The nomination of Barack Obama will test whether the new Democratic coalition has grown strong enough to fend off Republican assaults to produce the first presidential victory for a non-Southern candidate in 44 years - and the first victory for a black in the history of the nation.
The Obama campaign has accelerated a transformation already underway in the Democratic electorate. 2008 appears likely to mark the death knell for what remained of the New Deal coalition - the coalition that was crucial to the early elections of such politicians as Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy.
In its place is a Democratic alliance that initially emerged during George McGovern's 1972 campaign, became competitive in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, and that now appears to be solidifying as the core of the party: a combination of "haves" -- socially liberal, well-educated whites, especially the young, and "have-nots" -- black and Hispanic minority voters.
This new Democratic Party lacks the economic coherence of "the party of the working man and women" that united under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and remained powerful through the 1964 election of Lyndon Johnson. On the one hand, in the new Democratic alliance, minorities generally place top priority on traditional bread and butter issues, while relatively well-off whites are more concerned with 'post-materialist' issues such as abortion, women's rights, sexual autonomy, self- expression, and a shared hostility to evangelical and other traditional religious agendas seen as repressive.
As the new center-left coalition has formed, it has proven repeatedly vulnerable to Republican attacks, capitalizing on backlash against the socially liberal, pro-civil rights, and anti-war views of Democratic activists. Using issues ranging from affirmative action to gay marriage, from black rates of crime to Democratic distaste for the use of force (national defense, gun control, mandatory sentencing, etc.) -- the GOP has pushed socially conservative and conventionally patriotic working-class and Southern whites into the Republican fold.
Democratic presidential victories over the past 48 years have been restricted to white male nominees from below the Mason-Dixon line: Johnson in '64, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.
University of Maryland political scientist Thomas Schaller, author of the 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie, argued to the Huffington Post that Obama "has a chance to peel away more upscale, well-educated, environmentally friendly whites, including some men," but he risks losing "downscale whites."
Schaller is a leading advocate of a Democratic strategy that effectively abandons much of the South. "Republicans have squeezed every last vote out of their mostly white, largely Southern, highly divisive, screw-the-coasts national strategy," Schaller contends. "The changes to come [benefiting Democrats] will be brought from the three-quarters of America found [in the north] or "west of the Mississippi River."
As a wealthy Ivy league graduate/Harvard trained lawyer and an African American, Obama -- and his similarly situated Princeton/Harvard educated wife Michelle - may bridge and/or unite the two wings of the Democratic party - upscale and downscale -- two wings whose material and post-material interests have in the past often diverged.
While Obama is strengthening this new Democratic coalition, there is some evidence that he may renew the party's diminished salience for working and lower-middle class whites.
The Democracy Corps, under the guidance of Stanley Greenberg, earlier this year polled and conducted focus groups in Macomb County, Michigan, home of many autoworkers and laid-off or retired members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The county has become the emblematic case study for so-called Reagan Democrats - a white working class population which cast decisive majorities for JFK in 1960 but then overwhelmingly rejected Walter Mondale in favor of Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Now, in 2008, according to Greenberg's survey data, the response of these voters and their children to Obama is lukewarm at best. While racial issues dominated the concerns of such voters two decades ago when they saw the Democratic Party as working to help African Americans at the expense of whites, today, the Democracy Corps study found, the biggest concern is "about Obama on national security, patriotism and keeping America strong....These are strong-defense Democrats who give Obama remarkably low marks on national security and have great trouble dismissing what Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright said about America."
In addition, according to the Democracy Corps, there are concerns among these voters that are "racial but not necessarily racist. These voters want to know that Obama will be a president for the whole country and not mainly represent African Americans - and for many this is a threshold issue.... Only 19 percent think he is similar to Jesse Jackson. However, these voters do not understand how Obama could sit in Reverend Wright's pews for 20 years."
While warning of white working class defections, the Democracy Corps conducted a separate study of young voters showing overwhelming support for Obama and, in what will be very important over the long haul, for the Democratic Party: "Barack Obama's support among young people is stable and convincing (currently 57-29 percent Obama). This stability rests in part on the strong belief among young people that Barack Obama can change things in this country."
The Corps found that "Impressive majorities of young people defy the cynical stereotypes of this generation and predict major changes on the economy, on Iraq, on health care, on energy, even gas prices....Young people do not believe John McCain can bring about change." The following chart -- tracking the favorability ratings among young voters -- suggests that Obama's strength will likely grow.
The Obama campaign is banking on solid backing among such young voters, combined - crucially - with stronger turnout and broader margins among black voters to compensate for losses among working-class whites, especially in such states as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania where the "Reagan Democrat" vote can be significant.
Black turnout this November is almost certain to be significantly higher than in previous elections.
A substantial increase in black turnout, coupled with enthusiastic election day support from the new and growing class of socially liberal 'new class" or 'knowledge work' voters -- whom the Obamas also represent exceptionally well -- may reduce the importance of white high-school-only, low and middle income desertion.
An analysis by Nate Silver at the polling web site 538 found that increasing black turnout will have significant consequences:
"For each 10 percent increase in African-American turnout, Obama gains approximately 13 electoral votes, and 1 percent in his popular vote margin against John McCain. Even a 10 percent increase is enough to take him from a slight underdog against McCain to a slight favorite, while at higher levels of turnout improvement, Obama becomes the strong favorite."
Regardless of the outcome on November 4, the long-range issue for the Democratic Party is whether the new coalition has staying power, or whether the gains made this year evaporate in the future without Obama at the top of the ticket -- inspiring the surge of support he has produced among blacks and those under the age of 35. Conversely, the issue for the Republican Party, regardless of whether it holds or loses the White House, is whether it can make adjustments to accommodate the demographic changes - the growth in the number of Hispanics, unmarried, and well-educated voters - so that such trends do not work only to the advantage of the Democrats.