No matter which side prevails, this year’s grueling presidential race looms as a milestone in the struggle for power between, and within, the two parties.
For Democrats, President Obama’s bid for a second term is likely to stand as an irreversible tipping point in their transformation from a New Deal coalition centered on working-class and older whites to a 21st-century alignment of young people, minorities, and white-collar whites, especially women. “This should put the foot down on the accelerator in terms of the transition,” says Ruy Teixeira, an expert on demographics and politics at the liberal Center for American Progress.
For Republicans, even if Mitt Romney triumphs, November could represent the last attempt to squeeze out a national majority almost entirely from white voters in a country rapidly growing more diverse. “Too many of the party apparat and too many of the powerful subgroups are much more connected to nostalgia than they are to modern demographics,” says longtime GOP consultant Mike Murphy. “I hear people talking about [Ronald] Reagan all the time, which is wonderful. But sometimes I imagine they are competing in a America that demographically no longer exists.”
These parallel changes are rooted in long-term social forces that are simultaneously increasing the population of Democratic-leaning minorities (especially Hispanics) and Republican-leaning white seniors (as the giant baby-boom generation moves into retirement); reducing the electorate’s share of blue-collar whites, now the most reliably Republican group of voters; and tilting the population of college-educated whites toward women, another Democratic-leaning constituency. These shifts have presented the parties with almost mirror-image problems. While Romney is struggling to dent the Democratic dominance of the steadily growing nonwhite population, Obama is straining to maintain even 40 percent support from white voters, and in November he could post the weakest showing among blue-collar whites of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale got buried by Reagan’s 1984 landslide.
Win or lose, the result seems destined to divide the country closely enough to raise difficult questions for both sides. The fact that Romney, in most scenarios, can hope at best for a narrow win, despite Obama’s weakness among whites—and despite levels of economic dislocation that typically dooms incumbents—testifies to the demographic limits of the GOP’s current coalition. “Even [if] Romney does in fact get the white vote at the level [he needs] … and is able to win the presidency with that, he will be the last Republican candidate that will do that,” says Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The demographics of the country even four years from now will be such that that will be an impossibility.”
Conversely, the fact that Obama continues to face so much resistance among blue-collar and older whites while running against a multimillionaire opponent who has committed to transforming Medicare underscores the depth of disaffection from Democrats among the groups that anchored their electoral coalition from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. Obama’s success at expanding his support among blue-collar whites in several Midwestern states only partially qualifies that verdict.
In the long run, the most powerful demographic trends will continue to benefit Democrats, at least at the presidential level. But that advantage will be offset if Democrats can’t sustain more support from whites, especially when the party holds unified control in Washington and can implement its agenda, as Obama did during his first two years in the White House. Democrats may now need fewer whites to win a national majority, but Obama is laboring to clear even that lowering bar, especially since the surge toward Romney after the first presidential debate.
In combination, the stark class, generational, and—above all—racial fissures now shaping American politics have produced a closely divided and volatile electorate that has stubbornly refused to provide either party with a lasting advantage, arguably since the Reagan era, and voters next week may again divide almost exactly in half. “A political system in which one party is the party of white America and the other party is the party of minority America is a political system that is structured for polarization,” says veteran Democratic analyst William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a political system that locks us into an endless continuation of what we’ve seen.”
MATHEMATICIANS AND PRIESTS
The GOP dominated five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988 so thoroughly that analysts spoke of a Republican “lock” on the White House. Over those six campaigns, Republicans won the popular vote five times, engineered two of the most one-sided landslides ever (in 1972 and 1984), averaged 417 Electoral College votes, and held Democrats to an average of just 43 percent of the popular vote.
But since 1992, the story has been very different. Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five elections; after this election, Democrats could be in a position of having quietly won the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, just as Republicans did in the days of their so-called lock. The picture will look different if Obama loses; even if he wins, Democrats haven’t dominated this era nearly as much as Republicans did the earlier one. In one of those recent Democratic popular-vote victories, of course, Al Gore lost the Electoral College vote in 2000, and none of the Democratic winners has approached the towering margins of Richard Nixon in 1972 (61 percent) or Reagan in 1984 (59 percent). Obama’s 52.8 percent has been the Democratic high point over that period, and it seems very unlikely he will match that even if he survives.
Still, over these two decades, Republicans are clearly operating with a much lower ceiling than they were during that earlier time. No GOP nominee since 1988 has won more than the 286 Electoral College votes or 50.8 percent of the vote that George W. Bush captured in 2004 while amassing the all-time narrowest margin of victory in the popular vote for a successfully reelected president. Unless his momentum continues to crest, a Romney victory would probably still not exceed either of those totals.
“Maybe we are reaching a tipping point about how the Democratic Party sees itself.” —Ruy Teixeira, Center for American Progress
Two factors, above all, explain the difference from the 1968-88 period controlled by Republicans and the more recent stretch of greater Democratic competitiveness: the increasing minority population, as well as the improving Democratic performance among college-educated whites. Those two trends also pose the most pointed choices for Republicans after this election, win or lose.
The most visible change has been the electorate’s growing diversity. When Reagan first won in 1980, whites cast about nine of every 10 ballots; even as late as 1992, when Bill Clinton first captured the White House, whites delivered 88 percent of the votes and minorities just 12 percent. But the white share of the vote has steadily declined in each election since then; by 2008, whites cast 74 percent of the ballots and minorities 26 percent.
The Republican presidential nominee, according to network exit polls and earlier postelection surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, has carried most white voters in every election after 1964. However, this shifting population mix has dulled the impact of that success. Consider: In 2004, Bush won almost exactly the same share of the white vote (58 percent) as his father did in 1988 (59 percent). But while that showing allowed George H.W. Bush to rout Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by nearly 8 percentage points, the equivalent performance provided the younger Bush his thin 2.5 percentage-point edge over John Kerry. Likewise, in 2008, Obama lost the white vote by as large a margin as Gore did in the near-dead heat of 2000. Yet because Obama carried 80 percent of the growing minority population, including not only 95 percent of African-Americans but also two-thirds of Hispanics, he won the largest share of the popular vote of any Democratic nominee since Johnson in 1964.
Polls show Obama on track to replicate that performance among minorities this year. If he does, and they cast at least the 26 percent of votes they did last time, Romney would need to win 61 percent of whites to assemble a national majority. Although some mid-October polls show Romney reaching that level, others place him short of it. This stark prospect means Romney could win nearly three-fifths of white voters—a showing that would match Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Reagan in 1980, and Bush in 1988 as the best performance ever for a Republican challenger among whites—and still lose.
If that happens, Schmidt predicts, “there will be the beginnings of a proper civil war in the Republican Party. Everybody will blame everybody. The conservatives will blame the establishment, and vice versa.” Even if Romney wins narrowly with a margin among whites that previously generated landslide victories, the party is likely to squabble over its standing with minorities, especially Hispanics. “You’ve got to play on the other field or you can’t win,” says Murphy, the GOP consultant. “What we have to understand is, our field is shrinking and their field is growing. If we ignore it, I think it will be totally self-destructive. There will be a big fight in the party after the election between the mathematicians and the priests.”
Murphy’s “mathematicians” include many of the party’s most prominent strategists. They consider the GOP’s anemic performance among minorities, particularly Hispanics, an existential threat to the party’s viability at the national level. Although political participation has lagged population growth among Hispanics, their share of the vote has increased from 1 percent in 1980 to 9 percent in 2008, and the Pew Hispanic Center recently calculated that nearly 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year, up by more than 4 million since 2008. That’s double the four-year increase in eligible Hispanics between the 1996 and 2000 elections. “If Republicans are going to be competitive at the presidential level over the next 10 to 20 years, they have to do better among nonwhite voters, especially Asians and Hispanics,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres warns.
Republican thinkers in this group look for inspiration to George W. Bush. In 2004, Bush won about two-fifths of Hispanics, the party’s best performance among that group since Reagan in 1984; he particularly gained among Latino evangelical Protestants. Schmidt, a senior White House adviser at that time, recalls, “We were having discussions in 2004, 2005 about how to grow that vote share to 50 percent. We believed that it ... was plausible that we could push that to 50 percent.”
Instead, the party has moved in the opposite direction, with John McCain in 2008 winning only about three in 10 Hispanics and polls showing Romney lagging even that level, despite the fact that the Hispanic unemployment rate has been in double digits every month of Obama’s presidency. Bush courted Latinos with an agenda that featured federally led education reform, government partnerships with religiously based charities, and, most important, support for a comprehensive immigration solution that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Since then, in the back-to-basics movement fueled by the tea party’s rise, the GOP has abandoned all of those policies. In particular, the party has reversed course on immigration. Amid a conservative backlash, Romney’s call for enforcement so stringent that it would pressure illegal immigrants to “self-deport” has succeeded Bush’s embrace of a pathway
This shift in tone and substance has produced something close to despair among the evangelical Hispanic leaders who spearheaded Bush’s breakthroughs. “The Republican primaries served as a reminder that the Republican Party suffers from cultural and ethnic myopia,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “They were saturated with anti-immigrant rhetoric and a lack of viable Latino outreach. They failed by resurrecting the polarizing rhetoric that has alienated Hispanics.”
PRESSURES FOR CHANGE
Since the younger Bush’s presidency, the party’s right turn on immigration has evoked barely a peep of protest from the Bush-era advocates of a comprehensive solution. GOP strategists in this camp say that after the election, win or lose, they expect reform supporters to more forcefully reopen the debate. Many expect former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has denounced the party’s posture toward Hispanics as “stupid,” to lead such a charge. If Romney loses, economic conservatives, many of whom supported a pathway to citizenship under Bush, will likely argue that the party’s hard-line position on immigration allowed Obama to secure a second term and thus to implement spending, tax, health care, and regulatory policies anathema to Republicans.
One straw in that wind: In mid-October, leading antitax activist Grover Norquist delivered a pro-reform speech to a “Midwest summit” of immigration-rights activists. “Not only is it good policy to have dramatically more immigrants in the U.S. than we do today and a path for those who are here, it’s also good politics,” he said. One senior Washington-based business lobbyist similarly said that if party strategists make the electoral case for immigration reform, prominent corporate leaders would likely join the push. “If they lay down a foundation that says, ‘Hey, if we don’t get alongside of this, we are going to get run over for this, maybe for a generation,’ then, conceptually, people will understand it,” the lobbyist said.
But recasting the party’s position on immigration won’t be easy. Republicans now rely on lopsided margins from the portions of the white community most uneasy about the ongoing demographic change: older and blue-collar whites. In the most recent Apollo Group/National Journal Next America Poll, just under half of whites said they considered the growing number of newcomers from other countries a threat to traditional American values. These whites preferred Romney over Obama by nearly 9-to-1. (Obama, by contrast, drew almost three-fifths support among whites who did not view the demographic change as a threat.)
Fear of antagonizing such voters and their loud advocates in the conservative community helps explain why Romney and other Republicans kept their distance from the proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to provide a legal status to some of the young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. Obama, instead, administratively instituted a similar plan, which has reinforced his overwhelming advantage among Hispanics. Roy Beck, the founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration, promises even greater resistance to any Republicans who revive George W. Bush’s call to provide undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. “We have been fighting the George W. Bush people for 11 years; we regard them as enemies of American working families,” Beck says. “It’s not going to go anywhere, because it’s the same voices as in 2006 and 2007. These are the same old voices that got beaten [then].”
Republican consultant Terry Nelson, the field director for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, says that party leaders eventually must, in effect, take the risk of confronting the GOP’s current coalition to build its next one. “The current coalition is hesitant to do the things we need to do,” he acknowledges. “But the math is not going to add up in the future for us if we continue to be overly reliant on the votes of white voters. Certainly at the presidential level, sticking with this position [on immigration] will eventually put Republicans in a permanent minority position.”
The other trend that unsettles Murphy, Schmidt, Nelson, and like-minded strategists is the persistent Republican weakness among college-educated white women. These women, many of them socially liberal and open to activist government, have broken toward the Democratic nominee in four of the past five presidential elections (they split almost evenly between Bush and Kerry in 2004). Obama carried a 52 percent majority of this group in 2008, far better than his performance among other whites. “This is a long-term problem for the Republican Party,” Nelson says.
The debate inside the GOP turns on whether it is possible to improve the party’s showing among these women without diluting its conservative consensus on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Almost uniformly, Democrats are dubious that Republicans can regain much ground with upscale white women while holding those positions. Most Republican analysts, however, believe that moderating on social issues would provoke unacceptable tension with the party’s base of culturally conservative voters, especially evangelical Christians.
Ralph Reed, a veteran strategist who has spent his career navigating the intersection of Republican and evangelical Christian politics, is one of many party thinkers who maintain that the GOP must, and can, find ways to attract more women and minorities without repositioning itself on social issues.
“I don’t believe that the values that the party embodies in order to win the votes and support of evangelicals and faithful Catholics poses any kind of long-term obstacle to doing better in the future among women and minorities,” he says. “I know from previous elections that you can win suburban women without becoming pro-choice, and being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily win suburban women. It varies from election to election, but sometimes it can be national security, sometimes it can be economic security; other times it is education and the environment.”
This year’s election will provide an unusually acute real-world test of the competing Democratic and Republican theories. Romney’s campaign, convinced that it cannot win without reducing Obama’s advantage among upscale white women, has made a major push for them, stressing the sluggish economy and the increase in the government debt under Obama. After Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate, several polls, in fact, showed him making inroads among upscale white women (although other surveys disagreed). At the second presidential debate and in his advertising, Obama has responded with a fierce counterattack on issues such as pay equity, Romney’s call for defunding Planned Parenthood, his opposition to requiring employers to provide free contraception in health insurance, and his record on hiring women in Massachusetts. Most Democrats are confident that the increased attention to these questions will restore Obama’s advantages among white-collar women, and help him as well among working-class white women usually tougher for Democrats to attract. If Romney wins while muting the gender gap, Reed’s perspective will gain strength inside the GOP. But if a movement back toward Obama among women helps him repulse Romney’s breakthrough, internal questions about the GOP’s positioning on social issues could grow louder.
McGOVERN’S BELATED TRIUMPH
The growing ranks of college-educated women are one of several long-term demographic changes that underpin Democratic optimism about the years ahead, whatever happens next month. Obama and Democrats now run best among groups that are themselves growing in society, what I’ve called the coalition of the ascendant. This emerging coalition, which offers Democrats the prospect of a steadily expanding base, has three major components.
The most reliably Democratic piece is the expanding minority population. Using census data, Teixeira and William Frey recently calculated that the minority share of the eligible voter population in 2012 has increased to almost 29 percent. Although few strategists on either side expect minorities to represent that much of the actual vote, the trend toward greater minority participation seems inexorable.
The next key component is the giant “millennial generation,” born from about 1981 to 2002. (This group overlaps with the first because some 40 percent of millennials are nonwhite, double the percentage among seniors.) Nearly 60 million millennials will be eligible to vote this year, up from 40 million just four years ago, according to Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, senior fellows at the Democratic advocacy group NDN and authors of two books on the generation. Obama carried two-thirds of voters under 30 in 2008, and although polls show fissures in that support, he is still running much better with younger than with older voters.
The final strand of the emerging Democratic coalition is college-educated whites, particularly women. Those women are the most rapidly growing part of the white electorate. Women accounted for nearly three-fifths of all college degrees granted to whites from 2000 to 2010, according to federal statistics. In 1980, white men without a college degree, the most Republican-leaning white cohort, outnumbered the Democratic-tilting college white women by more than 3-to-1 in the electorate; this year, the upscale white women could outvote the downscale white men.
If Obama wins in 2012 with a majority centered on minorities, young people, and white-collar socially liberal whites (especially women)—while winning perhaps fewer than 40 percent of blue-collar whites—it could be viewed as the belated triumph, four decades later, of the George McGovern coalition, ironically (or poetically) shortly after McGovern’s death. McGovern was nominated in 1972 amid intense strains in the traditional Democratic coalition over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the 1960s cultural revolution. Many party leaders sympathetic to him believed that Democrats could become a more consistently liberal party, particularly on social- and foreign-policy issues, if they were untethered from their electoral reliance on blue-collar whites, many of them culturally conservative and hawkish. As McGovern’s epic defeat emphatically demonstrated, a minority/youth/social-liberal coalition wasn’t big enough in 1972 to win without significant blue-collar support; an Obama win this year could prove the opposite. “It’s not like this was a fantasy,” Teixeira says of the McGovern-era calculations. “It was just premature. It wasn’t possible at the time. But the distribution of [the population] has changed.”
Working-class whites are proving more important than initially expected to Obama’s prospects because he is generally running ahead of his national numbers with them in the key Midwestern battlegrounds, particularly Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, with a populist message centered on Romney’s business background. But, overall, the president’s reelection strategy has aligned him with this new coalition more unreservedly than any previous Democratic nominee. Obama this year has embraced liberal positions on a series of polarizing noneconomic issues—from contraception, to gay marriage, to temporarily legalizing young undocumented immigrants—that energize the party’s new coalition at the cost of provoking more antagonism among the older and blue-collar whites who anchored the old one. “The weight of the [demographic] changes is heavy enough that maybe we are reaching a tipping point about how the Democratic Party sees itself,” Teixeira says.
Democrats can’t govern if they “write off 60 percent of white America.” —William Galston, Brookings Institution
This new alignment offers Democrats enormous opportunities. Yet it also presents clear challenges. One is that it has already proven to be a boom-and-bust coalition because two of its key elements, Hispanics and young people, vote much less reliably than whites. A larger-than-usual falloff in turnout among both groups in 2010 contributed to the Democrats’ debacle. Current polls show that Obama is still struggling to fully energize these constituencies.
Another problem is that this coalition is better fitted to produce presidential than congressional majorities. Although the minority population is dispersing, many heartland states (and congressional districts) remain preponderantly white, so to control Congress, particularly the Senate, Democrats need to perform better among whites than they do in the presidential race.
Democrats also face the challenge of delivering results for these constituencies that will cement their support and enthusiasm. The party’s failure to aggressively push for comprehensive immigration reform after Obama took office, largely for fear of alienating culturally conservative whites, has frustrated Latino leaders. “Our community would like to see much stronger leadership on this issue from the Democrats,” says Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. Even more important will be producing economic gains for young people and minorities, both groups that have been especially hurt by the Great Recession and its aftermath. “The big problem is, you still don’t have incomes rising for most Americans; you’ve got growing inequality, and what are Democrats going to do about that?” says veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
The final and perhaps most intractable problem facing Democrats is the party’s inability to hold white voters while in power. Since the mid-1960s, each time Democrats have held unified control of the White House and Congress, and thus possessed the power to implement their agenda, they have seen their support among whites decline, often precipitously, in the next congressional or presidential election, or both. (That includes the unified control Democrats enjoyed from 1965-68 under Johnson; 1977-80 under Jimmy Carter; 1993-94 under Clinton; and 2009-10 under Obama.) In congressional elections, for instance, the Democratic share of the white vote dropped 13 percentage points from 1964 to 1968 (after Johnson implemented his Great Society), 9 points after Clinton’s first two years, and 8 points after Obama’s first two years.
This suggests that the party has been unable to formulate a vision of activist government that can maintain majority white support. In the Midwest this year, polls show Obama maintaining better support among whites through his campaign’s relentless portrait of Romney as an indifferent plutocrat, and that tactic will prove crucial if the president survives the Romney surge. But even if the president does, it doesn’t erase Democrats’ decline among whites elsewhere this year or their collapse with the white electorate in 2010. That full picture suggests that Democrats may struggle to hold power with their coalition of the ascendant, even when they obtain it. “There’s a difference between winning power with that kind of coalition and governing with that kind of coalition, and Democrats run smack into that difference every time they win,” Galston says. “It’s not a sustainable political model that can write off upwards of 60 percent of white America.”
PLAYING THE CARDS
So, given all of these factors, which party holds a stronger hand for the years ahead? Most Democrats believe that, whatever Obama’s fate, the shifting demography provides them an edge over time against a Republican Party that still relies on the slowly shrinking white population for about 90 percent of its total votes. “I think this is a sustainable majority coalition,” Greenberg says. Teixeira agrees, saying, “You are riding the wave instead of trying to somehow swim against it.” Winograd and Hais believe that the 2012 election, like 1936 for the Democrats and 1972 for the Republicans, could be a “confirming” election that lastingly secures the party’s hold on millennials, minorities, and upscale, socially liberal women. “In a lot of ways, Obama is doing what FDR did: cementing a young generation, an ethnic generation, to his party with programs and policies, and, really, emotions that are aimed at that generation,” Hais says.
But Republicans such as Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, argues that Democratic optimism minimizes the party’s own difficulties and overstates the likelihood that the GOP won’t respond to the shifting electorate. “I start with the strategic premise that political parties … tend to adapt to what they have to do to survive and prosper,” Reed says. “If the Republican Party is going to create anything that resembles a national majority party, it is going to have to address areas where we have dropped the ball among young people, women, and minorities, especially Hispanics. But that’s doable.”
Galston, injecting a cautionary note in the Democrats’ optimism, concurs that “in principle, it may be easier for Republicans” than Democrats to solve their largest demographic problem. Win or lose, he argues, Republicans after the election will face enormous pressure to moderate their stance on immigration-related issues, and if they do, “it would be a real game changer” by potentially restoring their competitiveness among Hispanics. By contrast, Galston maintains, it may be tougher for Democrats to reposition the party in a way that can recapture more whites. “You’d need another insurgency of the center,” he says, of the sort Clinton pursued with his “New Democrat” agenda. Beyond that, if Romney wins, and the economic recovery accelerates, either because of his policies or merely because of the spinning of the economic cycle, the GOP would obviously be in a strong position for 2016 and maybe beyond.
The 2012 results will powerfully influence the direction of these arguments, as each party assesses the competing role of ideology, demography, and economics in the outcome. In truth, this campaign is likely to demonstrate that all of these matter in driving results. On the one hand, the electorate’s changing demography has allowed Obama to remain competitive despite economic headwinds and skepticism among older and blue-collar whites that would have doomed Democratic nominees in earlier years.
Yet it has not guaranteed him victory: Discontent over the economy and other aspects of Obama’s first term record is making it much tougher than in 2008 for him to generate the margins or the turnout that he needs among his coalition’s critical elements. Those same factors present Obama with the risk of deepened deficits in support among the groups most skeptical of him (those older and blue-collar whites) too large to overcome even if he can generate respectable margins among his own best groups.
Conversely, the greatest barrier to a Romney presidency is the cavernous deficit he faces among minorities—a shortfall rooted in the positions that he took to secure the GOP nomination.
On both sides of the equation, all of these factors serve as reminders that even as these fundamental demographic shifts are reconfiguring the electoral landscape, the long-term balance of power between the parties will be shaped at least as much by the strategies and policies they embrace, and the results they produce, once they step onto the field.
This article appeared in print as “The Tipping Point.”
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 3, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.