SHIFTING LOYALTIES

11.25.12

Democrats See a Future of Electoral Dominance But History Says Otherwise

Obama’s victory convinced a lot of Democrats that they just took out a long-term lease on the White House. The lessons of history say otherwise, writes David Freedlander.

In 1969, Kevin P. Phillips, a little-known Richard Nixon campaign operative turned White House lawyer penned a book called The Emerging Republican Majority. It argued that in the wake of the 1968 election, the GOP was  beginning a period of sustained electoral dominance, fueled by populist Democrats in the West and especially the South switching their allegiance to the GOP, leaving the Democrats a rump party filled with the eastern establishment and minorities.

By the next year, the Democrats had picked up seats in the House and won a handful of governorships around the country. Six years later, they had retaken the presidency.

In 2002, Ruy Teixeira and John Judis argued in their own The Emerging Democratic Majority that a coalition of minorities, women, and well-educated professionals would create a lasting coalition for the other guys. It took six years to come to fruition, with the election of Barack Obama--in fairness, roughly the amount of time they said it would—and has been interrupted by the rise of the Tea Party.

And in 2004, Karl Rove and Tom Delay looked out over the presidential election that just was and believed they were on the cusp of creating their own permanent majority, one that would be secured by gerrymandered redistricting and a more seamless relationship between K Street and Capitol Hill.

‘I wouldn’t want to be the Democratic nominee in four years if the economy doesn’t improve by a lot.’

One would think, given this history, that those cheered by the re-election of President Obama would take a deep breath, pause for a moment, and consider that the worst way to predict future outcomes is by placing too much emphasis on recent results.

But instead, the conventional wisdom quickly congealed around a notion that the Obama win wasn’t a result of the candidate or his campaign but that Obama’s three-point win heralded a sea-change in the electorate. And Republicans agreed, with Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a former chairman of the RNC, warning that the GOP was in danger of being “relegated to a minority party” and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly lamenting that the sun had at last set on the “white establishment.”

To be sure, Democrats do have some advantages. They are increasing their margins on Hispanic and Asian voters at just the moment when both groups are becoming increasingly large parts of the electorate. They seem to have the youth vote locked up. Strains of social conservatism and ant-intellectualism will keep women and white voters with college degrees away from the party.

But nothing lasts forever, and the Obama coalition isn’t likely to either.

“We assume that people believe in party identification, that it is like granite—like those of us who live and breathe the stuff do, but for most of the rest of the population, politics is an avocation at best,” said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia. “But most people don’t have a permanent party affiliation. Their party i.d. is built on sand.”

Take the Democratic advantage with the young, for example. Currently there is a great debate in political science circles about whether or not people who come into voting age voting a certain way keep that partisan affiliation throughout their lives, or whether young voters always favor the Democrats but gradually become more conservative as they get older. A compelling piece of evidence however is that in 1968 and 1972, just under half of voters under 30 pulled the lever for the Democrats. This year, Mitt Romney won seniors by 12 points, roughly the same margin by which McCain bested Obama among the gray-haired set.

Likewise, to hear strategists on either side tell it, the Obama campaign’s advantage with Hispanic and Asian voters is likely to relegate the GOP to permanent minority status. Never mind that it was only 2004 that George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote or that arguably the GOP has more high profile immigrant spokespeople—think Bobby Jindal, Susanna Martinez, or Marco Rubio. Almost before the final votes were counted, Republicans were vowing to make a serious play for these voters, and assuming they don’t get tripped up by their plans for comprehensive immigration reform, it seems hard to imagine that the lopsided margins of 2012 among non-white voters will outlast the Obama moment.

“Asian and Hispanic voters share a lot of things that the Republican Party professes,” said John Johannes, a political scientist at Villanova University. And, he noted, the changing pattern of American immigration, where a group goes from being a disenfranchised minority to being assimilated into the mainstream, likely means that those voters could be up for grabs before long.

“The Asian community especially you could see becoming more integrated, with the big house in the suburbs, and the Republicans could tap into that so easily,” he said.

Republicans likely won’t need to make much of a play for the votes of immigrant groups however if the economy limps along as it has the last four years. Exit polls showed that voters still blamed the current economic malaise on George Bush, a fact that drove Romney strategists around the bend. But if the jobless rate hasn’t improved and the economy continues to sputter four years from now, strategists on both sides predict that it will be a long time before another Democrat makes it to the White House.

“They have to succeed in their policies and in government,” said John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster. “It is still a big question about whether or not they can do that. I know I wouldn’t want to be the Democratic nominee in four years if the economy doesn’t improve by a lot.”

Policy success can be a double-edged sword. Passing comprehensive immigration reform isn’t likely to endear the GOP to immigrants on its own, but it could take some of the sting out of the debates in Washington.

“Once the health thing is embedded, it will be off the agenda. If they can get immigration through, that will be off the agenda. Then the next big things will be entitlements, taxes, and budgets, and that is a topic on which the Republicans should capitalize,” said David Coates, a political scientist at Wake Forest University.

Another reason that so-called permanent re-alignments tend to be not so permanent is because the winning coalition has a tendency to be undone by its own confidence and ceases hewing to the principles that brought it to power. Phillips’s book, for instance, would have looked a lot more prescient had it not been for Watergate, and Rove’s permanent majority could have lasted a bit longer had it not been for the Jack Abramoff scandal.

And before anyone considers the 2012 results to augur a permanent shift in the electorate, it is worth pausing to note how close the vote was. According to Professor Johannes, if Romney had succeeded by even a few more percentage points among Hispanic or African-American voters, there would be no talk now of a new, permanent Democratic majority.

“Presidential elections can be fluky. You get the right guy and the right campaign and you get a chance to win,” he said. “The only iron law of politics I know of is that everything changes. Nothing in politics is permanent.”