There are precious few certainties in politics, but this fall we are faced with one of them: the Democrats will lose seats in the midterm elections. When the economy sucks, people vote against the incumbent party. And this economy sucks not in a run-of-the-mill business-cycle way but in a once-in-a-generation way (well, we hope it’s once in a generation). Whatever positive trends there may be in private-sector job growth, they are negated by record levels of foreclosure, personal bankruptcy and unemployment, all of which are going to make election day pretty bleak for Democrats.
But a neat single cause doesn’t give commentators much to work with, so observers have offered an alternate or, in some cases, supplemental explanation of Democrats’ fortunes, which might be called the Great Backlash.
The story of the Great Backlash goes like this: the president was elected on a promise to transcend red and blue, heal the wounds of the forty-year culture war and, as he said in his speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses, inspire the country to "come together around a common purpose." But instead, Barack Obama pursued an ambitious left-wing agenda, a classic case of liberal overreach that alienated finicky independents and awakened the sleeping giant of don’t-tread-on-me Tea Party patriots.
What’s insidious about this narrative is that it takes a small, ideological subcomponent of the electorate and projects its views onto the electorate as a whole. It also ignores the young, the low-income and the black voters who gave Obama his margin of victory. We’ve all spent so much time dwelling on the slights and accusations of the Fox News crowd, there’s been shockingly little attention paid to the views, frustrations and convictions of what we might call the forgotten electorate, otherwise known as Obama’s base.
Which is why a new poll from Project Vote of 2008 voters is such a refreshing corrective. According to the poll, Tea Party sympathizers constitute 29 percent of 2008 voters, while black voters, those under 30 and those making less than $30,000 a year together make up 32 percent.
Project Vote positions this cohort as the anti–Tea Party, and leafing through the poll you can see why. On nearly every issue, particularly on the economy, young, black and low-income voters’ views are the inverse of the Tea Party’s: strong majorities of these groups believe the government should provide jobs for unemployed people who want to work; just 15 percent of Tea Partyers agree. Strong majorities also believe the government should help homeowners facing foreclosure, while just 13 percent of Tea Partyers do.
This is what you would expect. But the most striking result is the strange, confounding relationship between people’s economic situation and their perception of the health of the national economy. Tea Partyers are the most pessimistic, with only 10 percent saying the economy is getting better and 63 percent rating it "very bad"—and yet their personal finances are better than the national average, with 75 percent rating them "fairly good" or better. For the anti–Tea Party, it’s the opposite: a whopping 37 percent of black voters say there were times this year when they didn’t have enough money to buy food for their family (compared with just 5 percent of Tea Partyers), and yet black voters are the most optimistic when it comes to the economy. More than 26 percent of black voters rated it as fairly good, against just 6.5 percent of Tea Party sympathizers.
That is the tragic and perilous irony of this political moment: the people with the most faith in the president and the Democratic Party are the hardest hit by the continuing economic disaster; it’s this brute fact that’s driving the so-called enthusiasm gap between liberals and conservatives. More than frustration with the lack of a public option or anger at a White House that seems to relish insulting the "professional left," the flagging enthusiasm among Obama’s ’08 base is the product of a kind of cognitive dissonance between hope and reality. "Like a lot of people in my generation, I was really inspired by you and by your campaign and message that you brought," a 30-year-old law school graduate told the president during a live town hall on CNBC recently. "And that inspiration is dying away. It feels like the American Dream is not attainable to a lot of us…. I really want to know, is the American Dream dead for me?"
And here’s where we get to the perilous part. Even if most of the midterm outcome is already determined, the margins matter tremendously: just a few seats, possibly decided by just a few thousand votes, could make the difference between a Speaker Pelosi and a Speaker Boehner. Which brings us to another certainty: as bad as things are right now for Obama’s base, a world in which Republicans control one or both houses of Congress is going to be far, far worse.