The Obama Coalition Is Different

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, the “New Deal coalition” he forged maintained a grip on American politics for almost forty years—from 1932 to 1968. The New Deal coalition was composed of unions, liberals, white ethnics, blacks, and Southern whites. That the goals of these groups were frequently at odds did not seem to be a barrier to maintaining the coalition because they all thought they had something to gain.

I think that the Obama coalition is not only composed of different groups than the New Deal coalition but is different in kind, will behave differently than that prior coalition. Here’s Josh Kraushaar’s characterization of the Obama coalition:

White blue-collar voters, once a staple of Democratic coalitions past, have become estranged from their old political home over cultural issues. In their place are what my colleague Ron Brownstein labels “the coalition of the ascendant”—single women, minorities, and millennial voters.

I don’t believe that coalition is nearly as durable as the New Deal coalition. One thing of which we can be sure is that young voters won’t be young forever and as they mature I think we should expect that their interests will change. Whether that means that they’ll vote for somebody else or the programs they’ll insist on will change I couldn’t tell you. If recent history is any gauge it suggest they won’t vote at all.

That’s another difference. The New Deal coalition were reliable voters who would turn out in numbers at every election. Whether the “coalition of the ascendant” will be equally reliable remains to be seen.

7 comments… add one
  • Cstanley

    The essence of perverse incentives in politics: coalitions dissolve if the politicians actually solve the problems of the constituents that make up the coalition.

  • That’s exactly right, Cstanley. The main problem of the young is youth and that will be solved inevitably.

  • jan

    Both above comments are astute.

  • michael reynolds

    FDR’s coalition was hard as hell to hold together during his time in office. He was already busy pandering to southern whites while reassuring blacks, playing both ends. He had terrible problems with labor – John L. Lewis hated him. Other unions liked him better.

    It was Nixon who broke the coalition by appealing to southern and northern blue collar racism, by ending the draft, and by co-opting liberal issues like the environment. Very good politician, Nixon. They didn’t call him Tricky Dick for nothing.

    But coalitions are passé I think in the modern era. They relied on institutions, and they relied on people willing to follow the lead of said institutions (the church, unions, professional associations.) People today reject the notion of being ‘part of,’ and insist on individual reckoning. The only remaining coalition is the Fox News Coalition, which is already coming apart at the seams.

    I’d make the additional point that it’s a mistake to refer to an Obama coalition. Obama’s campaign was uniquely individual in focus. No one is targeting groups, they target individuals via email and social media and direct contact. They have too much specific data to rely on vague and unreliable groups – as both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney discovered. Obama wasn’t cocky in 2012 because he thought he had this group and that group lined up, he had lists of millions of names of committed supporters.

  • Cstanley

    Sure Michael, that 18-24 year old cohort on social media are well known for being independent thinkers. I’m sure Obama’s success was due to well reasoned policy discussions on Facebook, and wasn’t at all motivated by a desire to be one of the cool kids.

  • Ken Hoop

    You better believe the coalition isn’t as durable as the New Deal coalition.
    Neither is the outsourced economy.

    Yeah, there’s a corollary.

  • michael reynolds


    You should read about the Obama campaign. It had nothing to do with the cool kids. It had a lot to do with data collection and analysis and finding out how to follow up on that information. In the old days – and in the Romney campaign – you’d send campaign workers in by neighborhood relying on ethnicity or economic status. Now they go and talk to specific individuals and leverage their families and friends. It’s sniper rifles as opposed to shotguns.

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