Politics & Policy

Two Visions of the Electorate

The Republican party cannot put its Reagan coalition back together.

What happened with this election? Many conservatives predicted that Romney would win the election, with some even predicting a landslide. Many liberals were equally confident that Obama would win, even if they thought the results would be relatively close. 

This election was more than just a race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, more than just a battle between liberalism and conservatism. It was a race between two different visions of what the American electorate looks like. Democrats saw the race through the lens of the “emerging Democratic majority.” Rising numbers of minority voters — and a corresponding declining white vote — meant that Democrats were playing with the wind at their backs. Add to that young voters, upscale professionals, and single women, and you have a pretty durable coalition that could push President Obama across the finish line despite the stagnant economy.

On the other hand, Republicans saw this as a “Silent Majority” election. They were trying to refight the 1980s, putting together the political coalition that gave the country the Reagan Revolution: evangelicals, working-class white Catholic “Reagan Democrats,” small businessmen, and rural voters. Conservative pundits kept saying that polls were wrong because they oversampled Democrats and ignored Republican enthusiasm. They seemed to argue that the polls were missing potential GOP voters who would show up on Election Day and oust Obama.

Unfortunately, we can now safely say which vision won in yesterday’s election. There was no silent majority of right-leaning voters to take Romney across the finish line. The white vote continued to decline, from 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2012, while the Hispanic vote went from around 7 percent to around 10 percent. Exit polls showed that women were 53 percent of the electorate this time around. Obama had an 11-point lead among women, while Romney had only a 7-point lead among men.

Republicans misunderstood the enthusiasm they were seeing among Romney supporters. It’s true that there was a great deal of energy on the GOP side, as seen by the large crowds Romney attracted to his campaign events. However, your base can be as energized as possible, but if it is a declining percentage of the overall electorate, there is not much that you can do.

As with every election, the losing side goes through a period of soul searching and finger pointing. The natural reaction among some on the right will be to argue that Romney lost because he was a moderate, northeastern Republican, or because he refused to run on substantive issues, whether Obamacare or Libya. It is unclear who, among the rest of the candidates running for the GOP nomination this cycle, could have done better than Romney.

But that criticism also misses a larger point: The Reagan coalition that began to grow in the 1970s and brought Reagan to the White House and won the House for the GOP in 1994 is shrinking. Republicans can’t just keep trying to put it back together. It’s just not statistically possible.

In addition, the GOP “brand” has taken a big hit in recent years. Many voters still blame former George W. Bush for the economic crisis, and my hunch is that the Iraq War has done quiet but substantial damage to the Republican party as well, calling into question its overall competency and turning off isolationist-minded voters. In addition, the comments of Todd Akin reinforced the unfair image of the GOP as a party of men looking to take away the freedoms of women and return the country to the 1950s.

Democrats shouldn’t be overconfident in their faith in the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis. Obama is a singular and historic figure who inspires many Americans; future Democratic candidates might not inspire voters in the same way. The economy could continue to worsen, thereby tarnishing Obama and the Democrats. Demographics are not immutable laws of science; history doesn’t march in a single direction. However, if you are a Republican and thinking about how to put together a coalition of 50 percent plus one, these are changes that you can’t ignore. 

Obviously, the GOP needs to think about how to reach out to Hispanic and Asian voters. But the problems run deeper. The GOP needs to run better in affluent suburban counties. If the party of business and economic growth can’t do well among the most prosperous and economically vibrant parts of the nation, then something is seriously wrong.

The first step to solving any problem is to admit that you have one. Many (though not all) on the right have been unwilling to admit that very real demographic changes are tilting the electoral map towards the Democrats. Conservatives have tried to convince themselves that turning Arkansas and West Virginia from blue to red will help stem the tide, but what good does it do to win these states yet see Florida, Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado slipping away from the GOP?

After seeing the election results last night, one dejected Romney voter seemed to sum up this confusion over the competing visions of the American electorate: “It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are,” said Marianne Doherty of Boston. “I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now.”

It is time for conservatives to start examining seriously what “the identity of America” really is, and not just what we want it to be. Let the soul searching begin.

Vincent J. Cannato is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.


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