by James Hanley
A few years back, during the G.W.B. administration, an older political scientist I know was bemoaning the fate of the Democrats. “They need to rebuild the New Deal coalition,” he said, “or the Republicans will have a permanent majority.” Understand, he was born into the era of the New Deal coalition, of staunch FDR-worshipping parents, and he saw the deaths of JFK and RFK as the crucial turning point in America, the destruction of the opportunity for the right kind of politics and a truly great country.
My response was that the New Deal coalition was dead, and nothing could revive it. Affirmative-action and environmentalism were wedge issues that the Republican Party had used to split off a lot of blue collar white folks–the Reagan Democrats–and abortion was an issue that split off a sizable number of Catholics. The only parts of the New Deal coalition Democrats could still rely on were academics and African-Americans–two unloved minorities. They had to quit looking at the past and build a new coalition.
They may have done so, and if they have, the Republicans are in for another long night in the wilderness.
This isn’t all worked out in well-supported detail (it’s instapundrity, you get what you pay for), but here are the rough outlines.
- The Republican “coalition” now seems to be primarily white Christian men. There’s no way to get a majority out of that group, not anything like. This is largely, I think, a phenomenon of the old Dixiecrats shifting to the GOP and tilting it to the right (and simultaneously tilting the Democratic Party to the left). That tilt in itself wouldn’t have been devastating, but the social conservatives have consistently pushed out the old moderates, the uppper-Midwest and New England style Republicans. E.g., Representative Walberg (R-my district) is a minister who un-seated a Gerald Ford-style Republican incumbent 6 years ago in the primary by repeatedly calling him a liberal. The G.W.B. administration, in their efforts to “punish” Vermont Senator James Jeffords for not being sufficiently supportive, ended up driving him out of the party. And in Indiana, right-wing conservatives unseated long-time incumbent Richard Lugar. Once upon a time the GOP portrayed itself as the Big Tent. Those words aren’t uttered much anymore–those who dominate the party explicitly don’t want a big tent. Only true believers are welcome now, but without the sinners in the tent, there is no revival meeting. Here’s the key data point: Obama lost the white vote by 20 points (59-39%), and he still won the popular vote by 2 points. Democrats can safely ignore any concerted effort to regain white male votes, so long as they keep giving friendly nods to labor. (All exit polls are based on CNN.
- The gender gap has widened, in Democrats’ favor. Romney won men by 7 points (52-45%), while Obama won women by 11 points (55-44%). That would be bad enough if men and women voted in equal numbers, but women were 53% of the vote to men’s 47%). Let’s do some simple math. 52% (Romney’s percentage of men) * 47% (percentage of voters who are male) = 24.4%. 55% (Obama’s percentage of women) * 53% (percentage of voters who are female) = 29%. Right there the Republicans may start with a 5 point disadvantage. If Democrats can continue to hold large advantages among women–which they will at least as long as Republicans push the abortion issue (see below), they actually begin with a head start.
- The Latino vote has long been the big prize for both parties. A sizable and growing population that didn’t yet vote in large numbers. Democrats hoped to get them because they always got the unloved minority vote. Republicans hoped to get them because Latinos are Catholic and tend to be family-oriented. According to exit polls Obama got 71% of the Latino vote, over 2 1/2 times as much as Romney. And exit polls also showed about 60% of Latino voters favoring same-sex marriage, so the social values approach doesn’t look prospective for the GOP. I know lots of Republicans are pinning their hopes on Florida’s Marco Rubio, but he’s Cuban, folks, and that don’t mean squat to Mexicans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans. The immigration issue has killed Republican hopes for gaining a majority of the Latino vote. It belongs to the Democrats for the next generation, at least.
- The age gap is a big problem for Republicans. They won all age groups over 40, and lost all age groups under 40. Worst of all, at each successively lower age group they did more poorly, down to those below 30, where they polled less than 40% of the vote. As the Republicans have increasingly looked like the “Get Off My Lawn! Party,” they risk permanently losing two up and coming generations of voters. The same-sex marriage issue is killing the GOP here. A majority of young folks support SSM, and a huge chunk of the rest don’t really care. Abortion is also a generational problem that’s dragging the GOP down (see below).
- Abortion is a dead issue. Americans have spoken. They don’t want abortion under all circumstances, but they want it under at least some circumstances. And by God if you even hint that a raped woman should be denied an abortion you are dead in the water (unless you represent Dutch Calvinists in western Iowa). That was the key factor in turning a close race for Indiana’s Mourdock into a clear loss for Republicans, and in Missouri, although late polls showed the race tightening, Akin went down to a smashing 16 point defeat. Why is the GOP losing women and young folks? Here’s the answer. Beyond women just being repulsed at the cavalier attitude toward the consequences of rape, young people are far more aware of the tragic reality of rape than they were a generation ago. When I went to college, you only heard about it if someone you knew was raped. Now nearly every college has rape awareness and Take Back the Night events. Any younger person who’s spent a few semesters at college has heard the message. The Mourdock/Akin approach is actively alienating young men as well as women. In fact I suspect it’s alienating young, white, Christian men. The GOP hasn’t figured that out yet.
- Demographic change in state electorates. Once upon a time the GOP was said to have an electoral lock. I won’t claim that for the Democrats, but two formerly solid Republican states may be on the verge of becoming reliable–or at least mostly reliable–Democratic states: Colorado and Virginia. Both have gone Democratic twice in a row now, and while that in itself doesn’t prove they will again, it’s well understood by now that both have undergone demographic shifts that have dramatically changed their electorate. Colorado has grown substantially, and a lot of that growth has come from migration from the Left Coast (which, it turns out, had more than enough liberals to spare), and Virginia’s population growth has come predominantly in the D.C. suburbs. Those changes aren’t going to reverse themselves. Snowboarders and exurb bureaucrats are key parts of the Democrats’ presidential coalition.
In short, the Democrats just may have built themselves a new coalition based on social liberalism. The outcome of this presidential election was inarguably a socially liberal torpedo to the hull of the GOP’s battleship. Same-sex marriage was approved by popular vote for the first time, not just in one but three states, and a proposal to constitutionally ban it failed in a fourth state. Legalization of marijuana passed in two states. And the vocal opponents of banning abortion even in the case of rape lost in two states, strengthening the Democrats’ Senate majority.
The Republicans aren’t going away. I have no patience for those who predict the demise of one party or another at any given time. But it’s clear that the social issues the GOP has been running on since Reagan, on which they built their governing coalition, have lost their effectiveness; have in fact come to work in the Democrats’ favor. The GOP will eventually reinvent itself. But it will take time. How much time depends on whether the tug of war between the social conservatives and the Chamber-of-Commerce Republicans. COC Republicans who want to tax legal marijuana, sell home supplies to happy gay couples and their children, and protect their daughters from carrying the children of rapists…that’s the basis for the Republican renewal. Strong on defense; America’s ok with that. Pro-business; America’s ok with that. Pro-interfering in our personal life? America’s no longer ok with that.
Admittedly, bias could be warping my vision here. These election results (Obama aside) have made me inordinately happy because I despise the moralists who would try to control how other people live. So maybe I’m overstating things. I hope not. But remember, this is instapunditry. Don’t bet big on it.
(Image: Richard Mourdock realizing he’s a loser.)