Mellman: Asymmetric loyalists

Politicians, pollsters and pundits spend a great deal of time thinking about demographic groups.

But demography is rarely political destiny. Group members often don’t see eye to eye and rarely vote in a truly united fashion.

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Of course, the way one segment or another leans can have profound electoral consequences, without members having to be single-minded in their voting behavior.

Nonetheless, some groups really do present a fairly united front, offering overwhelming support to Democrats or Republicans.

Before the holiday break, we explored the extraordinary loyalty afforded to the Republican Party by white Evangelical Christians, who voted for GOP House candidates by a 53-point margin, according to the NEP exit poll, used by the major networks.

As we noted, that support is crucial for Republicans. Without white Evangelicals, the GOP would have garnered just 32 percent of the national House vote and there could be as few as 18 Republicans sitting in the U.S. Senate.

White Evangelicals are both a large and loyal swath of the electorate.

Similar levels of loyalty to either party are actually fairly rare.

On the other side of the aisle, four smaller segments routinely give Democrats margins of 50 points or more: black, Jewish, gay and Asian-American voters.

African-Americans are the most loyal Democratic constituency and indeed more loyal than any other segment is to either party, giving Democrats a margin of nearly 90 points this past year.

LGBTQ voters emerged as Democrats’ second biggest backers this cycle, giving them a 63-point margin in the national House vote.

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Essentially tied with the LGBTQ community are Jews who preferred Democrats by 62 points.

Asian-Americans, a demographic that used to divide fairly evenly, gave Democrats a margin of 54 points last year.

Muslims were not a large enough segment for the network exit pollsters to examine separately, but other data suggests they too gave Democrats advantages well in excess of 50 percent.

That’s not to say other groups aren’t central to Democratic success.

Latinos, for example, supported Democrats by a slightly lesser, 40-point margin. But because of the size of the community (a larger share of the electorate than Asian-American, Jewish, LGBTQ and Muslim voters put together) and as a result of their strategic location, Latino voters are a vital element of the Democratic coalition.

Putting white Evangelical voters on one side of the ledger, with black, Jewish, Asian, LGBTQ, Muslim and Latino voters on the other, offers important hints about our politics.

As I’ve argued here for many years, it testifies to the cultural nature of our politics. If, at one time, the decisive cleavages were economic (and that is a debatable proposition), it’s clear that the key divisions are now about culture.

It’s cultural conservatism that unites white Evangelicals and divides them from ethnic and religious minorities for whom America’s cultural pluralism is a central appeal.

Examining the groups lining up squarely on each side of the partisan divide illuminates the parties’ internal dynamics as well.

Republicans are a fairly homogeneous bunch, united by their common ideology and outlook.

Democrats have the potential for greater division, united importantly by their diversity.

Professors Matt Grossman and David Hopkins have argued that party politics in America is asymmetric. While the GOP is a somewhat coherent ideological movement, Democrats are more a coalition of demographic groups. 

Republicans, the professors say, lift up conservatism, pledging fealty to a set of values. Democrats focus on group benefits from concrete government action. 

That asymmetry rests in part on the fact that Republicans serve one large, loyal, ideologically based constituency, whereas Democrats have to knit together (and reknit) more, smaller groups of loyalists.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for more than 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.