But since 1992, the story has been very different. Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five elections; after this election, Democrats could be in a position of having quietly won the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, just as Republicans did in the days of their so-called lock. The picture will look different if Obama loses; even if he wins, Democrats haven’t dominated this era nearly as much as Republicans did the earlier one. In one of those recent Democratic popular-vote victories, of course, Al Gore lost the Electoral College vote in 2000, and none of the Democratic winners has approached the towering margins of Richard Nixon in 1972 (61 percent) or Reagan in 1984 (59 percent). Obama’s 52.8 percent has been the Democratic high point over that period, and it seems very unlikely he will match that even if he survives.
Still, over these two decades, Republicans are clearly operating with a much lower ceiling than they were during that earlier time. No GOP nominee since 1988 has won more than the 286 Electoral College votes or 50.8 percent of the vote that George W. Bush captured in 2004 while amassing the all-time narrowest margin of victory in the popular vote for a successfully reelected president. Unless his momentum continues to crest, a Romney victory would probably still not exceed either of those totals.
“Maybe we are reaching a tipping point about how the Democratic Party sees itself.” —Ruy Teixeira, Center for American Progress
Two factors, above all, explain the difference from the 1968-88 period controlled by Republicans and the more recent stretch of greater Democratic competitiveness: the increasing minority population, as well as the improving Democratic performance among college-educated whites. Those two trends also pose the most pointed choices for Republicans after this election, win or lose.
The most visible change has been the electorate’s growing diversity. When Reagan first won in 1980, whites cast about nine of every 10 ballots; even as late as 1992, when Bill Clinton first captured the White House, whites delivered 88 percent of the votes and minorities just 12 percent. But the white share of the vote has steadily declined in each election since then; by 2008, whites cast 74 percent of the ballots and minorities 26 percent.
The Republican presidential nominee, according to network exit polls and earlier postelection surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, has carried most white voters in every election after 1964. However, this shifting population mix has dulled the impact of that success. Consider: In 2004, Bush won almost exactly the same share of the white vote (58 percent) as his father did in 1988 (59 percent). But while that showing allowed George H.W. Bush to rout Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by nearly 8 percentage points, the equivalent performance provided the younger Bush his thin 2.5 percentage-point edge over John Kerry. Likewise, in 2008, Obama lost the white vote by as large a margin as Gore did in the near-dead heat of 2000. Yet because Obama carried 80 percent of the growing minority population, including not only 95 percent of African-Americans but also two-thirds of Hispanics, he won the largest share of the popular vote of any Democratic nominee since Johnson in 1964.
Polls show Obama on track to replicate that performance among minorities this year. If he does, and they cast at least the 26 percent of votes they did last time, Romney would need to win 61 percent of whites to assemble a national majority. Although some mid-October polls show Romney reaching that level, others place him short of it. This stark prospect means Romney could win nearly three-fifths of white voters—a showing that would match Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Reagan in 1980, and Bush in 1988 as the best performance ever for a Republican challenger among whites—and still lose.
If that happens, Schmidt predicts, “there will be the beginnings of a proper civil war in the Republican Party. Everybody will blame everybody. The conservatives will blame the establishment, and vice versa.” Even if Romney wins narrowly with a margin among whites that previously generated landslide victories, the party is likely to squabble over its standing with minorities, especially Hispanics. “You’ve got to play on the other field or you can’t win,” says Murphy, the GOP consultant. “What we have to understand is, our field is shrinking and their field is growing. If we ignore it, I think it will be totally self-destructive. There will be a big fight in the party after the election between the mathematicians and the priests.”
Murphy’s “mathematicians” include many of the party’s most prominent strategists. They consider the GOP’s anemic performance among minorities, particularly Hispanics, an existential threat to the party’s viability at the national level. Although political participation has lagged population growth among Hispanics, their share of the vote has increased from 1 percent in 1980 to 9 percent in 2008, and the Pew Hispanic Center recently calculated that nearly 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year, up by more than 4 million since 2008. That’s double the four-year increase in eligible Hispanics between the 1996 and 2000 elections. “If Republicans are going to be competitive at the presidential level over the next 10 to 20 years, they have to do better among nonwhite voters, especially Asians and Hispanics,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres warns.