It’s pretty obvious that what set President Obama to a re-election victory begins and ends with a new electorate. Obama won less of the white vote than Michael Dukakis. He still won the election, because America looks different than it did in 1988.
As the Obama campaign had assumed more than a year ago, the white portion of the electorate dropped to 72%, and the president won just 39% of that vote. But he carried a whopping 93% of black voters (representing 13% of the electorate), 71% of Latinos (representing 10%), and also 73% of Asians (3%). What’s more, despite all the predictions that youth turnout would be down, voters 18-29 made up 19% of last night’s voting population — up from 18% four years ago — and President Obama took 60% from that group. The trend also played out in the key battleground states: The president won about 70% of the Latino vote in Colorado and Nevada, and he won 60% of it in Florida (a high number given the state’s large GOP-leaning Cuban-American population).
The other stat that leaps out; 89% of Mitt Romney’s voters were white, while 56% of Obama’s voters were white. Mitt Romney took 27% of Hispanics, a staggeringly small number. And actually, this isn’t all that new. Democrats have now won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 elections. The demographics have been moving in their direction for some time.
The other wins on the ballot reflect this changed electorate. Senate pickups in this kind of map were almost unthinkable. Republicans worked their way to what looks like will end up a 236-199 House majority, which means they lost something like 6 seats. Redistricting from 2010 (a truly important event that will keep Republicans in the House up for air for some time) cost Democrats about 11 seats, so if you look at it that way, Democrats gained 17 seats, which is fairly healthy (and I think you saw the power of money in those downballot races, which I’ll address later). Historic victories for LGBT rights and marijuana legalization show the social progressive makeup of the electorate.
Bob Moser writes, and I want to highlight these words for reasons that will become clear in a bit:
The great question of 2012 was one that had not been debated in earnest, in a national forum, for 40 years: Is America a democracy for all, or a state ruled by the elite? Is America a democratic society that believes in government by and for the people, or a capitalist state ruled by the rich? Long before the presidential campaign began in earnest, the president framed the contest in precisely those terms [...]
Americans made foundational choices in this election. We decided that we do not support the wholesale demolition of government. We rejected the wealth-first economics that Romney represented—and embodied. We affirmed our belief in a social contract and our wariness of the “fend for yourself” philosophy of Ayn Rand Republicanism. We loudly insisted that women’s economic and reproductive rights are essential. We dismissed the idea that immigrants are a drag on the country’s future.
These were mighty choices. They were made even mightier by the fact that this election was, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote, “the white right’s last gasp.” Until Tuesday night, it remained possible that a Republican Party supported almost exclusively by conservative white people could win one last time and could then proceed to dismantle the social-welfare system so thoroughly over the next four or eight years that it would take decades to rebuild it again.
But Americans didn’t let it happen. The president ran, and won, on the most resonant pro-government message Democrats have offered in four decades. They did it by assembling the most diverse political coalition in the nation’s history—huge majorities of young people, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, women, and highly-educated whites.
Moser is right; the electorate is now totally different than the one pundits and elites have gotten used to over the last few decades. But here’s the problem; that sets the victory in an ELECTORAL context. It says nothing of the policy context.
Indeed, you have a victory for a message of populism in an era where rulebreaking elites never get sanctioned. In an era when inequality is increasing across the board, and in fact accelerating under Obama. In an era where wages have been stagnant for 30 years. In an era where the middle class is shrinking. In an era where the President ran on populism and peppered his acceptance speech with two references to cutting the deficit, despite no pressure from the markets to do so and a threat of this throwing the economy back into recession. (Granted, he also name-checked inequality and global warming.)
THE ELECTORATE, then, differs from THE POLICY they would probably want if they had a greater sense of how the decisions made in Washington affect their lives. I heard someone say several years ago that the McGovern coalition is finally a governing coalition, now they just need someone more like McGovern to run it. We don’t have that right now.
Obama called for a more participatory politics last night, and that’s very true. We’ve fetishized the Presidency so much that we’ve created this sense that political participation ends at the ballot box. That’s actually where it begins. The people elected last night are actually not for that, at least not by their actions of the previous four years. So it’s up to the people to actually do something with this majority in favor of fairness, good government, civil rights and the social contract.
I’ll give Digby the last word.
If the Obama team learned anything from all this it should be that they cannot be all things to all people. We disagree in this country and that’s ok. This election wasn’t about post-partisanship, bipartisanship or “changing the tone.” This was a strictly partisan victory made up of the Democratic Party coalition.
The liberals were validated this election and it behooves the administration to strategize their next four years with that in mind.
He’s run his last race and all he has left to worry about is properly governing the country and solidifying his legacy — and that legacy will be made or broken on how well he fulfills the agenda of those who have voted for him in massive numbers. He has a right and an obligation to unapologetically work to enact the agenda those people elected him to enact.