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Three groups to watch

Take a guess. Which demographic group doubled its share of the electorate from 2004 to 2008?

Here’s a hint. It’s the same segment that increased its support for the Democratic presidential candidate more than any other.

If you answered younger voters or Latinos, you would be wrong, though we will discuss both below.

Stumped?

Americans who make over $200,000 a year doubled their share of the electorate and, while John Kerry lost that group by 28 points, Barack Obama won them by six — a 34-point shift in the margin — the biggest movement recorded in the exit poll.

In fairness, while the wealthiest segment did double its share of the electorate, it increased from just 3 percent to 6 percent. However, those who make over $100,000 constituted 26 percent of the electorate in 2008, compared to 18 percent in 2004 — nearly a 50 percent increase. Obama tied with this quarter of the electorate; Kerry had lost it by 17 points.

For much of the past year, analysts lavished attention on white working-class voters while, under their noses, a remarkable transformation took place among wealthier Americans. Obama did improve marginally on Kerry’s showing with non-college (working-class) whites, closing the gap by five points, but the president-elect moved those with incomes over $100,000 by a substantially greater 17 points.

While the data required to fully understand the causes of this change is not available, two factors are likely implicated. First, the failures of the Bush administration at home and abroad cut deeply with this segment, though the rich were not uniquely affected. Even more likely, this is further evidence of a shifting alignment to which I have called attention in previous pieces — culture now does much more than class to structure American politics. Wealthy, highly educated Americans are among our most culturally progressive citizens, making them ripe for Democratic pickings.

While the massive movement of the rich came as something of a surprise, four years ago I identified “two voter segments that really will be central to the future of the Democratic Party — Hispanics and those under 30.”

Those two predictions bore out well.

Obama doubled Kerry’s margin among Latinos, enabling him to carry states like Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. George Bush made a concerted and somewhat successful effort to lure Latinos into the Republican fold, only to have the anti-immigrant demagoguery of his fellow GOPers drive Hispanics into the welcoming arms of Democrats. If any Republican should have been able to build on Bush’s success, it would have been John McCain. Nevertheless, even his earlier advocacy of moderate immigration policies was not enough to overcome the increasing antipathy of Hispanics for the Republican Party.

Democrats also continued to make dramatic strides with the under-30 set. John Kerry garnered a higher percentage of the under-30 vote than any Democrat ever had, at least since 1972, only to have Barack Obama demolish that record — winning younger voters by an eye-popping 34-point margin.

With the country divided on culture, young people are vital assets for Democrats. They are much more progressive on cultural issues — from race to abortion and gay rights — than are their elders. Moreover, what I euphemistically call the “inexorable forces of generational replacement” mean that younger voters are continually replacing older ones.

Voters are, importantly, creatures of habit and with two votes for Democratic presidential candidates, the under-30 cohort is developing a clear Democratic disposition, which will help lock in this segment for the long haul.

If Democrats can add the young and Latinos to our pre-existing base among the poor, Jews, African-Americans, union members and gays, while breaking even with the rich, we will finally achieve our long-sought “new majority.”

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.