Changing Electorate Promises Bright Future for Progressive Politics

In last Tuesday's election, there was a dramatic demographic and geographic shift in who supported progressives all the way down the ballot.  These changes could lead to long-term electoral support for progressives if they deliver on the promises they made to voters. 

As we highlighted last week, progressives made gains across the country, with statewide results tracking federal results more than in previous elections.  The overall trend is that progressive candidates are making gains in every region of the country except Appalachia (an area stretching from Tennessee and Kentucky into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas and Mississippi) where both Obama and progressive candidates at the state level had heavy losses. Progressives, however, made strong gains almost everywhere else, and importantly, strong inroads were made in the West.  If we examine in depth where voters drove this shift to the left, the numbers are striking.

Young People:
 One of the great questions of this election was whether or not young people, seemingly more energized than at any time in two generations, would turn out at a rate equivalent to older voters.  While not hitting the average turnout, young people did participate in larger numbers, breaking beyond 50% and accounted for 60% of the increase of voters this year.  Even more important for progressives, the shift in voter allegiance for young people shifted dramatically. Among voters under 30, two-thirds voted for President-Elect Obama, compared with just over half for Senator Kerry in 2004.  (See graph to the right courtesy of UMass Political Science Professor Brian Schaffner.) This is just the latest piece in a string of evidence showing that the so-called millennials are the most progressive cohort in generations. And not only are they more progressive than their predecessors, they are also more politically involved, and as this election illustrated, civically engaged.  Given these shifts, it is vitally important that progressives implement reforms to foster youth participation such as early registration for 16-year-olds, making schools "motor voter" registration agencies, and permitting internet registration.

Hispanics:  President Bush famously courted Hispanics and increased the Republican share of this rapidly growing ethnic group.  Central to Democratic efforts this year was reversing that trend and placing Hispanic voters solidly within their coalition.  On election day those efforts paid off, and while not seeing a national surge in Hispanic turnout, Hispanic voters did strongly favor the Democrats, giving Obama the same two-thirds of their votes.  Importantly, although Hispanic turnout didn't surge nationally, it did in key battleground states in the West, such as Colorado (where Hispanic turnout increased over 100%) and Nevada (which saw a 50% increase).

Religious Voters:  President-Elect Obama made a bold push for religious voters, who many assumed had abandoned the Democratic Party for good over differences on "cultural" issues, principally abortion and gay rights.  This year, however, voters of every faith increased their support for Obama relative to Kerry's performance in 2004.  And while not the tectonic shift that we saw among young people and Hispanics, Obama did raise the party's share of weekly churchgoing voters by 8% and occasional worshipers by 11%.  Although evangelicals as a group continued to give overwhelming support to the Republican Party and made up a large percentage of John McCain's coalition, there was one major shift that was significant for progressives.  In the Midwest, Obama received 33% of evangelicals votes, which is a dramatic increase from the 25% that Kerry obtained in 2004.  Additionally, the racial divide among evangelical voters remains as deep as ever.

With youth and fast-growing segments of the population, like Hispanics, voting overwhelmingly for progressive candidates, and progress being made in bringing white evangelical and other religious voters into the progressive fold, demographic shifts will grow the ranks of progressives in coming years if they can merely maintain this new level of support among these groups. 


CIRCLE - Youth Turnout Rises to at Least 52%
New York Times, Adam Nossiter - For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics
Los Angeles Times, Cathleen Decker - How Obama Captured a Large Chunk of the 'Faith' Vote
Beliefnet - Who Are The Obamagelicals? - A Few Notable Patterns from the National Exit Polls