What President Obama’s re-election tells us about the current state of American politics.
The reelection of President Barack Obama was a confirmation of a number of “truths” in American politics—some perhaps new, or at least in sharper focus. Even during a less-than-stellar economic recovery running against the most moderate Republican the GOP had on offer (with business credentials to boot), Barack Obama was able to defend his record and even make a modest case for increasing taxes on the 1% against challenger Mitt Romney. How did this happen?
Most obviously, there are more Democrats in America than Republicans. This is true both numerically and ideologically. Moreover, demographically it’s likely to stay that way for a while. The gender gap is real and growing. When the core interests of women are threatened, made obvious by the now infamous comments of Todd Akin in Missouri (victims of “legitimate rape” would not get pregnant) and Richard Mourdock in Indiana (conception by rape is “God’s will”), electoral defeat will decisively follow. Latinos are now in the double digits in term of proportion of the American voting population, and in battleground states such as Colorado and Nevada, their collective impact was decisive. Without meaningful support for immigration reform, Republicans might as well start self-deporting from the political scene. Meanwhile, Millennials have proven in their voting behavior thus far that they will not reward Republicans with their votes as long as the GOP maintains retrogressive positions on such issues as marriage equality. Support for same-sex marriage is so strongly age-identified that it’s fair to say the results of the Maryland and Maine ballot initiatives are not simply a turning point, they represent the future (which is why four New York Republican senators didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of history and supported Governor Andrew Cuomo’s legislation guaranteeing marriage equality in that state last year). The political right is correct in wrapping up their slipping fortunes in the rubric of a culture war. It’s just one they cannot hope to win. You cannot build a sustainable political future on getting an overwhelming majority of older white men to vote for you, because they are, and will continue to be, a shrinking slice of the American electoral pie. Big tent parties have to reach for and hold the centre, and pay attention to how that centre shifts demographically. I watched the electoral returns at a local DC restaurant, buffeted by the liberal enthusiasm of the predominantly young, well-educated and racially mixed crowd of urban professionals that dramatically and visually illustrated the electorate of the future. (In Toronto I would have said “multicultural” but in this election and in this town, you cannot escape both the discourse and the reality of race as a factor in politics).
Another issue less emphasized by pundits is the rural-urban divide in the United States, which in my view is far more significant than the more simplistic red-state, blue-state split. If you checked out the county-by-county graphics, it’s clear that, almost without exception, urban areas, even in red-states, go solidly blue, and rural areas in blue-states stay red. The battleground areas are the suburbs. As the country as a whole continues to urbanize or suburbanize, rural voters will command an ever shrinking slice, and this typically small-c conservative natural constituency for the Republican Party will deliver less and less. Once we knew the remaining votes to be counted in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio were in urban or suburban areas, the less likely it was that Romney could pull a rabbit out of a hat and carry those states.
Not only are there more Democrats, they successfully got out their vote. Their ground machine proved remarkably effective, even given pessimistic fears of decreased turnout among African-Americans and the confusion generated by various state-level voter fraud initiatives. Nevertheless, there’s not a lot to be proud of in the Democratic and Republican campaigns, both marred by negative campaigning, niche marketing and use of wedge issues to get voters to the polls. Mind you, this time it was the Democrats who stole a page from the Karl Rove songbook of Bush’s 2004 victory. In this election war, truth was indeed the first victim and even where fact-checkers tried to keep up, deceitful and simplistic sloganeering usually prevailed. It might work in the short-term and in elections that’s all that matters, but both parties ought to reflect on the long-term price to be paid when you treat voters like consumers. Such an approach encourages demand for instant gratification from the purchased product and better customer service from government rather than a balance of the rights and obligations inherent in democratic citizenship.
Finally, I cannot conclude this series without footnoting the relevance of predictions and big money. Political science may not be able to predict much in this world, but the polling industry, aided and abetted by statistical gurus like New York Times blogger and poll aggregator Nate Silver, does a pretty good job when it comes to figuring out American voting behavior. Romney’s momentum was more myth than substance, as Silver repeatedly stressed, exit polls are so sophisticated they really do tell us a great deal, and the Electoral College numbers are far more critical than the popular vote (not so different than in Canada, where overall number of seats won determine a legislative majority, and winners really do take all). With respect to 2.5 billion spent on the campaign by both parties, no doubt reading we’ll be reading the tea leaves for some time as to whether or not all those ads screeching through the air waves made a difference or effectively cancelled each other out. My modest hope is that, overall, at least a large chunk of that money represented a net transfer of wealth from the richest campaign donors in the 1% to the 99% of those in the service and travel industries who directly benefited. At least those jobs were in America, and there was some trickle-down effect.
Barbara Falk is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington this fall.