UPDATE: This story has been altered to reflect the election results.
On Saturday Republican challenger Bill Cassidy walloped Democrat Mary Landrieu in Louisiana’s runoff election for the U.S. Senate. Landrieu’s defeat leaves Bill Nelson of Florida and Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as the last Democratic Senators representing any of the 11 states of the Confederacy. Mr. Cassidy’s victory is just the latest reminder that while American politics is highly polarized on partisan lines, race may be an even more polarizing factor.
In November, the first round of this election, Ms. Landrieu won fully 94 percent of the African American vote, but only 18% of the white vote. Mr. Cassidy received 59 percent of the white vote, but a paltry 3% of the African American vote (In Louisiana, only about six percent of voters were neither white nor African American, so there is no exit poll data for them). Nationwide, in the November election, Democrats won 89 percent of the African American vote, but only 38 percent of the white vote. Those numbers varied depending on the state, but white support was weakest for Democrats in the South.
The Louisiana runoff is further evidence that Democrats fail to compete for white, straight voters in a large swath of the nation, particularly the South. Former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges, a Democrat, put it this way in Politico: “If the Republicans have a 1 percent problem, we have a 10 percent problem. We seem obsessed with the problems that 10 percent of the population has. Then voters don’t believe Democrats care about people like them.” Hodges’ math is a little off, but his essential point, that the Democratic message no longer recognizes with significant proportions of the population, particularly the white population, is accurate.
Meanwhile, the supposed Party of Lincoln wins minimal support from non-whites (and gay people and Jews).
This is bipartisan bad news.
A poltical system where partisan cleavages are so strongly reinforced by ethnicity, race and sexual orientation makes governance even harder.
Neither party wants to draw attention to their electoral struggles. The Republican Party still presents itself as a coalition party that’s not lily-white, while the Democrats continue to promote the party as speaking for all working-class and poor people regardless of race.
Strategically, the Republicans have adapted to this reality by largely ignoring African American voters while trying to attract a significant minority of Jewish, Latino and LGBT voters. For Democrats, however, the question is more complicated because the white support they get tends not to come from working class Democrats, but from liberals, Jews (who cast 66 percent of their votes for Democrats last month) and LGBT voters. In November, only 34 percent of whites without a college degree cast votes for Democrats, compared to 41 percent among those with college degrees. Clearly then, in many states the white working class is now part of the Republican base.
In states like Louisiana where white voters are less likely to be liberal, Jewish or LGBT, Democrats face big problems with the white vote. This helps explain Landrieu’s lopsided loss. Democrats need to recognize just how little support they have among working class whites, and what, if anything, they plant to do about it. To some extent this is a problem of both strategy and identity for the Democratic leadership. Democrats like to think their party represents working people, but that assertion, at least with regards to how white people vote, is no longer plausible. Accepting this, and determining what to do about it are two different, but probable equally challenging tasks.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.