The final and perhaps most intractable problem facing Democrats is the party’s inability to hold white voters while in power. Since the mid-1960s, each time Democrats have held unified control of the White House and Congress, and thus possessed the power to implement their agenda, they have seen their support among whites decline, often precipitously, in the next congressional or presidential election, or both. (That includes the unified control Democrats enjoyed from 1965-68 under Johnson; 1977-80 under Jimmy Carter; 1993-94 under Clinton; and 2009-10 under Obama.) In congressional elections, for instance, the Democratic share of the white vote dropped 13 percentage points from 1964 to 1968 (after Johnson implemented his Great Society), 9 points after Clinton’s first two years, and 8 points after Obama’s first two years.
This suggests that the party has been unable to formulate a vision of activist government that can maintain majority white support. In the Midwest this year, polls show Obama maintaining better support among whites through his campaign’s relentless portrait of Romney as an indifferent plutocrat, and that tactic will prove crucial if the president survives the Romney surge. But even if the president does, it doesn’t erase Democrats’ decline among whites elsewhere this year or their collapse with the white electorate in 2010. That full picture suggests that Democrats may struggle to hold power with their coalition of the ascendant, even when they obtain it. “There’s a difference between winning power with that kind of coalition and governing with that kind of coalition, and Democrats run smack into that difference every time they win,” Galston says. “It’s not a sustainable political model that can write off upwards of 60 percent of white America.”
PLAYING THE CARDS
So, given all of these factors, which party holds a stronger hand for the years ahead? Most Democrats believe that, whatever Obama’s fate, the shifting demography provides them an edge over time against a Republican Party that still relies on the slowly shrinking white population for about 90 percent of its total votes. “I think this is a sustainable majority coalition,” Greenberg says. Teixeira agrees, saying, “You are riding the wave instead of trying to somehow swim against it.” Winograd and Hais believe that the 2012 election, like 1936 for the Democrats and 1972 for the Republicans, could be a “confirming” election that lastingly secures the party’s hold on millennials, minorities, and upscale, socially liberal women. “In a lot of ways, Obama is doing what FDR did: cementing a young generation, an ethnic generation, to his party with programs and policies, and, really, emotions that are aimed at that generation,” Hais says.
But Republicans such as Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, argues that Democratic optimism minimizes the party’s own difficulties and overstates the likelihood that the GOP won’t respond to the shifting electorate. “I start with the strategic premise that political parties … tend to adapt to what they have to do to survive and prosper,” Reed says. “If the Republican Party is going to create anything that resembles a national majority party, it is going to have to address areas where we have dropped the ball among young people, women, and minorities, especially Hispanics. But that’s doable.”
Galston, injecting a cautionary note in the Democrats’ optimism, concurs that “in principle, it may be easier for Republicans” than Democrats to solve their largest demographic problem. Win or lose, he argues, Republicans after the election will face enormous pressure to moderate their stance on immigration-related issues, and if they do, “it would be a real game changer” by potentially restoring their competitiveness among Hispanics. By contrast, Galston maintains, it may be tougher for Democrats to reposition the party in a way that can recapture more whites. “You’d need another insurgency of the center,” he says, of the sort Clinton pursued with his “New Democrat” agenda. Beyond that, if Romney wins, and the economic recovery accelerates, either because of his policies or merely because of the spinning of the economic cycle, the GOP would obviously be in a strong position for 2016 and maybe beyond.
The 2012 results will powerfully influence the direction of these arguments, as each party assesses the competing role of ideology, demography, and economics in the outcome. In truth, this campaign is likely to demonstrate that all of these matter in driving results. On the one hand, the electorate’s changing demography has allowed Obama to remain competitive despite economic headwinds and skepticism among older and blue-collar whites that would have doomed Democratic nominees in earlier years.
Yet it has not guaranteed him victory: Discontent over the economy and other aspects of Obama’s first term record is making it much tougher than in 2008 for him to generate the margins or the turnout that he needs among his coalition’s critical elements. Those same factors present Obama with the risk of deepened deficits in support among the groups most skeptical of him (those older and blue-collar whites) too large to overcome even if he can generate respectable margins among his own best groups.
Conversely, the greatest barrier to a Romney presidency is the cavernous deficit he faces among minorities—a shortfall rooted in the positions that he took to secure the GOP nomination.
On both sides of the equation, all of these factors serve as reminders that even as these fundamental demographic shifts are reconfiguring the electoral landscape, the long-term balance of power between the parties will be shaped at least as much by the strategies and policies they embrace, and the results they produce, once they step onto the field.
This article appeared in print as “The Tipping Point.”
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
This article appeared in the Saturday, November 3, 2012 edition of National Journal.