guessed it! -- the war in Iraq. Democrats gained 7.6 million voters in 2006 who said they "strongly disapproved" of the war in Iraq while simultaneously losing 2.9 million voters from 2004 to 2006 who said they approved of the war -- for a net gain of 4.7 million voters. Similarly, Democrats gained 6.4 million voters between 2004 and 2006 who said that the Iraq war did not enhance national security while receiving 1.7 million less votes among those who did.

On other issues -- especially the economy -- new Democratic voters were decidedly serene. Overall 49 percent of 2006 voters said the economy was excellent or good, compared with 47 percent who said the same in 2004. Democrats received 6.1 million more votes among those who rated the state of the economy as either "excellent" or "good" while losing 1.4 million voters who rated it "not so good" or "poor."

"Voters felt better about the economy and their own finances, but they felt far worse about Iraq, corruption in Congress and President Bush," the Third Way authors write. "Their strong dissatisfaction with Iraq, the President, and corruption trumped their modest satisfaction with the economy."

That conclusion shouldn't shock anyone paying even a little bit of attention to the political landscape. And it's important to note that even among the demographic groups where Democrats made major gains in 2006, they didn't win a majority of votes from those groups. Democrats lost white voters by four percent in 2006 after losing that group by 17 percent in 2004. The party lost voters making $100,000 to $150,000 by four percent in 2006, an 11 percent net gain over 2004; it lost rural voters by three percent in 2006, a big jump from the 19-point thumping they took in 2004.

The overwhelming negative influence of the Iraq war on Republican candidates makes it hard to know whether the Third Way study is simply a snapshot in time or a predictor of things to come in 2008. As Kessler and Kim write: "The early months of 2007 show Democrats successful in their efforts to build a consensus on Iraq, but it is possible that at some point, Iraq could become the Democrats' problem. President Bush is remarkably unpopular, but his presence in the Oval Office is time-limited and will eventually cease to help Democrats."

There's no question that the war in Iraq proved the great equalizer in 2006 for Democrats. It helped narrow their losses among a number of key interest groups with whom the party had fallen out of favor in recent elections. But that was with dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq driving the debate. That dynamic hasn't changed in the six months since the election, but it's hard to know whether it will still be in place in November 2008.

As any smart consumer knows, past performance is not a predictor of future results. If Iraq was the issue of 2006, will it remain so in 2008? And now that Democrats are in power on Capitol Hill, will that nullify their "time for change" message at all? Will voters angry about the war punish Democrats if the party isn't able to begin bringing home the troops?

The Fix wants to know what you think, so please use the comments section below to weigh in.

Also, I'll follow-up this post later in the week with observations and analysis from experts and political operatives who don't necessarily share Third Way's centrist ideology.

Now, for a quick look at the methodology for the Third Way study: "Working with economist Stephen Rose, we used the National Exit Poll surveys from the 2004 and 2006 elections and then employed a standard statistical technique to 'normalize' the results so that the overall turnout was the same in 2004 as it was in 2006. This technique would be like taking two baseball players--one who played in 145 games and another who played in 125 games--and then comparing the number of hits, home runs, RBI, doubles, strikeouts, walks, and stolen bases they would have had if each had played in the same number of games. For this analysis, we adjusted the 2004 voter numbers to equal the total turnout in 2006 and then compared Democratic performance based on gender, race, income, educational attainment, perception of the economy and other factors. The National Exit Poll surveyed 13,718 voters in 2004 and 13,643 voters in 2006."

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 14, 2007; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party  
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