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Election Exposes Looming Challenges For Both Parties Election Exposes Looming Challenges For Both Parties

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Politics / ON THE TRAIL

Election Exposes Looming Challenges For Both Parties

photo of Reid Wilson
November 7, 2012

Exuberant Democrats wake up this morning secure in the fact that they will control the White House for another four years and the Senate for at least another two. Mordant Republicans will crawl out of bed, if not content, then at least mollified by the fact that their firewall in the House of Representatives remains.

But President Obama's surprisingly wide margin of victory on Tuesday night tells two deeper, longer-term stories—the story of a dangerously homogenous Republican Party and a Democratic Party dangerously dependent on an unproven electorate.

Exit polls show a Republican Party that is becoming increasingly dependent on white and senior voters. Mitt Romney won 59 percent of white voters who cast ballots this year, and he won voters over 65 years old with 56 percent of the vote. In both cases, his percentages among those demographic groups eclipsed the rates George W. Bush reached in both 2000 and 2004.


That seemingly incongruous fact speaks to the rapidly-changing demographics in America. The white vote has shrunk precipitously as a percentage of the electorate, from 81 percent when Bush won office in 2000 to 74 percent in 2008 and 72 percent in 2012, according to exit polls.

Meanwhile, Democrats are getting a larger share of the minority vote. Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, nine points higher than Al Gore's 2000 total, 18 points higher than John Kerry's 2004 haul and five points greater than his own 2008 vote share. Obama showed similar gains among Asian American voters. And he won 93 percent of the black vote, only fractionally below his 2008 total, but blacks made up 13 percent of the 2012 electorate, three points higher than their 2000 share.

Younger voters too are becoming entrenched in the Democratic corner. Six in ten voters between the ages of 18-29 voted for Obama this year, down six points from 2008 but six points higher than Kerry's 2004 share and a whopping 12 points above Gore's share in 2000.

Put a simpler way: Republicans are winning a larger share of a shrinking pool of voters. Democrats are winning a larger share of a growing pool. Already, those two facts raise questions about the GOP's chances in future presidential elections. And minorities are growing at disproportionate rates in red states like Georgia and Texas, threatening Republicans' hold on some of their most reliable bastions of electoral college votes.

"You keep winning old people, that's great. But if you don't win young people and Hispanics and the growing parts of the electorate, you don't have much of a future," said Tom Davis, the former Virginia Republican congressman. A Republican pollster deeply involved in the 2012 battlefield added: "If we stay an all-white party, the only way we ever win a national election is if a Democratic president runs the country into the ground."

Even before the last races were called Tuesday night, some senior Republicans were calling for a serious rethink of their party's strategy, and identity.

"[I]t’s clear that with our losses in the Presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party," Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement. "While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead."

But when Democrats come down from their election night high, they too must consider the future. After all, the man who inspired the coalition that propelled them to victory will never again be on a ballot.

Though Obama's campaign has rewritten the script for future presidential campaigns, his win did not provide his party with anything resembling coattails. The House Republican majority was never at risk, and Democratic wins or leads in several critical Senate contests came in places like North Dakota, Montana and Indiana—all states where the Democratic nominee spent their campaigns running away from Obama, and election night running far ahead of him.

Indeed, Obama has proven unable to use his personal popularity, which remained strong even as his job approval rating fell, or his political organization to benefit his fellow Democrats. In fact, he was the albatross around his own party's neck during the disastrous 2010 midterms, while party leaders on Capitol Hill complain he does little to look out for their political interest or aid their fundraising efforts.

The challenge for Democrats is to duplicate the successful coalition the Obama team has built, without the charismatic leader who built it. That means absorbing the mammoth Obama for America organization into the Democratic Party structure, adopting the tactics that propelled Obama to a second term and turning out voters who will come out for a president, but perhaps not for a senator or a congressman.

That's something Democrats have tried before, with some success. When he chaired the Democratic National Committee, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean pioneered the 50-state strategy, an early forerunner of Obama's ground-based field operation. Some credit Dean's strategy for the party's sweeping wins in House races in 2006. Now, Dean says the key is to make the face of the Democratic Party look more like its voters.

"We have to make sure that we are diligent in making sure our ticket is as diverse as our electorate is," he said in an interview early Wednesday. "We do okay with that, but we don't do as well as we could."

Dean also said his party succeeds when it adopts a coherent, unified message, like the one on display during the 2008 elections and during the president's re-election bid, rather than the scatter-shot approach the party took as it ran from danger in 2010.

"We need to be out there every day for four years, not every day for a year, which means we've got to be as good as the Republicans are in terms of message. And we're not, by a long shot," Dean said. "I could never get the Dems to be on message, especially when we didn't have the presidency. And when the president is not on the ballot, it's pretty hard to keep all these Democrats on message."

Whether it's a question of message, diversity or absorbing one of the largest—and most expensive—political organizations in history, how Democrats attempt to duplicate Obama's success will drive their own success when he's not on the ballot. Whether Republicans can engage in the reflection and recalibration Cornyn suggests, without self-immolation, will decide if their party can do anything to blunt the daunting Democratic edge.

At the current pace, Democrats' elation in 2012 could be replaced by despondency in 2014 if they can't boost turnout among voters who only showed up for Obama. And Republicans won't have the chance to install a president without a much broader, more diverse coalition, one they have so far been unable to build.

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