No matter which side prevails, this year’s grueling presidential race looms as a milestone in the struggle for power between, and within, the two parties.
For Democrats, President Obama’s bid for a second term is likely to stand as an irreversible tipping point in their transformation from a New Deal coalition centered on working-class and older whites to a 21st-century alignment of young people, minorities, and white-collar whites, especially women. “This should put the foot down on the accelerator in terms of the transition,” says Ruy Teixeira, an expert on demographics and politics at the liberal Center for American Progress.
For Republicans, even if Mitt Romney triumphs, November could represent the last attempt to squeeze out a national majority almost entirely from white voters in a country rapidly growing more diverse. “Too many of the party apparat and too many of the powerful subgroups are much more connected to nostalgia than they are to modern demographics,” says longtime GOP consultant Mike Murphy. “I hear people talking about [Ronald] Reagan all the time, which is wonderful. But sometimes I imagine they are competing in a America that demographically no longer exists.”
These parallel changes are rooted in long-term social forces that are simultaneously increasing the population of Democratic-leaning minorities (especially Hispanics) and Republican-leaning white seniors (as the giant baby-boom generation moves into retirement); reducing the electorate’s share of blue-collar whites, now the most reliably Republican group of voters; and tilting the population of college-educated whites toward women, another Democratic-leaning constituency. These shifts have presented the parties with almost mirror-image problems. While Romney is struggling to dent the Democratic dominance of the steadily growing nonwhite population, Obama is straining to maintain even 40 percent support from white voters, and in November he could post the weakest showing among blue-collar whites of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale got buried by Reagan’s 1984 landslide.
Win or lose, the result seems destined to divide the country closely enough to raise difficult questions for both sides. The fact that Romney, in most scenarios, can hope at best for a narrow win, despite Obama’s weakness among whites—and despite levels of economic dislocation that typically dooms incumbents—testifies to the demographic limits of the GOP’s current coalition. “Even [if] Romney does in fact get the white vote at the level [he needs] … and is able to win the presidency with that, he will be the last Republican candidate that will do that,” says Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The demographics of the country even four years from now will be such that that will be an impossibility.”
Conversely, the fact that Obama continues to face so much resistance among blue-collar and older whites while running against a multimillionaire opponent who has committed to transforming Medicare underscores the depth of disaffection from Democrats among the groups that anchored their electoral coalition from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. Obama’s success at expanding his support among blue-collar whites in several Midwestern states only partially qualifies that verdict.
In the long run, the most powerful demographic trends will continue to benefit Democrats, at least at the presidential level. But that advantage will be offset if Democrats can’t sustain more support from whites, especially when the party holds unified control in Washington and can implement its agenda, as Obama did during his first two years in the White House. Democrats may now need fewer whites to win a national majority, but Obama is laboring to clear even that lowering bar, especially since the surge toward Romney after the first presidential debate.
In combination, the stark class, generational, and—above all—racial fissures now shaping American politics have produced a closely divided and volatile electorate that has stubbornly refused to provide either party with a lasting advantage, arguably since the Reagan era, and voters next week may again divide almost exactly in half. “A political system in which one party is the party of white America and the other party is the party of minority America is a political system that is structured for polarization,” says veteran Democratic analyst William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a political system that locks us into an endless continuation of what we’ve seen.”
MATHEMATICIANS AND PRIESTS
The GOP dominated five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1988 so thoroughly that analysts spoke of a Republican “lock” on the White House. Over those six campaigns, Republicans won the popular vote five times, engineered two of the most one-sided landslides ever (in 1972 and 1984), averaged 417 Electoral College votes, and held Democrats to an average of just 43 percent of the popular vote.