Monday, November 15, 2010
Thomas Shevory, Ithaca College
One narrative that has emerged from the 2010 mid-term elections is that Democrats have a “rust belt” problem. According to this, the long-term secular decline in economic activity in upstate New York, western and central Pennsylvania, parts of Ohio, and much of Michigan is undermining support for the Democratic Party. This argument turns up a lot on the cable tv news shows, and was featured in a recent Newsweek article as well. This is a variation of the long-running argument that the white working class, a former base of the Democratic Party, has deserted it. At one time, it was on cultural issues, but now it’s on economic ones. And this does not bode well for the President in the general election. But is it true?
There’s little doubt that the Democrats’ losses had a lot to do with the unemployment problem. But it’s important not to jump to conclusions. If you unpack the numbers just a little bit, it becomes clear that things are a bit more complicated than the narrative might have us believe. For example, while Democrats lost some seats in upstate New York, in formerly industrial pockets, like Buffalo, the party easily reelected a Democratic congressman. In fact, a quick glance at the new congressional map reveals that Democratic losses line up along urban and rural borders in much the way they have for decades.
Variations occurred at the margins, often because of shifts in the suburban vote. Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Akron are all in districts that elected Democratic members of congress by comfortable margins. Connecticut and Massachusetts, both of which have suffered their share of deindustrialization, did not elect a single Republican member to the new Congress. Union members tended to vote a majority for Democratic candidates in key races, albeit in not as large numbers as they might once have (but again that’s not a new story).
The big story in the rust belt, as with many other parts of the country, was not a shift in party affiliation, so much as a decline in turnout. Democratic voters, especially the young, did not turn out in the same numbers proportionately to their Republican counterparts in 2010 as they did in 2008. The much-vaunted enthusiasm gap turned into a reality. Perhaps this isn't surprising. Democratic constituencies were demoralized, and it is more difficult to mobilize young voters in off-year elections. Enthusiasm is a fleeting thing, and, in the long run, with all due respect to Facebook and Twitter, electoral politics is mostly shaped by old-school, boring, institutional commitments.