To hold congressional majorities, Democrats must win a larger share of conservative white voters than in presidential races. That’s because the two-senator-per state system exaggerates the influence of small preponderantly white rural states and also because the Democratic coalition tends to cluster around big cities, benefiting House Republicans in more exurban and rural districts. Redistricting has compounded that effect. Although Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 5 million votes, Romney carried at least 225 of the 435 congressional districts, nearly final results show.
These dynamics complicate Obama’s hopes of moving legislation through the House and Senate. As Obama himself noted in a New Republic interview last week, Republicans representing these conservative-leaning districts will feel pressure to oppose him even on initiatives that command majority support nationally. (On the list of his priorities, analysts give immigration reform a much better chance than climate or guns, because more Republicans feel compelled to settle the immigration issue after Romney’s dismal performance with Hispanic voters.) Merely raising the prominence of these issues could create hurdles for congressional Democrats in red-leaning districts or states by more closely identifying the Democratic Party with liberal cultural views resisted there. “If you are a Democrat, he is taking you into some uncharted waters,” Reed says. “It has worked so far for him, but it’s not clear it’s going to work for everybody else.”
If nothing else, Obama’s course means that if Democrats are to recapture the House anytime soon, they will likely need to do so by maximizing their gains in districts that have large populations of minorities or suburban socially liberal whites, rather than the blue-collar and rural Blue Dog districts they stressed when they regained the majority in 2006. And that’s much more likely to happen in a presidential year such as 2016, when minorities and young people turn out in much larger numbers, than in an off year such as 2014, when the electorate tilts back toward the older whites largely opposed to Obama’s new thrust.
While the potential threats to congressional Democrats from Obama’s agenda have received substantial attention, the flip side of that equation has generated far less discussion. Key analysts in both parties believe, however, that by raising issues such as immigration, guns, and climate change, Obama is baiting a trap for Republicans: Either they crack and he records legislative victories that deliver achievements for his base, or they block him and further distance themselves from the growing groups powering the Democratic presidential majority. “The risk is that they consign themselves to being a largely regional, congressional party for the foreseeable future,” Axelrod says. “I don’t think they can win a national election and take a Manichean view on all of these things, reject them reflexively. There’s a real paradox here in that they can maintain their House districts by and large—although I think they will lose some suburban seats if they keep this up—but they can’t win national elections.”
Davis, the former Republican House member who now serves as director of federal affairs for the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, worries that Axelrod could be right. “The president is playing that coalition hard and forcing Republicans to react to it,” Davis says. “You look at the economy last year: 7.8 percent unemployment on Election Day, and he got elected. They have rewritten the script on identity politics.”
Mike DuHaime, a top political adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential hopeful who has supported a state-level assault-weapons ban but opposed gay marriage, says the best way for the GOP to avoid that trap is to resist the temptation to demand litmus-test opposition to Obama on all of these fronts. “For us as a party to grow, there has to be room for disagreement on these issues, and on many of them … there hasn’t been in recent years,” DuHaime says.
Republicans might also scramble this alignment somewhat in 2016 by selecting a younger or ethnic candidate who could personally relate to voters in the new Democratic coalition better than their last two AARP-eligible nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “This rising group of Republican leaders, generationally, stylistically … much more understand the imperative of connecting with some of these nontraditional voters,” Reed argues.
Where both sides agree is that Obama’s confident and confrontational course will reshape the competition between the parties in ways that could echo for decades. Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek, author of The Politics Presidents Make, a landmark book on presidential strategies, says Obama may not break Republican opposition enough to record many legislative victories on his second-term agenda. But even so, Skowronek says, forcing debate on these issues could have ramifications for years—just as, for example, Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the air-traffic controllers’ union helped inspire Republican challenges to public-employee unions three decades later.
“If Obama can build his party and isolate the Republicans ideologically and politically, that’s not nothing,” Skowronek says. “That could, over the long term, lead to a real shift in governing and the constellation of interests that are represented in governing. I don’t see that happening under Obama, but maybe it’s the beginning—as Reagan was the beginning.”
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Liberation Front.