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Does the GOP Need the Educated Class?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

After the Republican disaster of 2008, some conservative intellectuals hoped the party would try to gain support from educated elites. The 2010 election shows that GOP gains came from almost all parts of the electorate except the elite.

The votes have not been fully counted yet in California and some other places and, as I write, one House race—NY-1—is still undecided. But Republicans have gained a historic 63 House seats—the biggest gain for either party since 1948—and will have a 242–193 majority in that chamber, assuming Democrats hold the lead they currently have in the remaining undecided district. This is a historic high point for Republicans in House races, comparable to, if not better than, their performance in the 1920s and at the turn of the 20th century.

What I am going to do here is to compare the Republican and Democratic percentages in 2008 and 2010 for each district, using these figures from Congressional Quarterly for 2008 and these figures from the New York Times website for 2010. The websites provide results to the tenth of a percentage; I have used these to indicate the Republican (or Democratic) gain in each district, rounding off to the nearest integer (and rounding down the 0.5 numbers). These numbers may change slightly when the final results come in, but I believe differences will be minimal and will not affect my overall conclusions.

Comparisons could not be made for 71 districts, because they lacked a major party candidate in either 2008 or 2010 or (in five cases) both. Republicans failed to contest 42 districts in 2008 and 4 districts in 2010 (FL-17, MA-8, NY-12, PA-1). Democrats failed to contest 12 districts in 2008 and 18 districts in 2010.1 Interestingly, 8 of the 42 districts Republicans failed to contest in 2008 elected Republican congressmen in 2010 (AR-1, AR-2, IL-17, LA-3, TN-6, TN-8, VA-9, WV-1). That leaves 364 districts in which comparisons of the party percentages are possible.

Over the last six decades we have seen much greater oscillation in party percentages for president than in party percentages in the popular vote for the House.

Overall, the popular vote for the House appears to have been 52%–45% Republican, a sharp change from the 54%–43% Democratic popular vote in 2008. The 9% increase in the GOP percentage is the biggest increase for either party since 1948. The Republican share of the popular vote for the House appears to be the same as in 1994 and is the best for Republicans since 1946, when they won the popular vote 54%–44%.

In 1946, however, the South—then the most Democratic region in the country—cast only 11% of the popular vote for the House, less than its proportion of the population; if more Southerners had voted, and had voted proportionate to population, as the South does today, the Republican percentage in 1946 would have been lower than the Republican percentages in 1994 and 2010; indeed, it would probably have been lower than the Democratic percentage in 1946.

Thus, 2010 was a historic win for Republicans.

First, let us look at the 34 districts where the Republican percentage was lower in 2010 than in 2008. (They do not include HI-1, where a Republican won the seat in a 2010 special election, but which elected a Democratic member by a wide margin in 2008.) The key factor in 12 of those districts was the retirement (or, in one case, the 2008 defeat) of a popular Republican incumbent who had often run ahead of his party.2 Another six districts seem to have had increasing black or Hispanic populations.3 In two districts (IN-5, SC-2), incumbents were unusually weakened, one being renominated with a minority of the vote in a split field, the other attracting unusual financing for the opposing Democrat by shouting a comment (“You lie!”) at the president’s State of the Union address. The Republican percentage also declined in the two districts represented by the party’s two top leaders in the House (OH-8, VA-7), presumably because some voters, happy enough to vote for them when they had weak opposition and were not prominent national figures, declined to vote for them when they stood to become the leaders of a party the voter generally does not favor. Finally, Republican percentages declined in seven heavily Republican districts4 where incumbents may have drawn more serious opposition than in 2008; in one more marginal district (PA-15) where Democrats recruited a popular local mayor to run; and in three districts (ME-1, NY-2, NC-8) held by Democratic incumbents, two of them freshmen.

What about the districts where Republicans made more than average gains in popular vote percentages? Somewhat surprisingly, there are only 144 of them, 40% of the districts where comparisons are possible. To see why, let’s start off by looking at heavily Democratic districts, which voted 60% or more for Barack Obama in 2008, and which in this article I characterized as black, Hispanic, gentry liberal, and working class or ethnic. In each case I show the change in Republican percentage in 2008–2010 for districts where a comparison is possible.

Barone 12.1.10 A

As you can see, Republicans made relatively few gains in heavily black districts or, with a few exceptions, in gentry liberal districts. By the way, many black districts are not listed because of lack of Republican candidates in 2008; most gentry liberal districts had Republican candidates in 2008 and 2010. It is apparent that Republicans made few gains particularly in the California districts, whether gentry liberal, black, or Hispanic.

On the other hand, Republicans made significant and above-average gains in most of the working class or ethnic districts, and in many Hispanic districts as well. Gains are also apparent in Hispanic districts where President Obama received less than 60% of the vote, listed below.

Barone 12.1.10 B

Republicans unseated Democrats in two of these districts, TX-23 and TX-27; the reason for the decline in FL-25 is that incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart left the district to run in FL21, formerly represented by his brother Lincoln. The 2008 exit poll showed Hispanics voting 68%–29% Democratic in House races; the 2010 exit poll showed them voting 60%–38% Democratic, indicating a 9% Republican gain—identical to the national average. The data seem to refute the theory that Republicans’ increasing opposition to comprehensive immigration legislation, now that George W. Bush has left office, has hurt the party’s candidates with Hispanic voters.

Let’s turn now to the results in the various regions of the country.

East. In New England, Republicans seem to have made significant gains, running at least 6% ahead of 2008 percentages in most districts in which there are comparable data, with a couple of exceptions where freshman Democrats consolidated their gains in gentry liberal turf (CT-4, ME-1). They made significant gains in MA-4, where Barney Frank encountered serious opposition for the first time in 28 years, and RI-1, where incumbent Patrick Kennedy retired and the Democratic mayor of Providence may have been hurt by local issues. Republicans gained little or nothing in New York City, except in NY-13, which includes Staten Island, with its large culturally conservative population. Republicans gained around their national average in the Long Island suburbs and upstate New York, doing even better in many upstate districts, where they captured five Democratic seats. Republicans also gained five seats in Pennsylvania, two in the Philadelphia suburbs with working-class backgrounds, two in the northeast anthracite country, and one in the far northwest.

Midwest. Here also, Republican gains were least in central cities and greatest in blue-collar country. Republicans captured Democratic districts in southern-accent country south of the Old National Road (OH-6, OH-18, IN-8, IN-9, MO-4), with gains of 14% to 22%, and in the far northern country around Lake Superior, with its large Finnish and other ethnic groups (MI-1, WI-7, MN-8), with gains of 13% to 19%, as I noted in my November 24 Washington Examiner column. They also captured the two Dakota at-large seats with gains of 17% and 16%.

West. More than half the House seats in the West are in California, where Republicans captured no seats and matched or exceeded their 9% national percentage gain in only 8 of 53 districts. This is partly because so few seats were seriously contested, with the incumbent-protection 2001 redistricting plan still operating smoothly.

California returns show Democrats outpolling Republicans in House races by only a 50%–47% margin, even as Democrats held 34 seats and Republicans only 19. Redistricting is one reason, but more important is demographics: Democratic districts contain more immigrants, more non-citizens, and, it would appear, more non-voters. The 34 Democratic districts cast a total (as of this reporting time; the numbers are incomplete) of 5,506,000 votes, or an average of 161,000 votes per district; the 19 Republican districts cast a total of 4,050,000 votes, for an average of 213,000 votes per district. The contrast is starkest in southern California, districts CA-24 through CA-53, where the 17 Democratic districts cast 2,328,000 votes and the 13 Republican districts cast 2,753,000 votes.

In the rest of the West, Republicans matched or exceeded their national percentage gain in most of the Democratic seats they picked up (AZ-1, AZ-5, CO-3, CO-4, ID-1, NM-2, WA-3) but not in most other districts. Washington State, where Republicans gained all but two seats in their 1994 sweep, provides an interesting picture. The one Republican gain was in WA-3, a blue-collar seat where incumbent Democrat Brian Baird was retiring; the percentage gain was 17%. They also gained 10% to 11% in the suburbs and Puget Sound territory north of Seattle (WA-1, WA-2) and 9% to 11% in the modest suburbs and forest country south and west of Seattle (WA-6, WA-9). They gained little or no percentage in heavily Republican eastern Washington (WA-4, WA-5), in central Seattle (WA-7), and in the affluent suburbs east of Lake Washington (WA-8).

South. Here there were huge Republican percentage gains in rural and small-town districts against Democratic incumbents: AL-5 (10%), FL-2 (15%), GA-8 (10%), MS-1 (11%), MS-4 (26%), NC-2 (18%), SC-5 (18%), TN-4 (19%), and TX-17 (16%). Republicans gained 18% in GA-2 and 15% in NC-7, which they narrowly lost. In addition, as previously mentioned, Republicans captured seven districts where they fielded no candidate at all in 2008: AR-1, AR-2, LA-3, TN-6, TN-8, VA-9, and WV-1. Few, if any, of these districts seem likely to elect a Democratic congressman any time soon.

A Historic Election in Context

A 9% gain for one political party in the popular vote for the House is highly unusual—2010 is the first time this has occurred since 1948. Most House races are not seriously contested, and the advantages of incumbency tend to minimize the change in percentage for House incumbents in most districts. Indeed, over the last six decades we have seen much greater oscillation in party percentages for president than in party percentages in the popular vote for the House. So although there were an unusually high number of seriously contested seats in the 2010 cycle (more than 100), there were still only 144 districts out of the 364 where comparison is possible that the Republican percentage increased by as much as or more than the 9% national average.

In the aftermath of the Republican disaster of 2008, some conservative writers hoped that the party could gain support from elite demographics—“the educated class,” as David Brooks calls it, meaning not so much “everyone who graduated from college” but more like “the kind of people we knew at school.” The results of the 2010 election, hugely encouraging for Republicans, indicate that the party’s gains came from almost all parts of the electorate except the elite demographic. I think it is extremely risky in a period of what I call open-field politics to make straight-line extrapolations from the results of one election to the next. But I also think that those conservatives aiming their pitch at their fellow Ivy League graduates, etc., are aiming in the wrong direction.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone also explains “The Enduring Character of Democrats and Republicans in Times of Political Change,” depicts “America in an Age of Open Field Politics,” and claims that American voters are “More Anti-Democrat than Anti-Incumbent.” Barone also argues that “In 2010 Sweep, Even the Finns Voted Republican” and Henry Olsen introduces “Blue Collars, Red Voters.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.


1. Republicans failed to contest these 42 districts in 2008: AL-7, AR-1, AR-2, AR-4, CA-18, CA-28, CA-30, CA-31, CA-32, CA-37, CA-38, FL-3, FL-17, FL-20, GA-4, GA-5, IL-17, LA-3, MA-2, MA-3, MA-5, MA-8, MA-9, MA-10, MI-14, MO-1, NJ-10, NY-6, NY-9, OH-11, OR-1, OR-4, PA-14, TN-6, TN-8, TN-9, TX-9, TX-16, VT-1, VA-9, WV-1, W-I4. Republicans failed to contest these 4 districts in 2010: FL-17, MA-8, NY-12, PA-1. Democrats failed to contest these 12 districts in 2008: AL-1, AL-6, AR-3, CA-19, LA-5, TX-1, TX-2, TX-5, TX-11, TX-14, TX-21, WI-5. Democrats failed to contest these 18 districts in 2010: AL-4, AL-6, CA-21, CA-22, FL-4, FL-21, GA-6, GA-9, GA-11, LA-7, OK-4, TX-1, TX-2, TX-7, TX-13, TX-24, TX-31, VA-6.

2. AZ-3, CT-4, DE-1, FL-12, FL-25, IL-10, KS-1, KS-4, MI-3, MO-7, SC-3, TN-3.

3. CA-34, CA-45, GA-13, MI-13, NY-15, PA-2.

4. CA-2, ID-2, MO-8, MT-1, NE-3, OK-5, WA-5.

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