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 article appears in the December 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine as Parallel Universes .