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Jim Webb's Struggles Highlight A Demographic Shift In The Democratic Party


Jim Webb dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination today. The former Virginia senator couldn't find support in his party's primary and is considering running as an Independent. The Democratic Party has changed a lot over the past 20 years, and Webb's withdrawal says a lot about what it means and used to mean to be a Democrat. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro joins me now here in the studio.

Hey there Domenico.


CORNISH: So Webb was never in the top tier of this Democratic race, needless to say. Who was he trying to appeal to?

MONTANARO: You know, he was really trying to appeal to white working-class voters, believed in a strong military position in the world. You know, he was the only combat veteran on either side in this race, and you know, he really was able to try to talk to that in his announcement today.


JIM WEBB: I fully accept that my views on many issues are not compatible with the power structure in the nominating base of the Democratic Party.

CORNISH: So which issues? What is he talking about, and how has this party changed from under him?

MONTANARO: And you can see there, you know, this is somebody who has really been on a side step with the rest of the party. Affirmative action, for example, at the debate came up - guns, foreign policy. It's pretty notable considering that he disagreed with President Obama at the debate when others were really trying to hug him more closely. Really speaks to how the party has changed over the last 20 years. I mean, think about from Bill Clinton to Hillary Clinton how the arc of the party has changed. Bill Clinton really tried to focus on making the party more centrist and appealing to some of those more white, working-class voters. Remember Bill Clinton from Arkansas who tried to go after welfare reform, he signed the don't ask, don't tell? And that is not just not who the party and what the party is now for where these candidates are trying to appeal.

CORNISH: Right, the whole legacy of Reagan Democrats, right?

MONTANARO: Absolutely. I mean, Reagan Democrats, who had switched over in 1980 to go with Ronald Reagan, 12 years of Republicans after, you know, a lot of Southern Democrats had switched over - culturally, had made that shift. Jim Webb is really trying to appeal to something of that era, and that demographic has really shrunk quite a bit.

CORNISH: Here's the thing - we've been hearing for the last year or two about how Republicans are struggling to win over minorities. I mean, if the minority population is growing, aren't Democrats the ones with, basically, demographics on their side?

MONTANARO: Well, that's true in presidential races but not necessarily in congressional ones. I mean, even President Obama, you could see he won the lowest share of the white vote of any Democrat in history, 39 percent. John Kerry won 41 percent - not much better, but he lost. President Obama won in a landslide. So that talks about how the demographics have changed significantly in a presidential race when President Obama could get out young voters, minorities, who have doubled, by the way, since 1992 when Bill Clinton was running. That is a whole...

CORNISH: And this is all in terms of turnout.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. So that's why the difference - when you think about congressional races, a president really needs to win over Congress in order to get something done. We could see that in President Obama's first term. So if Democrats aren't able to win a congressional race as an appeal to white voters, it's very difficult for them to then be able to implement some of the legislation that they'd like to.

CORNISH: OK so what does that mean for Democrats going forward?

MONTANARO: Well, they really do need to find a way to appeal to this section of voters, you know, if they're going to hope to win back Congress any time soon. I mean, even in a presidential election, it's still not clear that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or anyone else can get the kind of level of support even among minorities that President Obama did. So Democrats tried to come out with this nine - they had a nine-page summary saying that they needed to appeal to Southern white voters. They said by May they would have an autopsy that showed us a little bit more fully what they would do. Months have gone by. They've never come out with it.

CORNISH: That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico thanks so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.