If anything, the president has hurtled even more rapidly down this track since his reelection. After almost entirely avoiding the gun-control issue in his first term, Obama responded to the Newtown shootings by advancing an ambitious package of reforms. In his Inaugural Address, he reasserted his commitment to confronting climate change, another issue he had almost completely muted after legislation to control emissions failed in the Senate early in his first term. On foreign policy, he has provoked sharp resistance from conservatives by insisting on moving quickly toward withdrawal from Afghanistan and by nominating former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is a bête noire to neoconservatives, as Defense secretary. Obama’s decision last week to lift the ban on women serving in combat shows the same political impulse.
On many of these issues, and in similar disputes, Democrats have been constrained since the 1960s by fear of losing the blue-collar, rural, and older white voters who traditionally made up the conservative end of their electoral coalition. Reflecting that perspective, House Blue Dogs, as well as swing-state and red-state Democrats in the Senate, who represent regions with large numbers of those voters, have often discouraged the party from highlighting issues such as gun control and immigration reform, much less gay marriage.
But the ongoing racial and ideological sorting of the electorate has rapidly reduced the Democrats’ dependence on those voters. In 2012, Obama lost more than three-fifths of noncollege whites and whites older than 45; he carried only one-third of noncollege white men, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Yet Obama nonetheless won a solid victory by posting strong numbers with minorities (a combined 80 percent), the millennials (60 percent), and college-educated white women (46 percent overall and more in many key states); moreover, each of those groups expanded its share of the total vote. (For the first time, white women with college degrees cast more votes last year than white men without them.)
Similarly, Democrats last November regained House seats in districts that are more racially diverse than the national average, while continuing to suffer losses in those more heavily white: After 2012, Democrats hold just 31 of the 143 districts in which whites constitute at least 80 percent of the population.
In the Senate, the Democratic majority still relies on a significant number of members from states that lean Republican in presidential politics. But, overall, the pattern of the party’s presidential and congressional support in 2012 largely fulfilled the dreams of liberal strategists from the early 1970s, who believed Democrats could build a more ideologically forceful party if they reduced their reliance on conservative whites. As Richard Nixon’s landslide defeat of George McGovern in 1972 demonstrated, a coalition of minorities, young people, and socially liberal upscale whites was far from a majority. Four decades later, amid the headwind of a grueling recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama emphatically proved the opposite. The result is that the president, to a striking extent, appears unshackled from the fear of alienating conservative white voters that has shaped the way the party has governed since cultural and foreign policy issues (such as civil rights and the Vietnam War) shattered the economically based New Deal coalition in the 1960s.
“The composition of the Democratic coalition has shifted in such a way that not only makes the [presidential majority] more solid but shifts the weight toward groups that are less interested in a temporizing, triangulating politics,” says longtime liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of the seminal 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority. Democrats “now don’t have—and don’t need as many of those voters at the conservative end of their coalition … as they once did. So it is more cohesive than it once was, and it is easier to keep mobilized than it once was.”
Indeed, Obama is operating with a more ideologically unified coalition than Democrats have assembled at any point in recent decades. In Bill Clinton’s two elections, and Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, the share of Democratic presidential voters who identified as moderates outnumbered those who considered themselves liberals by about 20 percentage points; in 2012, Obama won almost as many votes from liberals as from moderates, as the former increased their share of the vote (to 25 percent) and the latter gave the president slightly less support than they had four years earlier.
All of the fights Obama has launched have the potential to more deeply engrave these lines, exacerbating his difficulties with the conservative white constituencies who have moved away from the Democrats, while complicating the GOP’s pursuit of the coalition of the ascendant.