Five Takeaways From the 2012 Election
This item by TDS Founding Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
The "Obama coalition" is real--though it is more narrow than once was thought. Young adults, minorities, women (especially unmarried women), and voters from lower-income households turned out in large numbers. Defying expectations (including mine), the young adult share of the electorate expanded slightly over its showing in 2008.Meanwhile, the president's share of the white vote was down from 43 to 39 percent. He was supported by 56 percent of moderates, down from 60 percent, and by 45 percent of Independents, down from 52 percent. And while the president's share of the vote from households making $50 thousand or less held steady at 60 percent, his support among middle income households ($50 to 100 thousand) fell from 49 to 46 percent, and among households making more than $100 thousand, from 49 to 44 percent.
America's demographic shift grinds on inexorably. The white share of the electorate fell from 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2012. This was at the low end of expectations, but in line with the assumption that guided the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, Latinos maintained, or perhaps even expanded from 9 to 10 percent, their share of the electorate. They supported Obama by an overwhelming 71 to 27 percent. If the national Republican Party does not reconsider its stance on immigration policy, it risks the fate of the California Republican Party after Pete Wilson's governorship--permanent minority status.
Social issues advantage the left, not right. Americans are perfectly willing to be represented by conservatives, but they draw the line at attitudes they consider far outside the mainstream. Romney may well have lost the general election the day he decided to go to Rick Perry's right on immigration policy. And there's no way that Republicans should have lost the Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, but their candidates found a way--by wrecking their campaigns on the shoals of abortion politics.
Moreover, the mainstream is shifting. Referenda last night broke the streak of 33 consecutive defeats for same-sex marriage in statewide votes. Obama's support for marriage equality appears to have cost him little, even among the working class voters who were disposed to support him on economic grounds.
Transactional politics works. Ohio workers in automobile-related companies were grateful to the president. So were Latinos (for the executive order protecting younger immigrants), gays and lesbians (for the president and vice-president's support for same-sex marriage), and younger women (for reproductive health services and pay equity). In the fall of 2011, the Obama campaign decided that running for reelection on the basis of general achievements--the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, financial reform, etc.--would not suffice to re-mobilize a dispirited Democratic base, and they decided to mount a much more targeted effort. While we'll never know for sure, the results seem to vindicate their approach.
Mea culpa. I did not believe that Obama could be reelected on this basis. I did not believe that a campaign that seemed likely to reduce his share of whites, middle class voters, moderates, and independents--and did so--could obtain a majority. I was wrong.
I remain to be convinced, however, that Obama's tactics provided the strongest foundation for the policies he seeks to enact. Divided government can yield only two results--compromise or gridlock. The tone and temper of this campaign have not advanced the prospects of agreement across party lines. So gridlock continues to loom--unless the Republicans have been chastened by defeat, as the president hopes. But Speaker Boehner sounds anything but chastened, House Republicans are homogeneously conservative, and it will be much harder for Obama to divide House Republicans than it was for Ronald Reagan to snatch away moderate and conservative House Democrats thirty years ago.
So it's still an open question whether Obama can transform his new electoral majority into a governing majority, as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. Obama's campaign was undoubtedly a brilliant tactical success against considerable odds and historians may judge that there was no alternative. But transforming it into a strategic success will be much harder.