In 2008, Barack Obama was widely described as having built a game-changing political coalition: young people, racial and ethnic minorities, educated professionals, urban and suburban voters. He was held to have built an innovative campaign infrastructure, leveraging big data and social media in an unprecedented way, increasing turnout and Democratic vote share with constituencies that are typically underrepresented at the ballot box.
All of this was thought to not only benefit Obama but also the party writ large. Indeed, in the wake of the 2008 election, Democrats had won the presidency and consolidated their hold over both chambers of Congress. At the state level, they held governorships in 29 states and controlled both chambers in 27 state legislatures. For contrast, Republicans controlled just 14 state legislatures and 21 governorships.
Many went so far as to believe that the Obama coalition heralded the arrival of a long-prophesied enduring Democratic majority in US politics. They were wrong.
In 2010, Democrats lost control of the House in the most sweeping congressional reversal in 62 years. They also saw huge losses in state legislatures, which allowed Republicans to control the decennial post-Census redistricting to an unprecedented degree.
In 2014, Democrats would go on to lose the Senate. And of course, two years later, they would lose the presidency as well. The party saw massive losses in state contests too. As Trump assumed office in 2016, Republicans controlled both chambers of the US Congress, both chambers in 32 state legislatures, and held 33 governorships.
Under Trump, the GOP would come to dominate the courts too. Roughly one-quarter of all active federal judges are Trump appointees. Republicans were also able to place three Supreme Court justices over the course of Trump’s term—leaving a 6-3 conservative majority that is likely to endure for some time.
Fortunately, parties virtually always lose seats in the House during their inaugural midterms. The GOP was no exception in 2018. Although the Republican Party’s losses were almost exactly average for an inaugural midterm, it was enough to flip the House to the Democrats.
In 2020, another key win: Joe Biden managed to unseat Donald Trump and is poised to assume the presidency in January 2021. Yet the Democratic Party finds itself in an overall weaker position than before the election.
Democrats lost seats in the House—putting them on track to lose the chamber outright in 2022. They may fail to take control of the Senate. They lost one governorship. The Democratic Party also saw continued erosion in state legislatures, leaving the GOP in a dominant position once again with respect to post-Census redistricting. According to FiveThirtyEight estimates, Republicans will control redistricting for roughly 43 percent of the seats in the House. Democrats will have comparable control over a mere 17 percent of seats. This is no small loss, as these maps will govern elections through 2030.
In short, although Barack Obama was fond of describing himself and his allies as being on the “right side of history”—and implying that his opponents were consigned to its dustbin—history seems to have had other ideas. But whatever happened to the Obama coalition? What went wrong with the emerging Democratic majority?
To help answer this question, I compared Democrat and Republican vote shares for various groups over the past 16 years. One thing that struck me looking at exit poll data—especially comparing the margins between Democrats and Republicans across time for different constituencies—is that parabolas seemed to emerge in the data over and over again. The numbers would go up or down significantly, only to return to some historical baseline. Visualizing the data confirmed this suspicion.
For African Americans, racial “others,” Protestants, and non-religious people, the trajectory was a consistent decline in allegiance to the Democratic Party from 2008 through 2020—culminating in a return to their 2004 levels of support.
However, some groups followed a slightly different path to this same destination. For instance, Democrats saw declines with whites, men, senior citizens (voters 65 and older) and rural voters to below their 2004 baselines over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations, but their margins shifted back to their pre-Obama positions in 2020.
Across the board, however, the entire Obama and Trump administrations essentially ended in an electoral wash with all of these groups.
For others, 2008 seemed to remain a key focal point—and any changes after 2008 seemed to have been erased by the end of this cycle. For example, Hispanics, Asians, and Catholics shifted still further toward the Democrats after 2008. However, virtually all of these gains have been erased in the intervening years as well.
The silver lining is that while the declines among Hispanic and Asian voters have been significant over the last eight years, Democrats’ margins with these voters remain significantly above the pre-Obama period. Of course, it is conceivable that the party could see continued losses with Hispanics, Asians, and Catholics down the line—but for now, their margins have merely shifted to their 2008 levels.
Others followed the opposite trajectory. For instance, women moved slightly toward the GOP in 2012, but shifted back towards the Democrats over the next two cycles. Meanwhile, city-dwellers, Catholics, voters aged 30–64, and those with some college (but no degree) all shifted significantly toward the GOP from 2008 through 2016. However, they all returned to nearly their 2008 baselines this election.
Movements in LGBTQ vote share, on the other hand, are highly unusual as compared to most other groups. Rather than reacting to the arrival of Obama or Trump on the political scene, LGBTQ voters seem to be responding to different factors than the rest of the electorate.
In any case, from the data we have explored so far, it may seem difficult to understand how Biden could have won in 2020. Yes, Democrats roughly matched their 2008 vote share with many groups. However, they ended up in a worse position with a number of core constituencies, including whites, African Americans, racial “others,” and LGBTQ voters.
Democrats’ margins for those earning less than $30k per year also continued dropping every year from 2008 through 2020. Obama won these voters by 33 percentage points in 2008. By 2020, Democrats’ lead was down to 8 points.
Fortunately, many other voters seem to have been so alienated by Trump that they shifted significantly toward the Democratic Party from 2016 through 2020.
Middle-income earners ($50,000–99,000 per year), suburbanites, and college grads all moved dramatically away from the GOP under Trump. This should not be particularly surprising, as these voters more than others value things like decorum, civility, and political correctness. They want the president to be “presidential.” Trump clearly was not.
But of course, to the extent that aesthetics drove these defections, many could end up shifting back to the GOP were the party to put someone more “respectable” on the ballot down the line. Indeed, voters earning $100k per year were initially so put off by Trump that they shifted toward Democrats in 2016 to a degree that was without recent historical precedent. However, by 2020 they were back to voting their pocketbooks, supporting Trump at roughly the same levels they supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Post-Trump, the whole constellation of bourgeois voters could follow suit.
Similar dynamics seem to be at work with respect to moderate and Independent voters.
Democrats’ 2020 margin with independents was their best for any presidential cycle on record, going back to 1972 (when these records begin). Overall, it was the largest margin among independents that either party has won in a presidential cycle since 1984. Their margins with moderates were also historic—not just among Democrats, but for either party—going all the way back to 1972.
However, given that these voters are not firm partisans, many seem to have voted for GOP candidates down-ballot—leading to a situation where Biden won the presidency by at least 6 million votes even as his party saw significant losses in congressional and state races. In future cycles, it is likely many of these moderate and independent voters will cast ballots for a Republican president as well. They clearly seem to have been rejecting Trump rather than embracing the Democratic Party.
Young people, meanwhile, increasingly drifted from the Democratic Party over the course of the Obama administration. However, in apparent reaction to Trump, a new generation began to support the Democrats more robustly. The party even slightly exceeded Obama’s 2008 margins during the 2018 midterms. However, it seems that young people were uninspired by Biden: Democratic vote share with 18-to-29-year-old voters has already begun to significantly decline.
In short, many of the groups that were key to Biden’s 2020 victory do not seem to be part of an enduring coalition. They sought to oust Trump. With that accomplished, a large share are likely to shift back to the GOP in coming cycles.
Indeed, this is precisely what happened after 2008. Suburbanites, middle-income earners and college-educated voters were widely described as core constituents of the Obama coalition. However, this assumption was premature. As the chart above shows, all of these groups shifted significantly toward the Republicans after Obama took office—and continued to favor the GOP through the rest of his tenure. That is, although these voters did indeed shift toward Democrats in 2008, they did not seem to be big fans of the Obama administration in subsequent years. They could well respond to Biden in kind.
Democrats, then, find themselves in a precarious position. Many of the constituencies held to be central to the Obama coalition have been drifting away from the party. Even under Trump, Democrats’ erosion among minority voters has continued unabated. They are seeing consistent attrition among people of faith too—not just with Christians, but also Muslims, Jews and other believers. The energy the party built with young people in 2018 already seems to be fading. However, Democrats have not pulled in new constituencies to offset the declining allegiance of these voters. Instead, many of those who helped Democrats pull off wins in 2018 and 2020 seem likely to migrate back toward the GOP when Trump is no longer on the ballot.
I know, I know. 2020 has been a rough year. And Joe Biden’s win was understandably, for many, a rare moment of light.
But the truth of the matter is, now that the “Resistance” has won, it’s not clear how the center will hold. There isn’t really a “Biden coalition” to speak of. There is just the husk of the Obama coalition, unlikely to carry the party much further than it already has—plus a mélange of swing voters who didn’t particularly love the Obama-Biden administration and likely won’t be thrilled with the Biden-Harris administration either.
That is, in the absence of Trump, Democrats seem to be on the verge of an identity crisis—and possibly an electoral crisis as well. Who the party was against was obvious over the past four years. But what is the party actually for? For that matter, who is the party for? Resolving these questions—not just in principle but in practice—will be a messy affair in the coming months and years. Not everyone is going to like the answers.