It would be difficult to top the historic import of the 2008 presidential election when voters elected America’s first black president. However, the 2012 contest had its own unique features, not least of which was the re-election of a black president. In addition, for the first time in American history, neither the presidential nor vice presidential candidate of the major political parties was a white Protestant. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, is a Mormon; his vice-presidential running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is a Roman Catholic. On the Democratic side, Presidential Barack Obama is a black Protestant, and Vice President Joe Biden is a Roman Catholic. Given the changes in American demography, this party line-up will become more common in the future. Here’s why.
Two Election Surprises
Two results from the 2012 presidential election surprised me. First, given the constant media emphasis on the closeness of the election, it was surprising that the result was not particularly tight. The electoral vote, the popular vote, and the results in the so-called “swing states” all broke in favor of the president. Barack Obama won a commanding majority in the Electoral College: 332 to 206 electoral votes. Obama easily exceeded the 270 votes needed to win the election. The popular vote was not especially close either. Obama had a comfortable margin in the popular vote—51.1 percent to 47.2 percent—reflecting a nearly three-million vote majority for the Democrat.
As with previous presidential elections, the contest hung on the swing states—those states where the pre-election polls indicated a race too close to call. Depending on the media outlet, those states numbered anywhere from six to nine. This is where the election took place. The other states were so solidly behind one or the other candidate that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Not so the swing states.1
Most of the parties’ face-to-face campaigning and political advertising concentrated in the swing states. The candidates made occasional forays into states such as California and New York (both solidly Democratic) or Texas (solidly Republican) only for fund-raising not for on-the-ground campaigning. The election-day surprise was that Barack Obama lost only one swing state—North Carolina—and that by a margin of less than one percent. In fact, the president lost only two states he won in 2008: Indiana and North Carolina. This was a remarkable feat considering the pundits’ predictions of a very close election.
The second surprise was the remarkable turnout of the African American electorate. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the registration of black voters has grown to be equal to that of white registrants: slightly better than two-thirds of the eligible electorate. However, turnout among black voters has historically been less than the turnout among whites. Turnout is often a function of class: poor people vote less often than more affluent voters. Turnout is also a function of opportunity: the ease of accessing polling places, the time to wait in lines, and the weather. Poorer people, tied to jobs, family care issues, and the daily grind of survival may have priorities that take precedence over casting a ballot on a given day.
In recent years, however, changes in the voting process have enabled less affluent voters to vote on a more flexible schedule. Many states have installed early voting procedures that allow registrants to cast ballots as much as three weeks prior to the election day (the first Tuesday in November). Also, the registration process has become easier, with more venues open to enroll voters. Finally, particularly in those states and counties (mostly in the South), the 1965 Voting Rights Act has required any change in the electoral process to be pre-cleared by Washington for its impact on minority voting rights. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this pre-clearance provision of the Act in an Alabama case, Shelby County v. Holder, on June 25, 2013.)
Still, many of these features were in place during the 2008 presidential election, including, and most important, the presence of a black candidate at the head of a major party ticket. Yet, the turnout among white voters was higher than that of black voters in the 2008 contest. What motivated African Americans in 2012, was not only the possibility of re-electing Barack Obama, but also the assault on their voting rights by various Republican-led state legislatures.
Imposing Constraints on Voting
Between January 2011 and October 2012, governors signed into law twenty-three bills that imposed constraints on voting. Many of these measures mandated the presentation of a state-issued photo identification such as a driver’s license. In June 2012, the Republican majority in the Pennsylvania legislature took up the issue of voter identification cards, a topic of great interest to Republican-controlled legislatures in other states as well. The purported impetus for voter IDs was the prevalence of fraud—of voters presenting themselves at more than one polling station or of assuming someone else’s identity.
Typically, the poll worker at the voting location asks the voter his or her address and then the voter signs a document verifying his or her identity. Although the evidence for fraud in this system is only anecdotal – a study by the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice calculated the incidence of individual voter fraud to be literally equivalent to the incidence of individual Americans getting struck by lightning—several states raced to address the “problem” before the 2012 presidential election.
The real motivation, however, was to suppress the minority (mainly African American and Hispanic) turnout. Some poor residents do not own a car and, therefore, have no driver’s license, and the process for obtaining a picture ID could be intimidating, inconvenient and/or expensive. The U.S. has no national identification card with a photo. Someone who does not have such a document would need to go to a government office and purchase a photo I.D., thus making it difficult for those (particularly poor) residents to arrange such a visit as well as the cost on a fixed budget. It is estimated that about 25 percent of black voters and 16 percent of Latino voters do not have a government-issued photo ID. The figure among the rest of the population is around 11 percent. Approximately 30 percent of students lack the most common government-issued ID, a driver’s license. And young people, especially those between the ages of 18 and 29 tend to vote Democratic by substantial majorities.
Voter ID laws, if allowed to stand, would have clearly suppressed the minority vote. And that was the point. Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives divulged the real reason for the legislation: “Voter ID is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania” (qtd. in Noah 2). Since almost all black and Hispanic voters would cast their ballots for President Obama, the statement revealed the motivation behind the move to fix alleged voter fraud.2
Republicans also initiated other procedures designed to suppress minority voting. In nine states that passed voter ID laws, the government office to obtain them often kept irregular hours. For example, the Woodville, Mississippi office opened only on the second Thursday of every month. That was more accommodating than Wisconsin’s Sauk City office, which was open only on the fifth Wednesday of every month. Eight months of the year do not have a fifth Wednesday, meaning the office was open only four days for the entire year.
Texas and Florida went further in their attack on alleged voter fraud. Both states targeted nonprofit organizations that conduct voter registration drives, such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The states placed new training requirements and liability burdens on the groups’ volunteers. It was estimated that roughly twice as many blacks and Latinos register through such organizations as whites.
Republicans also favored shorter polling hours, arguing that keeping the polls open too long was too expensive. This made it difficult for voters who worked early in the morning or until the late evening hours to vote. Republicans also mobilized against early voting, especially on Sundays. In 2008, in Hamilton County, Ohio (which includes Cincinnati) 42 percent of early voters were black. As for Sunday voting, conservative commentator Glenn Beck called it “an affront to God.” The real reason behind the Sunday ban movement was that black churches provided transportation to the polls following Sunday services. Ohio and Florida eliminated Sunday voting for the 2012 presidential election. Both were swing states.
Doug Preisse, a Republican official from Columbus, Ohio explained, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban (read African American) voter-turnout machine” (qtd. in MacGillis 16). When courts struck down Ohio’s assault on early voting, billboards appeared in black neighborhoods in Cleveland with a picture of a judge’s gavel and the words: “VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY: UP TO 3½ YEARS & $10,000 FINE” (qtd. in MacGillis 16; emphasis added). The billboards’ owner is part of the Bain Capital Group, which Mitt Romney headed in the 1990s.
Federal courts struck down or stayed most of these attempts at voter suppression. The major impact of these measures was to spur minority voting. African Americans were especially incensed at these veiled attempts to deny their right to vote, attempts that were reminiscent of the Jim Crow era when subterfuges such as literacy tests and poll taxes effectively reduced African American voting.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 election, compared with 64.1 percent of eligible non-Hispanic whites. The national turnout rate for all voters was 61.8 percent. Marvin Randolph, the NAACP’s senior vice president for campaigns explained, “We are accustomed to people trying to deny us things, and I think sometimes you wake the sleeping giant, and that’s what happened here” (qtd. in Wheaton).
Such motivation made an impact, particularly in the swing states. In Ohio—and no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio—the African American vote increased from 11 percent of the total vote in 2008 to 15 percent of the total vote in 2012.
But the 2012 election was not only about the African American vote, though that was an important story. Another interesting aspect of the election was how it reflected changing demographics in the U.S., and how those demographics might impact the political party system for some time to come.
The Election and Changing Demography
The Ethnic Vote
Hispanic participation in electoral politics is increasing, though still lagging behind non-Hispanic whites and African Americans. Latinos account for one out of ten voters. Yet, the Hispanic vote was crucial in swing states such as Colorado and New Mexico. Although Texas is a deep red state, it is conceivable that growing Hispanic strength there could move the Lone Star State into the “swing” category, perhaps as early as 2016. Overall, a record 71 percent of Hispanic voters supported the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama in 2012. This is astounding considering that Republican President George W. Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 (“US Elections”; Lizza 50).
The major reason for the shift toward the Democrats was Republican hostility to immigration reform, or at least to a reform that would address the status of 11 million undocumented immigrants (the vast majority of whom are Hispanic), and particularly their children, in a compassionate manner.
In addition, Republican legislatures in Arizona and Alabama passed highly restrictive immigration laws allowing, among other provisions, law enforcement authorities to stop anyone and ask for documentation that the individual was in the U.S. legally. This is racial profiling. During the Republican primary, candidate Mitt Romney advocated “self deportation” as a strategy for undocumented immigrants, an awkward phrase that further alienated Hispanic voters.
The Republicans’ position also alienated other immigrant groups, especially Asian immigrants. In 1992, Republican President George H.W. Bush received 57 percent of the Asian vote. Twenty years later, Barack Obama received 73 percent of the Asian vote. Although accounting for only 3 percent of the total voter turnout, Asians will increase their numbers in the coming years, as will Hispanics. The electoral influence of both groups exceeds their raw numbers since many immigrants are concentrated in swing states such as Colorado, Ohio, and Florida.
Another demographic trend is also disadvantageous to the fortunes of the Republican Party: the declining percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the electorate. Though the Republicans achieved 59 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote, accounting for 72 percent of the total turnout, their numbers continue to fall vis-à-vis other ethnic and racial groups. In 1992, non-Hispanic whites accounted for 87 percent of the voters; that figure has declined by at least three percentage points in every ensuing presidential election. And even though Republican candidate Mitt Romney received robust support from whites, some of this strength came from parts of the country, particularly in the Deep South and the Plains, where state populations and hence electoral votes are relatively small.
Age, Family Status, Gender and Religion
While the Republicans were losing the new ethnic vote, they were also bucking age, family status, gender, and religious trends. President Obama won the youngest age cohort (18-29 years) with 60 percent of the vote, and the next youngest age cohort (30-44) with 52 percent of the vote. Together, these age cohorts comprised 45 percent of the total turnout. Romney was most competitive in the 60 and older category, winning 54 percent of that vote. However, it is not necessary to consult actuarial tables to know that it is not a winning strategy to depend upon an increasingly aging cohort for political support. Plus, political scientists argue that a person’s first vote for a political party is a strong indication of future voting for that party. The youngest age cohort was especially important in the swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia where the Obama campaign targeted these voters in particular.
The U.S. Census has chronicled the changing nature of the American family, particularly the growth in the number of unmarried individuals, of working and single mothers with children under the age of 18, and of the numbers of gay households. Gays and unmarried women in particular viewed the Republican Party as hostile to their interests. Barack Obama received 76 percent of the gay vote, 62 percent of the vote of unmarried voters, and 62 percent of working mothers with children under the age of 18. Mitt Romney captured 60 percent of the married vote. Unmarried voters accounted for 41 percent of the total electorate.
Although the gender gap was not nearly as large as it was in 2008, President Obama received 55 percent of women’s votes and 47 percent of the men’s. Since women voted at higher rates than men—53 percent to 47 percent—the Democrats’ advantage is magnified in that demographic as well (“Gender Gap”).
Religion has always played an important role in American politics, and the 2012 election was no exception. While the Tea Party portion of the Republican Party stressed that its members stand for much more than opposition to abortion and gay rights, the religious right has found a comfortable home in the Republican Party. But a Pew Research survey indicated that nearly one out of five Americans claims no religious affiliation at all, a record high. Plus, opposition to gay marriage is becoming an increasingly minority position in the nation. Mitt Romney’s greatest strength came from white Protestants—at one time the majority of the nation’s electorate. Today, they account for 39 percent of the turnout. Romney won a commanding 69 percent of that vote.
President Obama continued to receive strong support outside the white Protestant group. Jewish voters gave Obama 69 percent of their votes. Obama won 50 percent of the Catholic vote, reflecting his strong support in the Hispanic community. And black Protestants voted overwhelmingly (better than 95 percent) for the president. Together, Catholic and Jewish voters comprised 27 percent of the turnout in 2012, and they provided key votes in the swing states of Ohio and, especially, Florida (“How the Faithful Voted”).
The Democrats did better than the Republicans in the big cities—69 to 29 percent—and they split the suburban vote, but lost overwhelmingly to Mitt Romney in small towns and rural areas. The difficulty for Republicans is that there are many more votes in cities and suburbs (69 percent) than in small towns and rural areas (31 percent). A look at the 2012 electoral map reinforces this perspective. Mitt Romney won nearly half of the states (twenty-four), but was swamped in the Electoral College (Kron).
American political parties are coalitions. Based on the 2008 presidential election and reinforced by the 2012 vote, the Democratic Party is a party that attracts younger voters, women, especially unmarried women, multi-racial constituents, those who live in cities, especially in the coastal states, and secular voters, Jews, and Catholics.
Republican voters tend to be older, male, married, and mostly white. They live in rural areas, small towns, and are especially numerous in the heartland states. They are likely to be regular churchgoers, mainly Protestant and particularly evangelical Protestant.
Issues and Party Positions
The affinity of these groups for their respective parties is not by happenstance. They reflect their parties’ position on issues they care about. The Democrats’ stance on the economy—in favor of modest stimulus, increased tax rates on the wealthiest citizens—, health care, cultural issues such as abortion and gay rights, immigration reform that emphasizes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and environmental legislation to address global warming attract precisely the voters noted above.
Republican positions on the economy—paring down the national debt, opposing tax increases, and cutting government spending—, health care (opposed to Obamacare), support for traditional marriage and school prayer, and against abortion, favoring immigration reform that focuses on border control, and skeptical about global warming and the need and economic advisability of environmental regulations attract the voting groups also noted above.
As with most presidential elections, the 2012 contest did not emphasize foreign policy issues. The Republicans called for stronger measures against China’s economic imperialism and evinced unambiguous support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist government (a popular position among the party’s evangelical Protestant base) than the Democrats’ position, but these distinctions did not result in significant voter shifts.
Nor could the Republicans take advantage of a more aggressive stance in the war against terrorism. After years of eluding American detection, Osama bin Laden was killed on orders of President Obama. The removal of the architect of 9/11 neutralized a potential campaign issue for Republicans who had claimed that the Democrats were “soft” on terrorism. Also, President Obama’s avowal of a “pivot” away from the Middle East and Europe and toward Asia did not generate opposition from Republicans and was mostly ignored by the electorate. Foreign policy issues, therefore, did not energize either party’s base. Domestic issues predominated in the campaign.
The Democrats’ position on these domestic issues and the improving economy convinced independent voters—better than one-third of the electorate—that President Obama deserved re-election. Mitt Romney’s gaffes during the campaign, particularly his “private” remark writing off 47 percent of the electorate as dependent on government programs, enabled Democrats to frame Republicans as out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Romney simply did not resonate well with the majority of voters. Polls indicated that Americans “liked” Obama, even though some disagreed with his policies. Personality and perceptions play a significant role in campaigns. But it is important to understand that a candidate’s stance on the issues help to create positive or negative images. So elections are not simply about personalities, but also reflect the effectiveness of getting across a positive message to voters (Parker).
The Electoral Future
The great difficulty for the Republicans going forward and having lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections is that their base is diminishing. It is difficult to sustain a national party on the support of old, white, Protestant men. Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee Chairman and an adviser to Mitt Romney, stated in February 2011: “If the Republican nominee in 2020 gets the same percentage of African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American Pacific Islander votes that Senator McCain got in 2008, the Democrat will win by 14 points” (“Former RNC Chairman”).
This should not imply that Democrats will simply concede the white male, Protestant vote to Republicans. Obama won the swing states of Iowa and New Hampshire where black voters comprised a tiny percentage of the electorate. In both states, Obama won 51 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote. Young white voters and white women played an important role in each state.
Demographic trends in the long term are also going against the Republicans. By 2040, non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the electorate. In fact, no ethnic or racial group will be a majority by that time. As to the composition of other groups, it depends on the rate of immigration and birthrate. Since 2011, Asians have been the leading immigrant group, surpassing Hispanics. The Mexican migration has slowed to barely a trickle. As the American economy picks up, so might Mexican migration, but that has not yet happened.
By 2050, Hispanics will comprise 35 percent of the U.S. population, blacks 14 percent, and Asians 10 percent. The current interest of Republicans in immigration reform is directly related to these demographic projections. The question is whether the Republican Party can convince its base—the Tea Partiers and other right-wing constituents—that a moderate immigration policy is in the party’s best interest.3
Another demographic factor that will have a political dimension is the advance of interracial and interethnic marriage. Since 2008, nearly one out of six marriages have been of couples that belong to different ethnic and racial groups. A Pew Research Center survey indicated that 35 percent of Americans have an immediate family member or a close relative married to someone of a different race. The U.S. Census Bureau cannot keep up with the racial and ethnic combinations resulting from such unions, so precise statistics are elusive.
Take the case of Michelle Lopez-Mullins, for example. She is part Irish, Peruvian, Chinese, Cherokee, and Shawnee. On her 2010 census form she checked “White,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” and “Native American.” By 2012, Lopez-Mullins said if she had to fill out the form again, she would merely check the “Other/No Race” box (Saulny).4
Responses to Demographic Shifts in the Past
The solace for Republicans is that both major parties have faced similar dismal demographic futures in previous eras. In the 1890s, America was in the midst of an urban and industrial revolution. It was also the beginning of the American Empire. The scale and pace of everyday life changed dramatically. Republicans positioned themselves as the party of innovation, economic development, and an aggressive foreign policy. They appealed particularly to the rapidly expanding urban middle classes in the Northeast and to mechanized farmers and growing towns of the Midwest.5
Small farmers, immigrants, and, above all white southerners comprised the Democratic Party. The Democrats were prominent in a few cities of the Northeast through their immigrant-fueled political machines, but the party’s strength lay in the South and in the Great Plains and Mountain states—places with relatively few electoral votes. The Republican candidate in the 1896 presidential election, the Ohioan William McKinley, represented the upwardly mobile Midwest. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna, put on the first modern political campaign, complete with well-financed advertising and rousing campaign events. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, the Democratic nominee, campaigned for the downtrodden, particularly the struggling farmer. McKinley overwhelmed Bryan, capturing 61 percent of the electoral vote. For the next thirty-six years, Republicans would dominate presidential elections, yielding only to Woodrow Wilson in 1912 when the Republicans split into two factions, a division that plagued the party for several years more.
In 1932, the Democrats took control of the White House and would relinquish over the next thirty-six years only during the two terms of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Americans wanted an activist government to take them through a severe economic depression, a world war, and a difficult peace. Although white southerners began to drop out of the party coalition as early as 1948, black voters and the sons and daughters of the early twentieth-century immigrants grew the party’s strength in the North. It would be the Democrats who initiated immigration reform and civil rights legislation in the 1960s. In 1964, Republicans would suffer one of the worst electoral drubbings in history as the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won over 90 percent of the electoral votes against his Republican opponent, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. It looked as if the Republican Party was dead for a long time.
We all know the sequel. In four short years, Republicans would emerge victorious. History has a way of throwing unforeseen consequences at people and parties to dramatically change what seems to be an inexorable dynamic. Depressions, wars, and scandals fall outside the predictions of pundits. I do not know, nor can I predict what events would broaden the attraction of the Republicans and sour Americans on the Democrats, but it is too early to pronounce that demography is destiny.
What to Expect in 2016
The Republicans still control the House of Representatives. And with redistricting at the state level, they will likely control that chamber for the foreseeable future. Every ten years, as required by law, state legislatures must readjust their election districts to reflect population changes documented by the decennial census. The most recent census—2010—coincided with a strong Republican showing typical of off-year (non-presidential) elections. With control of twenty-six state legislatures, Republicans had the opportunity to draw districts in a way to favor Republican candidates. That is both good news and bad news for the party. Good news because they can effectively block the programs of a Democratic president. Bad news because solidly Republican districts tend to privilege party activists, particularly right-wing tea partiers and evangelicals (Silver, “So Few Things”). American voters, especially the growing numbers of independent voters, tend toward the center, a trend painfully clear to Republicans in the 2012 election. If the Republican nominee in 2016 can withstand the rightward pull of the primary system and appear as an honestly centrist candidate for the general election, the Republicans will have a legitimate chance at the White House. Given the ideological positions of the party’s core, this may be difficult, though not impossible.
One thing is clear from the 2012 election: the American electorate is a moving target for the political parties. We are becoming a darker, more diverse, and more tolerant nation. The political parties will need to adjust to that reality if they are to compete for power.
* Unless otherwise noted, I gathered the statistics for this essay from the following sites: The Pew Research Center. Take a look at the Center’s analysis of Religion and also of Hispanic voters: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/11/07/how-the-faithful-voted-2012-preliminary-exit-poll-analysis/
The Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. Good for a broad range of categories and how each voted in election: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_12.html
CNN Election Center. Good for a general overview of the Electoral College and maps for the 2012 election.
Nate Silver’s 538 blog. Silver predicted the 2012 election down to the number of electoral votes and the states each candidate won.
2 Quoted in Timothy Noah, “Art of War: How Republicans Mastered Voter Suppression,” 2012. Noah’s article provides the best introduction to Republicans’ voter suppression efforts during the 2012 campaign.
3 For demographic trends, see http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2008/02/11/us-population-projections-2005-2050/.
4 On intermarriage, see the Pew survey at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/02/16/the-rise-of-intermarriage/.
5 See R. Hal Williams, Realigning America: McKinley, Bryan, and the Remarkable Election of 1896, 2010.
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