The fact that he did so while losing white voters so decisively underscored both his achievement and the social change that the result encapsulated. Before the election, I argued that Obama’s formula for success could be reduced to an equation of 80/40. So long as minorities represented at least 26 percent of voters (their share in 2008), Obama could amass a national majority by winning 80 percent of nonwhite voters and only 40 percent of whites. In fact, pending final adjustments in the exit poll, he hit that mark almost precisely, winning 80 percent of minorities and 39 percent of whites. Obama carried 93 percent of African-Americans, 73 percent of Asian-Americans, 71 percent of Hispanics, and 58 percent of all other racial and ethnic minorities, the exit polls found. He held most of his 2008 margins in white-collar suburban counties with large minority populations such as Florida’s Hillsborough, Virginia’s Henrico, and Ohio’s Franklin.
The president’s performance among whites was far more tenuous. Obama won only 42 percent of college-educated white voters, well down from his 47 percent last time; before Tuesday, the Democrats’ share of the vote among college-educated whites had not declined in any election since 1980. (Even college-educated white women preferred Romney, 52 percent to 46 percent.) Obama nationally won only 36 percent of the vote among working-class whites, the poorest performance for any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984. Obama retreated from his 2008 margins both in predominantly white white-collar suburbs (such as Jefferson in Colorado and Montgomery in Pennsylvania) and blue-collar counties (such as Michigan’s Macomb and Wisconsin’s Marathon).
The cumulative effect was striking. In 2008, Obama lost whites by 12 percentage points (55 percent to 43 percent), becoming the first nominee to win the White House while losing whites by double digits. In his reelection, he shattered that record with a 20-point margin.
Those results left Republicans facing uncomfortable questions. Romney’s 59 percent showing among whites exceeded the 56 percent that Ronald Reagan won in 1980, matched the 59 percent that George H.W. Bush captured in 1988, and approached the 60 percent that Dwight Eisenhower took in 1952. Those were previously the best three showings for a Republican challenger among white voters. Each of them produced an electoral- and popular-vote landslide for the GOP. Yet for Romney, that share proved insufficient.
No Republican presidential nominee has won more than 50.8 percent of the popular vote since 1988. That’s largely because the party has remained almost completely dependent on whites for its support in a rapidly diversifying country. Romney, like John McCain in 2008, relied on whites for nearly 90 percent of his votes in a country with a 40 percent nonwhite population. Romney may have sealed his fate when the words “self-deportation” left his lips during a Florida primary debate. “We are in a position now where we have to—through differences in policy, differences in tone, and differences in candidates—reach out [to minorities] in a way we’ve never reached out before,” says veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “Or we will not be successful as a national party.”
After these results, the big question facing the GOP is whether it can improve its performance among minorities, especially Hispanics, without returning to George W. Bush’s support for immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. That policy shift would face impassioned resistance from conservatives. “Looks like a brawl coming soon,” says longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy. “The question is: Will the party base accept these facts, since they chose to ignore similar facts after Obama’s election four years ago?”
At the same time, the election also confirmed the reversal of roles in the competition for 270 Electoral College votes. From 1968 to 1988, Republican nominees dominated the Electoral College so thoroughly that analysts spoke of a GOP lock. But with Obama’s victory, Democrats have now won 18 states—the “blue wall”—for at least the past six consecutive elections. That’s the most states Democrats have won consecutively for that often since the formation of the modern party system in 1828.
Those 18 blue-wall states (joined by the District of Columbia) now offer 242 Electoral College votes. So long as Democrats hold all of them, Republicans must navigate an extremely narrow and unforgiving pathway to reach a majority.
By contrast, while defending the blue wall, Obama besieged two types of swing states in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt—and ultimately captured most of both. His success proved that his Sun Belt breakthroughs in 2008, which built on movement toward the Democrats earlier in the decade, were not onetime flukes but the result of systemic demographic forces that have reconfigured the partisan balance of states that leaned reliably Republican from the 1970s until the beginning of this century.