There’s only one word for this week’s Republican landslide: historic. Beyond the positive headlines, though, are warnings that the victors would be wise to heed if they want to build on their win for 2012 and beyond.
The rout should give Republicans hope. They look to have gained 60 to 65 House seats, the most by one party in an election since 1948. If they reach the top of that range, Republicans will have 244 seats, the most they have held since 1947 and their second-highest total since the Great Depression.
The party didn’t win this election because of any enthusiasm gap between their backers and Democratic supporters, as had been long predicted. In 2008, 38 percent of voters were Democrats, 36 percent Republicans and 26 percent independents. This year, each party held 36 percent of the electorate and independents comprised 28 percent, according to preliminary exit poll data.
The election results were instead due to a massive swing among independents, particularly those in rural and exurban counties. Exit polls showed that independents favored Republicans by 16 points, a turnabout from 2008 when they favored Democrats by about the same margin.
Exit polls identified the primary source of the landslide: white working-class voters. This group, defined as whites who aren’t college graduates, has voted Republican in presidential contests but often split tickets to elect Democratic congressmen. This time they supported Republicans for Congress by a record 29 points, more than for any of the party’s recent presidential nominees.
This working-class anger drew in even those who normally vote Democratic, as we can see by looking at the specific districts Republicans won.
Congressional districts that are solidly behind Democrats for president, including Minnesota’s 8th–a seat held for 18 terms by House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar–plus Pennsylvania’s 11th and Illinois’ 17th, kicked out longtime incumbents in favor of conservative Republican challengers.
This crop of new Republican backers presents the party with unique challenges, if it wants to hold on to them.
While an AP-Gfk poll in September showed these voters distrust government, historically many have supported welfare-state programs and restrictions on trade and finance that Republicans traditionally oppose. Republican members of Congress and presidential candidates will have to find a way to thread the needle on these differences or risk having many of these voters revert back to their historic Democratic loyalty.
Obama Versus Nixon
Republicans need to take this challenge seriously. Working-class whites voted Republican primarily because they intensely dislike President Obama. Polls of the white working class electorate this year put Obama’s approval rating at close to 30 percent, or just a few points higher than President Richard Nixon’s in the days before his resignation.
Republicans will need every one of those votes because other, worrisome trends in the electorate continued this year. Polls showed that, even with the depth of the recession, Republicans captured only about 10 percent of blacks’ support and a third of Hispanics’, no better than in other years.
The Latino share of the electorate reached 8 percent, a record high for a mid-term election, while black turnout dropped from its high of 13 percent in 2008 to its historic 10 percent level this year. If Latinos continue to grow as a group, and blacks turn out in droves again to re-elect Obama, the Republican nominee in 2012 will be hard-pressed to win without retaining the record share of white working-class voters the party garnered this week.
Republican weakness among educated residents of cities and inner suburbs also continued this year. The party gained least among holders of post-graduate degrees, who now comprise 20 percent of the electorate. Even in high-income suburbs rocked by the recession, such as California’s Silicon Valley, Democrats retained their massive majorities.
The combination of these trends explains the two big Republican disappointments on election night: the failure of Sharron Angle and Ken Buck to win Senate seats in Nevada and Colorado. The conservative Tea Party favorites swept the rural and exurban parts of their states, but lost big in the Las Vegas and Denver areas, where highly educated whites and most Latinos live.
The same goes for the too-close-to-call race in Washington state. If Dino Rossi loses to Democratic incumbent Patty Murray, it will be because he failed to persuade Seattle suburbanites to back him.
Another Republican Senate disappointment shows how hard it will be to retain white working-class support.
West Virginia is the capital of the white working class. Fifty-eight percent of the state’s voters were whites without a college degree, 19 points higher than the national average. Ninety-five percent are white and 69 percent say they disapprove of Obama’s job performance.
Despite this, the Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, swept to an easy 10-point victory over Republican John Raese, a wealthy businessman who owns mansions in Florida and expressed doubts about the minimum wage.
It’s been said that when Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention, an American asked him what form of government he had given us. “A republic,” the sage replied, “if you can keep it.” So it is for Republicans. Americans have granted them a majority in the House. It remains to be seen if they can keep it.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.