Loudly, unmistakably, and irreversibly, the Next America announced its electoral arrival this week—years ahead of schedule.
This election will likely be remembered not only as a political but also a cultural and a social milestone in which the United States suddenly (and for many people, shockingly) realized it was a very different place than it once was.
From every direction, social and demographic change was the big story of the results. The key to President Obama’s solid Electoral College victory was his advantage among the growing population of nonwhite voters. That allowed Obama to win comfortably despite a historic rush toward Mitt Romney among white voters, especially older ones. Romney, in fact, ran about as well as any Republican challenger ever has among white voters, and he still captured only 206 Electoral College votes, pending the final count in Florida.
Down another track, the massive millennial generation continued to enlarge its influence on American politics. Millennials ticked up from 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 19 percent this year and once again provided Obama an overwhelming (if slightly reduced from four years ago) three-fifths of their votes. The results marked a milestone, as well, in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians: Tuesday saw the first election ever of an openly gay senator (Democrat Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin) and the first time voters have approved a ballot initiative authorizing gay marriage. That happened not in one state but in three.
Obama’s continuing strength among minorities and young people allowed him to withstand erosion in the third pillar of the “coalition of the ascendant” that lifted him in 2008: college-educated whites. Compared with 2008, Obama lost ground not only among college-educated white men but also college-educated white women—although he still ran much better with the latter than with any other segment of the white electorate.
The coalition of minorities, young people, and just enough college-educated whites powered Obama’s success in many states, especially Sun Belt states such as Florida and Virginia, where he faced resounding rejection by working-class whites. But in the critical Midwest battlegrounds of Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin—where there are not enough of those “ascendant” voters to win—Obama repelled Romney’s challenge with a message of economic populism that attracted enough of the working-class whites who anchored the party’s coalition from the New Deal through the Great Society. In that way, Obama married just enough of the new and old Democratic coalitions to win.
Each of the key groups in Obama’s coalition of the ascendant is growing in society—which means that they will provide an even greater advantage to Democrats over time unless Republicans start winning more of them. “When you have a younger generation with a different set of ideas, and a changing demographic in the country, there’s going to be a tipping point; and during that tipping point, the two sides are roughly at parity,” says Morley Winograd, a senior fellow at the Democratic advocacy group NDN and coauthor with Michael Hais of two books on the millennial generation. “But at some point, that parity goes away and the direction becomes very clear.… We think this coalition is not only ascendant but will be dominant.”
Compared with the resounding victories of many other reelected presidents, Obama’s triumph was hardly commanding. It more resembled George W. Bush’s razor-thin reelection in 2004. Obama’s share of the vote declined in all but six states. He became the first elected president since Andrew Jackson in 1832 to see his share of the popular vote decline after four years. And depending on the final count, Obama’s margin of victory, measured as a share of the popular vote, could replace Bush’s 2004 margin as the smallest ever for a reelected president.
Yet at least as striking was Obama’s ability to win at all in such a slow economic recovery, just two years after the intense ideological backlash to his first two years powered the GOP to historic congressional gains in 2010. The election underscored advantages in both the popular and the Electoral College votes that Democrats have consolidated since Bill Clinton’s first election in 1992. That campaign now stands, in retrospect, as the unmistakable beginning of a Democratic-leaning era in presidential politics.
With Obama’s victory, Democrats have quietly won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections since 1992. That matches the Republican record of winning the popular vote in five of the six elections from 1968 to 1988. (Democrats generally won by smaller margins and had the asterisk election of 2000, when Al Gore lost the Electoral College.) Obama became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to attract more than 50 percent of the vote in consecutive elections.
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.