By Mark Mellman - 01/03/07 12:00 AM EST
Just after election 2004, I identified three voter segments “to watch” because “they will be central to the future of the Democratic Party” — Latinos, voters under 30 and independents. Taking my own advice, I’ll offer an update.
While there was disagreement over the precise magnitude of Latino defections from Democrats in ’04, most of us regarded it as a crisis. Careful analysis suggested John Kerry garnered about 57 percent of the Latino vote; House Democrats received even less — 55 percent. That represented a precipitous decline of over 15 points from previous highs.
Things changed in 2006. Sixty-nine percent of Latinos reported voting for Democratic House candidates — the largest number in a decade.
Before smug self-satisfaction pervades Democratic circles, two caveats are in order. First, Latino support was not mainly the result of Democrats’ entreaties. Rather, following the ignominious example of California’s Pete Wilson, Congressional Republicans drove Hispanics into the open arms of Democrats by trying to turn the community into political whipping boys over immigration. Undoing the painstaking work of George Bush, GOP leaders sought to pick up white votes by attacking Latinos. It didn’t work with whites, but it did profoundly alienate Latinos from national Republicans.
Second, Latinos proved to be discerning voters, backing Democrats at widely varying levels in different contests. In the Arizona Senate race, Democrat Jim Pederson garnered just 51 percent of Latinos, while Governor Janet Napolitano received 67 percent in her much less competitive race. In the Nevada governor’s race, the Democrat managed only 55 percent among Latinos, while the Senate nominee picked up just 52 percent. Meanwhile, in Washington, Maria Cantwell garnered 65 percent, and in Illinois Rod Blagojevich got 83 percent.
Voters under 30 were the second segment I urged readers to watch after 2004. With political cleavages increasingly defined by culture, young voters are natural Democrats. On issues ranging from race to sex, young voters are among the most culturally progressive segments of the electorate.
John Kerry garnered a higher percentage of under-30s than had any Democrat, at least since 1972 — 54 percent — while House Democrats got 55 percent. In 2006, House Democrats topped that with 60 percent of the young vote — 10 points more than among seniors. This year’s vote total for Democrats among under-30s was the highest in 30 years.
Incoming Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) did only slightly better among those under 30 than among older voters, but it made all the difference. Montana Democrat Jon Tester won a bigger share of the vote among under-30s than in any other age group — and it too was decisive.
Long derided by White House strategists as meaningless, independents revealed their power in 2006. Their voting behavior over the last decade no doubt lulled some Republicans into a false sense of security. The GOP had won independents in House races from 1994 through 2002. For most of that period the independent vote looked relatively fixed, varying within a narrow band. In 2004, Democrats narrowly won independents in the House, while John Kerry wrested this segment from Bush. But they were not decisive.
In 2006, independents split wide open, giving Democrats an 18-point margin that propelled them to victory. The power of independents is evident from the fact that only one Democratic Senate candidate in the country won without garnering a majority of independents (Sheldon Whitehouse in one of the nation’s most Democratic states against one of the Senate’s most independent figures).
As ’08 approaches, keep watching.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.