It’s fitting that Republicans lost the presidential election behind a former Massachusetts governor, because the outcome has left the GOP in the same position as Democrats after they lost in 1988 behind then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
In each case, the defeat stripped away comforting excuses and confronted the losing party with the stark message that its agenda and coalition, as currently constructed, could not win a presidential majority except in unusual circumstances.
With Mitt Romney’s defeat, Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the previous six presidential elections (with the asterisk that George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000). After Dukakis’s loss to George H.W. Bush, the Democrats had the same dubious record in the six elections from 1968 to 1988.
During those wilderness years, Democrats found many reassuring explanations for their failure. The most common was to blame the losses on the personal deficiencies of their candidates, particularly when they were contrasted with the jaunty personal appeal of Ronald Reagan, who won landslides in 1980 and 1984.
The 1988 election proved such a watershed for Democrats precisely because Bush was not nearly as compelling a politician as Reagan. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., with his inimitable timbre that mixed Harvard and Hell’s Kitchen, expressed the Democratic view at one fundraiser when he sniffed that if Democrats could not beat Bush, they should “find another country” to run in. When Bush nonetheless trounced Dukakis, Democrats were compelled to acknowledge that the GOP message had broader appeal than the Democrats’ fading New Deal liberalism. Only then did the party fully commit to the painful reassessment that produced the centrist New Democrat movement and Bill Clinton’s victory four years later.
Republicans face a comparable moment now. The vast majority of party strategists considered President Obama a uniquely vulnerable target, who had provoked a fierce ideological backlash from white conservatives over his stimulus and health care legislation, and who struggled against the headwind of the grudging recovery from the Great Recession. And yet, despite a narrow margin in the popular vote, Obama became the fourth Democratic nominee in the past six elections to capture at least 332 Electoral College votes. No GOP nominee since the elder Bush in 1988 has won more than the 286 that his son carried in 2004.
Like Democrats after Reagan’s 1984 landslide, most Republicans viewed Obama’s resounding 2008 victory (the most decisive for a Democrat since 1964) as a personal, not party, triumph unlikely to be repeated. From the Romney campaign to Fox News, the fundamental miscalculation in Republican ranks was that the 2008 electorate, with its huge participation by minorities and young people, was a onetime anomaly powered by Obama’s charisma and the singular excitement surrounding the first African-American nominee. Senior Romney advisers, echoed by conservative commentators, expected the electorate in 2012 to look more like 2004, when it was older and whiter and thus more evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats.
The 2012 results exposed that expectation as another comforting fantasy. The diverse electorate of 2008 was not an anomaly—it was the next point on a graph that extends back decades. The Obama campaign’s formidable mobilization effort intensified those trends. But the white share of the vote has declined in every election since 1980 (except from 1988 to 1992 when Ross Perot’s quirky independent candidacy inspired blue-collar whites to turn out in larger numbers). In each election since 1996, the minority share of the vote has reached a new high; 2016 is virtually guaranteed to erase the record of 28 percent established this year.
What’s more, while the change is occurring most rapidly in traditional immigrant destinations such as California, Florida, and Nevada (each of which saw its nonwhite participation soar last week), minorities increased their vote share by at least 2 percentage points in 19 states this year and by 1 point in four others. With Romney losing a combined 80 percent of nonwhite voters, those small shifts provided a big thumb on the scale for Obama in those places. Similar trends are evident with the Democratic-leaning millennial generation, which also increased its vote share from 2008 and outvoted the GOP-leaning senior population.
Some pollsters, acting more like therapists, tried to comfort Republicans with surveys that unrealistically assumed an electorate as white as it was in the 1990s. The unavoidable message of Obama’s victory, especially in this unforgiving economic climate, is that those days are never returning. The “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, young people, and white-collar whites (especially women) that Obama has constructed atop a foundation set by Clinton in 1992 is now clearly a majority in presidential elections, just as the Nixon/Reagan coalition was in its era. Democrats only overthrew that dominant coalition after they finally acknowledged that in national campaigns, their opponents were appealing to a broader range of Americans than they were. Such a painful recognition is the indispensable first step toward revival for Republicans now.
This article appeared in print as "The GOP’s 1988."
This article appears in the November 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.