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Racial Voting Surge: Obama's Re-election and the Democrats' 2006 Senate Class

A Commentary by Thomas F. Schaller

Thursday, May 19, 2011

After two strong congressional cycles in 2006 and 2008, the Democrats were "shellacked" by Republicans in 2010. As the 2012 cycle approaches, uncertainty prevails for both parties: Each is trying to hold or expand its majority in one chamber while attempting to weaken and maybe topple the opposition in the other.

The Democrats built their current Senate majority in 2006 on the backs of a strong class of freshmen, many of whom unseated Republicans suffering from a public backlash against President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Bush is gone and the burdens of winding down that war now fall upon Barack Obama, whose political approval ratings have dropped significantly since taking office, notwithstanding his recent but probably temporary boost from the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden. The president's powerful 2008 electoral tailwinds have fizzled, and some have even become headwinds.

But 2012 is a presidential, not congressional cycle, and the 2008 and 2010 results demonstrated that higher turnout driven in part by nonwhite voters tends to favor Democrats in presidential years. Put another way, having Obama rather than Bush in the White House may be a liability to Harry Reid's quest to maintain his Senate majority, but having Obama running for re-election at the top of the ticket could be a compensatory asset.

The countervailing impact of an expected surge in nonwhite voters could be especially important in four states boasting freshmen Senate Democrats and significant nonwhite voter populations: Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In 2008, Obama carried three of the four, and nearly carried the fourth. (He lost Missouri by fewer than 4,000 votes.) If Obama's coattails matter anywhere, they should matter in this quartet of states, right?

Not so fast. Although the 2008 electorate witnessed a record turnout among nonwhite voters, the surge in nonwhite voters occurred in many states where Obama was sure to win (New York) or lose (Texas). In fact, as Chart 1 shows, changes between 2006 and 2008 in the racial composition in the aforementioned four states were hardly uniform. Although differences may be partly attributable to exit poll sampling error, in some cases the minority vote didn't increase substantially or at all.

Chart 1. Racial Turnout Share (Democratic performance), 2006 versus 2008

Source:  CNN Exit polls, 2006 and 2008

Let's take a look at each state in detail:

Missouri :  No 2006 Senate rookie Democrat was more connected to Barack Obama's fate than Claire McCaskill. In 2006, his first election cycle as a Senate incumbent, Obama campaigned vigorously on then-state Auditor McCaskill's behalf. Two years later, McCaskill was among Obama's early major backers: Her endorsement of him over female Senate colleague Hillary Clinton helped legitimize Obama's presidential candidacy.

Every bit of help from Obama and others mattered: McCaskill beat Republican incumbent Jim Talent by slightly more than 2% statewide. African Americans, 91 percent of whom voted for McCaskill, were 13% of Missouri's electorate in 2006. But they made up no larger of a share in 2008. The Obama campaign invested heavily in Missouri, an investment that almost paid off. Should Missouri look less promising in 2012 and the Obama camp decides to direct its resources elsewhere, McCaskill could face a tough re-election fight against potential Republican opponents such as Rep. Todd Akin or former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.

Ohio :  In 2006, Ohio experienced a dramatic red-to-blue transformation. Voters upset with Republican governor Robert Taft and Republican Sen. Mike DeWine elected progressive Democrat Sherrod Brown. Brown won 85% of votes from African Americans, who made up 15% of the electorate.

The Crystal Ball 's Larry Sabato rates Brown "vulnerable" to a potential challenge from Treasurer Josh Mandel or others. A champion for labor in the Senate, Brown will need to do well among working-class white voters if nonwhite voter turnout doesn't rise significantly over 2008 levels.

Pennsylvania :  If there was a Senate shellacking in 2006 among the supposedly competitive races, it was incumbent Rick Santorum's defenestration by Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania. Casey cruised to a 17-point victory, with African Americans, largely clustered in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties, supporting him with 90% of their votes.

Like Ohio, the Latino share doubled between 2006 and 2008 from 2% to 4%, and African Americans grew from 10% to 13% of the electorate. With polls showing that Santorum, who is considering a presidential run, would have a hard time beating Casey in a rematch, it's unlikely the Republicans will nominate a serious challenger.

The Democrat who will be relying most on a minority voter surge in Pennsylvania will be Obama himself; recent polls show his approval numbers dropping in the Keystone State. But Casey is probably safe no matter how well African Americans and Latinos turn out for the president's re-election bid.

Virginia :  Of the four states, Virginia is unique for two reasons. First, incumbent James Webb's decision to retire makes it the only of the four with an open seat, which makes it, all else equal, tougher for Democrats to defend. But it is also unique in terms of minority voter surge in 2008.

A state success story for Obama and Democrats, this southern state with the increasingly northern-looking electorate swung dramatically in the four years since Bush's re-election. The African American share of the vote jumped from 16% to 20%, and Latinos grew from 2% to 5%, with Asian Americans making up 3% of the electorate in both election cycles.

Tim Kaine -- the former governor and Democratic National Committee chair who is, like McCaskill, a close political ally of the president -- needs a repeat performance from Obama in 2012 in his state. If there is a state where Democratic hopes of holding a seat won in 2006 rely most directly on Obama's racial coattails, Virginia is it.

Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia aren't the only states where minority turnout and voting patterns will affect Senate outcomes. But the four states provide an interesting mix, including one state where an Obama minority voter surge is essential to hold an open seat (Virginia); another where it probably won't be necessary for the incumbent to win re-election (Pennsylvania); a third where the incumbent could lose even if minority voters rally to her and the president's defense (Missouri); and a fourth state in the distressed Midwest that is so competitive every four years that mobilization of minorities may be more than offset by white voter disapproval of Obama's performance (Ohio).

A surge in nonwhite voter turnout could prove pivotal in very close races, but freshmen Senate Democrats had better not rely exclusively on another Obama surge electorate to win their second terms.

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a guest columnist for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Thomas F. Schaller

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