After the 2012 presidential election failed to go their way, Republicans were reminded ad nauseam that Barack Obama had built a winning collection of supporters and that the GOP had not. The Democratic coalition, insisted partisans both inside and outside the media, spelled potential death for the GOP and for the conservative ideology that generally underpins it. The Republican party was just too old, too white, and too male — three terrible things to be, naturally — and it was destined to be buried by demographics. As the year came to a close, and everyone tried his hand at a postmortem, ham-fisted comparisons to the “Whigs” became the norm. The GOP, we were told, was dead.
The progressive blogger Markos Moulitsas, in a rare moment of total honesty, put this case most bluntly, writing in July of this year that progressives in Texas would have to be patient before they would see their state turn blue. By 2014, Moulitsas conceded in anguish, not “enough time will have passed to be bailed out by demographics.” But the future was bright nonetheless: Young people being increasingly less white, and expansive immigration reform being all but rendered inevitable by Mitt Romney’s loss, all the Democratic party needed to do was to sit back and wait. Eventually, the GOP would become a rump, regional party, and its antediluvian voters would be relegated to howling impotently at the moon.
As ever, there were kernels of truth in the criticism: If Republicans are to capture the White House again, they will certainly need to expand their base. But the case was typically hysterical, the product of a general and insidious tendency to overstate the importance of the presidency in national life and to see the last election as a fail-safe indicator of the future. This instinct is not new. In 1936, after FDR had won 46 of the 48 states, it was widely predicted that the Republican party was headed for the grave. Two years later, it won 82 new seats in the House.
In late 2013, the GOP is not only still around, it is ascendant. The magical Obama coalition, thought by many to be composed of mere automatons who would follow the Democratic party wherever it went, is starting to fracture. This is not to say that its members are lining up to re-register as Republicans and subscribe to National Review, of course. But they are expressing dissatisfaction — and, crucially, not just with this president but with the central ideological achievement of his tenure. Obamacare, not time, is dragging the man down. Who would have thought that government policies could lead to political change?
African-American support for the president remains at incredible highs — so strong, in fact, that even Saturday Night Live was moved recently to joke about the almost unanimous support among blacks that has marked his five years. The Obamacare rollout has had a “troubling” effect on the president, the gag went, forcing his approval rating down “to a startling 93.6 percent.” As it happens, this was overstated for comic effect. But only slightly. In December of last year, 92 percent of blacks thought Obama was doing a good job. This month, it is 83 percent.
The rest of the coalition, however, has proven less abidingly loyal. Hispanics, young people, and women — all crucial to Obama’s successes in ’08 and ’12 — have started to peel away. Obama’s approval rating with Hispanic voters has dropped 23 percentage points in the last year, down from 75 percent in December of last year to 52 percent this November. Meanwhile, a Harvard University Institute of Politics poll shows that 54 percent of Millennials disapprove of Obama’s performance, with 18- to 29-year-olds now viewing the president as unfavorably as they ever have. A startling 47 percent of young people said they would vote “Yes” if the president were to be “recalled.”
In and of itself, this doesn’t mean that they would necessarily vote for a Republican. But the study looked deeper than at mere dissatisfaction and found that if the 2013 election were held today, Obama’s support among all young voters would drop 9 percentage points, from 55 to 46 percent. In other words: He’s underwater even with the cool set.
Worse still, given that Millennials’ enthusiasm is the key to Obamacare’s success, Harvard’s team also discovered that 56 percent of that cohort object to the ACA, while only 39 percent approve. I have long been nervous that Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum was right to float the possibility that Americans might hate the law when it is called “Obamacare” but demonstrate greater enthusiasm when it is referred to with a less politically charged sobriquet. Alas, for Millennials at least, Obamacare by another name does not smell any sweeter. Harvard’s team noted that the disapproval rate was almost identical whatever you called the initiative. The youngsters know about it — they just don’t like it. Neither, apparently, do they believe the central Obamacare lie: that premiums and the quality of care would remain the same after implementation. Five times as many young Americans believe that their costs will increase, while 66 percent expect that the “quality” of their health care will decrease.
White women, too, appear to be peeling away. Obama won 46 percent of college-educated white women in 2012. Now, 50 percent of those voters view his central achievement either “very unfavorably” or “somewhat unfavorably,” up ten points in a single month. Less-educated white women dislike it even more, with 63 percent of them reporting a “very unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” view of the measure. A minuscule 16 percent of blue-collar white women have a favorable view of Obamacare. National Journal’s Alex Roarty put this into context rather bluntly yesterday, explaining that “Obamacare is costing Democrats the white women they’ll need at the ballot box.”
That less-educated, poorer white women so intensely dislike the president’s health-care initiative might look odd at first. And yet this demographic-associated disapproval seems to be the trend overall. More often than not, Obamacare is sold as a compassionate program, and its opponents are frequently accused of exhibiting an ugly “I’ve got mine” mentality. But this conceit is not supported by the numbers. Among Americans earning less than $50,000, only 32 percent support the law, with 67 percent opposing. This rises slightly for Americans earning between $50,000 and $100,000 per year, to 43–57, and then drops again among those earning $100,000 and more, to 39–60. Somewhere, Marx’s brow is furrowed.
Often lost in the analysis of the 2012 election is that the Republican party needs to win only small slivers of each traditionally Democratic bloc in order to again win a national election. Judging by recent trends, the GOP does not do particularly well with Hispanics. But at the moment it doesn’t need to; it just needs to do a little better. The same goes for the young and for women. As for a long-term strategy, the challenge will be to build an effective coalition that stands strong of its own accord and that is successful in its own right, not merely when the opposition screws up. Republicans by no means have that coalition yet. But if the trend that Obamacare has started continues at this rate, the Democrats won’t have one either.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.