The Spectacle Blog

The McGovern Coalition

By on 8.15.08 | 4:03PM

There's been a lot of back-and-forth here the past few weeks over Obama's electability. Stacy points out, correctly, that the coalition Obama put together to win the Democratic nomination -- young voters, activists, affluent white liberals, and blacks -- looks a lot like George McGovern's coalition. Hillary Clinton, though a McGovernite herself and the candidate McGovern actually endorsed in the primaries, had to remake herself as a Hubert Humphrey Democrat to compete. She (rather improbably) tacked blue-collar union workers, Appalachian working-class whites, culturally conservative ethnic Catholics, and Hispanics onto her base of pro-choice feminists.

Richard Nixon buried McGovern in a 49-state landslide in no small part because he divorced the Democratic Party from the blue-collar voters who were critical to the New Deal coalition. Nixon, taking Pat Buchanan's advice, was able to win these voters by appealing to their patriotism and social conservatism. Democrats have had a hard time winning these voters -- and winning presidential elections -- ever since. But because of family structure changes, government growth, immigration, and other demographic/social trends, the McGovern coalition has grown larger over time.

Yes, Michael Dukakis blew a 17-point lead (though that lead was likely inflated). But he also won 46 percent of the vote, including nearly half the Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. And while he also lost 40 states, many of them were close. Bill Clinton built his 32-state victory in 1992 in large part by targeting states where Dukakis won 45 percent of the vote or more. Sixteen years later, the Democrats nominated another personality-deficient Massachusetts liberal to run against a Republican named George Bush. That liberal, John Kerry, won 48 percent of the vote against an incumbent president during a time of war, a growing economy, relatively low unemployment, and just three years after 9/11 took Bush's approval ratings into the 90s. That's a larger share of the vote than Clinton won in 1992.

The McGovern coalition is still not a majority coalition, as evidenced by the continuing closeness of this race (McCain and Obama are tied in the latest Gallup tracking poll). The fact that we can seriously entertain the thought that the Democrats might lose this election is ample evidence of Stacy's contention that they have a terrific ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. That said, no Republican should bank on a strategy of waving the bloody shirt against McGovern, Walter Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry. Obama has all the same vulnerabilities, but he also only needs to move the country three points to the left of where it was in 2004.

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