The United States is a much different country demographically than it was in 1994. A decade and a half ago, over three quarters of Americans were white. That number has dropped to just over 60% now and is on the way to falling below 50% by the midcentury. In particular, the percentage of Latinos in the U.S. population has nearly doubled (from about 9% to 16%) over the same period. In addition, half of a new generation—Millennials (born 1982-2003), the largest and most diverse generation in American history—has joined the electorate.
All of these changes have worked to the advantage of the Democratic Party and are should continue to do so in the future. In NDN’s February survey of the 21st century American electorate, Millennials identified as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin (42% vs. 21%) and non-Caucasians did so by over 4:1 (57% vs. 14%). Women also strongly identified as Democrats (44% vs. 24% Republicans). By the way, the other half of the Millennial Generation, all those now under 18, already live in a world where whites are in the minority, promising an even larger Democratic edge in the future.
At least in part as a result of these major demographic changes, the Democratic Party now holds a clear lead among voters in party identification, something it did not have in 1994. In the most recent Pew national survey released earlier this week, the Democrats enjoy a nine-percentage edge over the Republicans in party ID (45% vs. 36%).In 1994, the two parties were tied at 44% each and in 1995, the year after the GOP won control of Congress, more Americans identified with or leaned to the Republican Party than the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).
Moreover, while it is true that attitudes toward the Democratic Party have declined during 2010, contrary to 1994 the Republican Party is not seen as a viable alternative by most voters. In 1994 favorable ratings of the Democratic Party fell in Pew’s surveys from 61% when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 to 50% by the time of the midterm election. In that same time period, positive perceptions of the Republican Party increased dramatically from 46% to 67%. While Pew’s March, 2010 survey showed Democrats with only a 40% favorable rating, down from 57% in the fall of 2008, positive attitudes toward the GOP also declined since President Barack Obama’s election from 40% to 37%, still leaving the Democrats with a slight advantage.
These demographic changes and attitudinal configurations have put the Democratic Party in a stronger position now than in 1994 to hold off a possible Republican wave. Furthermore, as they have enacted major portions of the Obama agenda, Congressional Democrats have improved their standing in comparison to Republicans on the generic ballot since earlier this year. All of the public surveys conducted during the past week show the Democrats with at least a modest lead. Over the last few months there has been a net shift of six-points toward the Democratic Party.
An examination of a few key findings from some recent polls shows why that shift has occurred.
First, while voters do not yet believe that America has returned yet to prosperity, there is a clear perception of progress. In the Quinnipiac survey, the number believing that the nation’s economy is getting better rose from 19% in April 2009 and 28% last December to 32% now. The belief that the economy is worsening is down from 32% to 24% over the same period. President Obama is getting some of the credit for the perceived improvement in the economy. His approval score for handling the economy is up from 39% in March 2010 to 44% currently. More specifically, the percentage approving of President Obama’s performance in creating jobs has risen from a low of 34% last January to 40% in May.
Second, after a year of rancor, voters are increasingly positive about the Democratic health care reform plan that passed Congress and was signed by the president in March. According to a recent CBS News poll, approval of the plan rose from only 32% in early March to 43% in May.
As a result, the president’s approval rating for handling health care in the Quinnipiac poll has risen from a low of 35% in January and February to 45% now.
As proof that nothing succeeds like success, the perception of an improving economy and the increasingly positive reactions to the newly enacted health care reform law have led to the most favorable job approval scores for both the president and congressional Democrats this year. For most of 2010, in the Quinnipiac poll, a slightly greater percentage of voters disapproved than approved of the way President Obama was handling his job. But in May, for the first time since early February the president’s approval score was in positive ground (48% approve vs. 43% disapprove). Over the same time frame, the job performance approval of congressional Democrats has gone up from 28% to 34%. By contrast, the approval score for congressional Republicans is down from a high of 34% in March to only 26% in May.
As a result,the forecast of another Democratic election disaster like that of 1994 seems premature and unlikely in today’s changed demographic and political environment. Those expecting a wave may well be left standing on the shore vainly waiting for a high tide that will never come.