In winning the 2012 election, Barack Obama becomes only the second Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to do the following two things: (1) secure a second term (Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996); and (2) receive over 50 percent of the popular vote in each election as a presidential candidate (2008: 52.87 percent; 2012: 50.4 percent) (Roosevelt cleared the 50 percent hurdle in four separate elections). In addition, Obama was re-elected despite the fact that the United States is in the midst of a fragile economic recovery and the unemployment rate is at 7.9 percent. The only other president to have been re-elected since World War II with a jobless rate above 6 percent is Ronald Reagan; in October 1984, the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent. However, the most remarkable thing about the 2012 election may not be that Barack Obama will serve a second term as POTUS, but that the nation has undergone a fundamental political realignment, reflected by changes in the demographic makeup of the electorate.
The electorate decreased by 5 percent in 2012 (118,860,683 voters) as compared to 2008 (125,225,901 voters). A partial explanation for this decrease may be Hurricane Sandy (e.g., NBC News estimates that Sandy could have cost President Obama 800,000 additional votes), but even with this decrease, the percentage of participation among the voting age population is within the expected range. In each election since 1972, between 50 and 55 percent of the resident population of voting age has voted in the presidential election, with two exceptions (1996: 49 percent; 2008: 57.1 percent). In 2012, roughly 50 percent of the voting age population voted (the most recent estimate pegged the voting age population at 237,657,645). In terms of demographics, in 2008, white voters comprised 74 percent of the electorate; in 2012, that number had dropped to 72 percent. And while African Americans remained at 13 percent of the electorate, Hispanic voters increased to 10 percent (up from 9 percent) and Asian voters increased to 3 percent (up from 2 percent).
The increased voter turnout of minority populations is reflective of demographic changes in the United States. In 1950, the U.S. population was roughly 152.3 million. Today, the U.S. population has more than doubled. However, “[m]ore than just being doubled in size, the population has become qualitatively different.”
As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes, the balance of gross immigration (i.e., persons moving permanently to the U.S.) has exceeded gross emigration (i.e., persons leaving the U.S.) over the past century. Combined with the fact that major racial and ethnic groups are aging at different rates, this has caused the U.S. population to become more racially and ethnically diverse. The CRS notes that increases will be most dramatic for Asians and persons in the “other races” category (e.g., American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and people who identify with two or more races): between 2000 and 2050, the number of Asians is expected to increase by 23.7 million (an increase of 220 percent) and the number in all “other races” is expected to increase by 15.8 million (an increase of 223 percent). However, a similar increase is expected in the Hispanic population, already the nation’s largest minority: in 2000, Hispanics accounted for 12.6 percent of the population (roughly one in seven persons), but in 2050 Hispanics are expected to account for 30.2 percent of the population (approaching one in three persons).
For a political party to remain relevant, therefore, that party must adapt to the needs of a changing United States. In the future, elections will be won and lost depending on how successful a candidate is at courting minority voters, Hispanics in particular. But if the 2008 and 2012 elections are any indication, absent significant ideological changes, the Republican Party may be doomed for political irrelevancy. If current demographic trends continue, it will be difficult for the GOP to win any election aside from deeply Republican congressional districts, let alone the presidency.
Demographic changes will significantly impact the electoral map, and traditional Republican strongholds – such as Arizona and Texas – will likely ascend into the ranks of the battleground states. In Arizona, between 2000 and 2010 the growth of eligible Hispanic voters was 72 percent (or 7.2 percent yearly growth). The Hispanic portion of Arizona’s electorate is currently at 20 percent, but if the current yearly growth rate of 7.2 percent continues, that number will jump to 29 percent by 2014. The result: Arizona could be a battleground state as early as the 2014 midterm elections. Similarly, in Texas, between 2000 and 2010 the growth of eligible Hispanic voters was 38 percent (or 3.8 percent yearly growth). The Hispanic portion of Texas’ electorate is currently at 26.6 percent, and the result of a continued increase of 3.8 percent would propel Texas into the ranks of the battleground states in only 5 to 6 years. That means that by the 2020 presidential election, Texas could go blue for the first time since 1976.
Lest you remain doubtful of this possibility, consider the state of Virginia. Virginia was once reliably red, supporting the Republican presidential candidate in every election from 1968 through 2004. But in 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 6 points in the state (53 percent to 47 percent). Obama’s repeat in Virginia on Tuesday, in which he defeated Mitt Romney by 3 points (50.8 percent to 47.8 percent), demonstrates that 2008 was not a fluke. How did Obama turn the tide in Virginia? Minority support. President Obama received the support of only 38 percent of white Virginians, but this number was counterbalanced by the support he received from minorities. Obama received 93 percent of the African American vote, 65 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 66 percent of the Asian vote. As H. Brevy Cannon aptly remarked, “Let this sink in: The same state that kept virulently racist Harry Byrd in the U.S. Senate to block civil rights legislation, that defended outlawing marriage between blacks and whites before the Supreme Court, that houses the capital of the Confederacy, that was founded by slaveholders, that has a motto that Booth shouted as he assassinated Lincoln, that elected George Allen as governor and senator, has twice voted to put a man of African descent into the White House.”
On a national scale, in both 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama defeated his Republican challenger largely because of minority support. In 2008, Obama lost the white vote to John McCain by 12 points (43 percent to 55 percent), but he outperformed McCain by 91 points among African Americans (95 percent to 4 percent), 36 points among Hispanics (67 percent to 31 percent), 27 points among Asians (62 percent to 35 percent), and 35 points among individuals identifying as “other” (66 percent to 31 percent). Similarly, in 2012, while Obama lost the white vote to Mitt Romney by 20 points (39 percent to 59 percent), the demographic trench between the parties remained, and in some cases, grew even larger. Obama outperformed Romney by 87 points among African Americans (93 percent to 6 percent), 44 points among Hispanics (71 percent to 27 percent), 47 points among Asians (73 percent to 26 percent), and 20 points among individuals identifying as “other” (58 percent to 38 percent).
These numbers should be alarming to every Republican. Indeed, some conservatives have begun raising the alarm. Conservative columnist George Will (who predicted a 321 to 217 Romney landslide in the Electoral College), for example, noted that the the Republican party is on an “unsustainable trajectory” and that, “like today’s transfer-payment state, [it] is endangered by tardiness in recognizing that demography is destiny.”
However, a faction of the Republican Party has been content to ignore the demographic challenges Republicans face, choosing instead to explain Mitt Romney’s loss on a variety of other factors. Rick Noyes of the conservative Media Research Center, for example, focused on the “media’s biased gaffe patrol” and an alleged bias among fact-checkers. Christopher Ruddy at Newsmax pointed to Hurricane Isaacs effects on the Republican National Convention in August, arguing that the storm “seriously disrupted the official schedule.” Mitt Romney’s own advisers preemptively blamed the loss on Hurricane Sandy, and some in the party, such as Robert Stacy McCain, decried New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for “embrac[ing] Obama as the hero of Hurricane Sandy” and then “refus[ing] to appear at campaign events in support of Romney’s presidential campaign.” Karl Rove argued that Obama “succeeded by suppressing the vote.” Some members of the Tea Party argued that Romney was not conservative enough, and “vowed to wage a war to put the Tea Party in charge of the Republican Party by the time it nominates its next presidential candidate.” And Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) even suggested that the president’s victory was the result of ignorant voters and an uninformed electorate.
While Obama may have won convincingly in the Electoral College, as Ronald Brownstein pointed out, “his victory underscored the enduring polarization along ideological, regional, and racial lines.” The 2012 election should make it clear that minority voters will have an increasingly significant role to play in future elections, and that political parties can no longer succeed with the support of white voters alone. Rather than focusing on Hurricane Sandy, or the conservatism of Mitt Romney as the reason they lost, the GOP must move forward and adapt to the changing U.S. electorate.
Republicans must moderate their positions on immigration and legislation that directly impacts minority communities (e.g., the DREAM Act), and must cease fragmenting the population by demonizing minority groups. It is simply not the case that such moderation is antithetical to traditional Republican values of individualism, hard work, resistance to government intervention, and faith in the power of free markets.
Over the next few months, deep divisions will appear within the Grand Ole Party. The GOP will pick up the pieces of Tuesday’s defeat and begin painting the portrait of the party going forward. If the portrait reflects an adaptation to the changing demographics of the United States, there may yet be a healthy contest for minority voters in future elections. But if the party chooses to paint the same portrait as before, and if it continues to peddle the same policies and divisive rhetoric, it will spell the end of the GOP as we know it. Slowly but surely, the Republican Party will relegate itself to the annals of history. And the most unfortunate part of the story will be that the GOP chose this path for itself.