It is with the backdrop of a weak economy that Obama ran for re-election and won, whereas twenty years ago George H.W. Bush, the 41st president had lost under similar circumstances. Both presidents were facing an electorate demanding a clear vision for economic recovery, which neither could offer, at least not convincingly. Yet, Obama won [...]
It is with the backdrop of a weak economy that Obama ran for re-election and won, whereas twenty years ago George H.W. Bush, the 41st president had lost under similar circumstances. Both presidents were facing an electorate demanding a clear vision for economic recovery, which neither could offer, at least not convincingly. Yet, Obama won against a relatively strong Republican opponent with a successful track record in the business world. Bill Clinton could offer no such business credential in 1992, but still sent the incumbent president – the victor in the 1991 Gulf War – to a comprehensive defeat. There was clearly something much more profound at work in 2012 than simply the economy.
That Obama won comfortably with 332 electoral college votes and 51 percent of the popular vote is significant, but that he won despite winning only 39 percent of the white vote makes him the first in American history to have won the presidency while still losing the white vote by a margin of 20 percent. This could not have happened 20 years ago when the share of the non-white vote was only 13 percent. No matter how lopsided the voting, it was simply not large enough then – in the count of electoral college votes – to realistically overturn a 20 percent differential in the popular white vote. The single most important reason for Obama’s victory was ultimately that 82 percent of non-white voters – now more numerous than ever at 28 percent of the total – had voted for him. Herein lies the reason why Obama won in 2012 while George H.W. Bush lost in 1992. The economy had cost Bush re-election while Obama was re-elected despite the economy. The demographic shift had clearly worked in Obama’s favor.
There were other issues of relevance to minority voters that helped the Democratic ticket. It is not simply that minorities joined liberal white voters in large numbers in voting for Obama because they identified themselves more closely with him, which many of them surely did. It is primarily because Democratic priorities appealed to them, especially the economic and social values which the party represents. The historical evidence in this regard is clear. Even in his failed presidential bid in 2004, John Kerry had won almost 90 percent of the African American vote. Other defeated Democratic presidential candidates, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000, also won the minority vote by large margins. Lyndon Johnson’s share of the African American vote in 1964 was more than Obama’s in 2012.
African Americans and other minorities were actually quite frightened by the right wing rhetoric during the Republican primary. The more that Romney tried to win over the overwhelmingly white Tea Party and the extreme elements within the GOP by throwing his support for everything from stricter immigration laws and self deportation to drastic cuts in social spending the more he distanced himself from his own relatively moderate political past and the mainstream of the American working class. African Americans and Hispanics were taken aback. They feared that the promised economic recovery during a Romney presidency would leave them behind.
By the time the primary was over and Romney had won the GOP nomination that nomination had come at a huge political cost. The wedge that was created with the average minority voter by having to fend off attacks from opponents within his own party was simply too wide to close in the final weeks leading up to the election. The consequences were severe. Six percent of African Americans voted for Romney. He lost the Hispanic vote – the fastest growing minority – by a wide margin, securing a mere 27 percent of that vote. His disparaging comment at an elite gathering about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income tax contributed to his share of the vote of households with an income level below $50,000 falling to 38 percent.
The Jewish vote with its high proportion of well educated liberals was, not surprisingly, lost by a wide margin. Certain segments of the small but growing Asian vote were unimpressed by his repeated attacks characterizing China as a “currency manipulator”, however true or well intentioned those remarks might have been. The final tally showed that only 26 percent of Asians voted for him. His desperate last minute commercials in swing states on his softening stance on abortion in the case of rape or incest was seen to be too little too late. The increasingly vocal and politically active gay vote was never up for grabs with Obama having secured it without a fight.
Minorities were disillusioned with Romney and the GOP, including a large number of Hispanics that traditionally had voted Republican. Romney’s impressive business credentials, his pleasant demeanor and decisive victory in the first presidential debate were simply not enough to offset the political liability he was carrying.
Hispanics constituted 10 percent of the electorate in 2012, still far less than their 16 percent share of the US population, which means that the proportion of Hispanic voters in future elections will continue to rise. The same is true for the Asian population, which has now grown to five percent of the total with the proportion of African Americans more stable at 13 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the non-Hispanic white population has fallen below 64 percent. With the aging of this population and only modest immigration from Europe this proportion will continue to fall.
By the time the next presidential election rolls around, the share of the non-white vote would have risen to 30 percent. Many of today’s immigrants and young American-born Hispanics and Asians shall be voting for the first time in 2016, their respective shares of the total vote having increased yet another notch by then.
For Republicans, attracting new voters will be a critical element in formulating a winning strategy. Notions of sticking to the traditional base of support will have to give way to an expansion that is more inclusive and more diverse. Failure to do so could spell political disaster. Attacking opponents within one’s own party during the critical primary season could expose weaknesses undermining policy initiatives and strategic goals. Shifting too far to the right could be self destructive.
Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Republicans have won the white vote while the non-white vote has gone to Democrats, albeit by a much wider margin. Presidential elections were relatively tight so long as the non-white vote was small. The growing non-white electorate is making it easier for Democrats to win the White House. Unless Republicans can make significant inroads into the non-white vote, victory in a presidential election shall become increasingly elusive.