Three days after the election, an e-mail arrived in my in-box from a veteran Democratic media consultant who cut many an ad for the more conservative elements of his party. Like other armchair pundits, he marveled at the ease of President Obama’s reelection and Democrats’ against-the-odds pickups in the Senate but couldn’t fathom how they could have simultaneously “blown it” in the House. In particular, he took issue with the assertion that House Democrats and party strategists deserved credit, not condemnation, for “beating the point spread” by picking up eight House seats, even though they fell 17 seats short of a majority.
“A friendly disagreement” about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he wrote. “After record losses two years ago, we entered this campaign with the smallest caucus of a generation. With the [Senate Democrats] and Obama bucking headwinds and succeeding, the DCCC simply failed. The Blue Dogs have gone from once 45 to about a dozen.... And the DCCC spinning success unfortunately proves their vision of success will mire my party in minority status for a long time.”
The Republicans, of course, viewed the outcome in even more merciless terms. The following week, when Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced she would stay in her post despite Democrats’ continued minority status, the National Republican Congressional Committee crowed to reporters in an e-mail release, “There is no better person to preside over the most liberal House Democratic Caucus in history than the woman who is solely responsible for relegating it to a prolonged minority status.”
But in blaming the DCCC or Pelosi for Democrats’ predicament in the House, both the Democratic ad man and the GOP spin machine demonstrated classic historical nearsightedness. To cast House Democrats as suddenly feeble, incompetent, insular Bad News Bears is to overlook a tectonic shift in the structure of the electorate that was decades in the making and culminated in 2012’s emphatically indecisive “split mandate.”
Democrats’ coalition may now occupy the inside track to the White House, but the GOP seems to have a hammerlock on the House for years to come. It’s a remarkable inversion. Between 1968 and 2008, Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of 40 years, and Democrats controlled the House for 28 of 40 years.
The South accounted for much of the “old” divide. Dixie started voting markedly more Republican at the presidential level in 1968, and the only two Democrats to crack the GOP’s grip on the White House over the next 40 years were Southerners. But the shift took much longer in the House, where Democrats hung onto a majority of Southern seats until 1994.
In 2008, the election of the first non-Southern Democrat to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960 signaled a new generation of political leadership. However, something more subtle and just as consequential has also taken place. A perfect synthesis of demography and geography—a long time coming but hastened by the rise of Obama’s coalition—has helped turn the old “default” party advantages upside down.
Welcome, then, to the new normal. A growing coalition of young, nonwhite, and college-educated voters is now sufficiently large to allow Democrats to win statewide elections, and, conveniently for their party, America votes for both the White House and the Senate on a statewide basis.
But, just as conveniently for Republicans, this same coalition is way too clustered in too few congressional districts to allow Democrats to win the House in the absence of a huge anti-GOP wave, the likes of which we saw in 2006 and 2008 when voters took out their anger on an unpopular Republican president.
Staggeringly, Obama won reelection with 62 percent of Electoral College votes by winning just 22 percent of the 3,100-plus counties nationwide. Without his huge margins generated from minority and young voters in just three counties—Broward County, Fla., Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Philadelphia County, Pa.—Obama would have actually lost those three states and, with them, the Electoral College. Partly as a consequence of this urban concentration, House Democrats were left stranded with just 31 percent of seats in these states, even as Obama walked away with 100 percent of their electoral votes.
THE BLUE AND THE GRAY
In their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority, political scientists John Judis and Ruy Teixeira shined a spotlight on Democrats’ burgeoning edge in “ideolopolises,” postindustrial metropolitan regions, typically anchored by large research universities and surging high-tech sectors, that had become magnets for a young, diverse, and well-educated professional class with bohemian values.
Describing these centers as the “breeding ground” for a new Democratic majority, Judis and Teixeira predicted, “Democrats could enjoy by 2008 a state-by-state advantage of 332 electoral votes, well more than they need for a majority.” The prediction, celebrated when Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008 but questioned when Republicans wrested control of the House in 2010, saw vindication when the very coalition the authors envisioned propelled Obama to reelection with exactly 332 electoral votes in November.
This demographic realignment has been taking shape for a long time. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of white voters on his way to defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter by 10 percentage points, 51 percent to 41 percent. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney took 59 percent of white voters, yet lost by 4 points, 47 percent to 51 percent. It’s obvious what changed: In 1980, white voters were 88 percent of the electorate; by 2012, they had fallen to just 72 percent of the electorate.
Simply put, the Democrats’ coalition is still in the midst of a growth spurt, while the Republicans’ alliance continues to atrophy. In 1992, national exit polls showed that African-Americans were 8 percent of all voters and gave Democratic nominee Bill Clinton 83 percent of their votes; Latinos were just 2 percent of all voters and gave Clinton 61 percent of their support. In 2012, African-Americans were 13 percent of the electorate and gave Obama 93 percent of their vote, while Latinos ballooned to 10 percent of all voters and gave Obama 71 percent.
The yawning holes in the GOP’s future aren’t just race-related; huge age and educational gaps may be even more worrisome. Unlike Clinton’s consistent performance across the electorate in 1992, Obama’s support among different age groups in 2012 was a sliding scale. He won 18-to-29-year-old voters by 60 percent to 37 percent and 30-to-39-year-olds by 55 percent to 42 percent, but he lost 40-to-49-year-olds by 2 percentage points, 50-to-64-year-olds by 5 points, and 65-plus voters by 12 points. In contrast to Clinton, Obama performed 6 points better among the surging share of college-educated whites than he did with the shrinking ranks of whites without college degrees.
Just as menacing to the GOP as the obvious pitfalls of relying on an electoral base in the twilight of life, data show that political attachments formed early in life are quite durable. A 2006 Pew Research Center study found that the two strongest Republican age cohorts were voters who had entered the electorate during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Reagan. As these voters exit the electorate over the next 40 years, the impact of a “lost generation” for the GOP, consisting of highly educated voters who came of age during the unpopular George W. Bush presidency and the rise of Obama, poses obvious and daunting long-term challenges for the party’s efforts to win a national election.
SORTING IT OUT
In 2008, observing an increasingly transient and politically polarized society, Texas journalist Bill Bishop wrote in The Big Sort that “the country may be more diverse than ever from coast to coast” but is “filled with people who live alike, think alike, and vote alike.... Pockets of like-minded citizens have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.” Bishop adds, “As some 10 million Americans moved each year from one county to another, counties clearly were growing less competitive and more politically segregated.”
How the changing America votes may showcase stark divides, but where it votes is even more striking and proves Bishop prophetic. At the same time that surges of African-Americans, Latinos, twentysomethings, and college-educated whites in urban “ideopolises” have propelled Democrats to victory in consecutive elections in formerly Republican bastions such as Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, there’s another side of the coin: Democrats have never been so demoralized in older, whiter rural America, and the Democratic base has never been so concentrated in its predominantly urban strongholds.
Consider that in 1988, losing Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis carried 819 of the more than 3,100 U.S. counties. He won 75 percent of the vote in the ancestrally Scots-Irish coalfields of Knott County, Ky.; 62 percent in the West Texas Panhandle’s cotton fields of Dickens County; and 56 percent in the traditionally Cajun oil and gas fields of tiny Cameron Parish, La. He also won just 31 percent of the vote in central Florida’s swampy Osceola County; 34 percent in suburban Atlanta’s Clayton County; and 49 percent in flinty Washington County, encompassing Vermont’s capital of Montpelier.
Fast-forward to 2012, and winning Democratic nominee Barack Obama carried just 690 counties, 129 fewer than Dukakis. He won only 26 percent of the vote in Knott County, 21 percent in Dickens County, and a startling 11 percent in Cameron Parish. But thanks to a booming Puerto Rican population fueled by Orlando’s hospitality sector, Obama won Osceola County with 62 percent of the vote. A rapid migration of affluent African-Americans into Atlanta’s southern suburbs helped Obama to 85 percent in Clayton County And he carried Washington County, home to the main ice-cream factory of prototypical liberal New York emigrants Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, with 72 percent.
The urbanization and geopolitical polarization of the country has been gradual yet astonishing. In 1988, about 35 percent of all voters lived in the 819 counties that Dukakis carried; in 2012, about 57 percent of all voters lived in the 690 counties that Obama won. In 1992, while Clinton captured the White House by more than 5 points, only 39 percent of voters lived in “landslide counties”—places that gave either nominee more than 60 percent of the two-party vote. In 2012, for the first time since the nationwide Reagan landslide of 1984, a slim majority of voters lived in landslide counties, even though Obama won reelection by less than 4 percentage points.
Democrats’ increasing focus and reliance at the top of the ticket on tight clusters of minority, young, and college-educated voters has created an unprecedented down-ballot conundrum. To begin with, Democrats are so much more concentrated on the map than Republicans that they are “wasting” votes in safe, minority-majority congressional districts, many of which are mandated by the Voting Rights Act. But their magnetic cultural attraction to overwhelmingly liberal enclaves such as Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wis., has led them into a trap: They’ve become easier to pack into safe seats, while surrounding areas shed Democratic voters.
In 2010, when the Democratic “surge vote” vanished and Republicans swept elections at every level, the GOP earned the right to draw congressional boundaries following the 2010 census in four times as many districts as the Democrats controlled. As a result, in 2012, when many surge voters reentered the fold, House Democrats won about 1.5 million more votes nationwide than Republicans, yet captured only 201 of 435 seats. Republicans won a higher share of districts than their share of the vote in 32 of 50 states: Notably, they won only 49 percent of the total House vote in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania, yet won nine of 13 seats in North Carolina and 13 of 18 in Pennsylvania. Nationally, Romney carried a slim majority of congressional districts.
By purging Democrats and minorities from their own districts and into Democratic quarantine zones, Republicans may have drawn themselves into a durable House majority. But they have also drawn themselves into an alternate universe of voters that little resembles the growing diversity of the country. When the next Congress commences in January, 88 percent of House Republicans will be white males (versus just 47 percent of House Democrats), and very few will have been elected from competitive districts where there is any incentive to reach across the aisle.
In fact, an entrenched GOP House may indefinitely reinforce the image problems plaguing the party in statewide elections for the White House and the Senate. In “governing from the minority” and refusing to cooperate, Republicans risk further alienating voters—a potentially self-perpetuating cycle.
BOOM AND BUST
The two parties’ polar-opposite profiles don’t just manifest themselves in the divides between urban and rural, and between the Capitol and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They also play out on the electoral calendar. We may be entering a boom-and-bust period where Democrats’ coalition of younger and minority voters who are newer to the electoral process is much more likely to turn out in force in presidential elections. The GOP’s more reliable, time-tested coalition of older and whiter voters tends, on the other hand, to surge as a share of the electorate in midterm years. These alternating electorates, rather than changing minds, portend continued volatility in the years to come.
Will this pattern be ironclad over the next 40 years? Of course not. Voter fatigue after eight years of Obama may allow Republicans to win the White House in 2016, and a strong backlash against a Republican president on the part of independent voters may allow Democrats to win the lower chamber sooner or later.
But in the new electoral normal, split control, dizzying partisan swings, and gridlocked negotiations between Democratic presidents and GOP House speakers may be the rule rather than the exception. Demography and geography, more so than policy and personality, may be destiny.
This article appears in the December 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine as Parallel Universes .