Should Barack Obama win in November, as he appears poised to do, his victory will be viewed by future generations of political scientists as a fulcrum when the balance of power in American coalition politics shifted. The election of the first African-American President in the history of the United States would finally put an end to conservative-dominated “backlash” identity politics, replacing it with a new, pluralistic mainstream. Even if John McCain somehow does snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the underlying structural dynamics of the electorate all point toward the same conclusion: the end of Bubba dominance is at hand, and a new era is imminent.
Technically speaking, even a large Obama victory would not be a realignment. Realignments are moments when there are broad shifts in the electorate, and in 2008 there will be no significant shifts in the partisan voter preference of any demographic group. Important swing groups such as white Catholics, suburban women, Latinos, seculars, Independents and working-class whites are not likely to demonstrate any large, sudden or long-term shifts in allegiance from one party to the other. Instead, an Obama victory would simultaneously be comeuppance to a forty-year-old conservative strategy of scapegoating minorities and the realization of long-term demographic trends that finally allow those minorities collectively to achieve majority status. Relative to his national levels of support, Obama will receive pretty much the same percentage of support from virtually all demographic groups that previous, defeated Democratic nominees such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry received. The difference will be that, in 2008, those groups will be large enough to win a national election.
Since 1968 American presidential elections have been defined as a competition over fundamentally conservative identity groups. Even though they are not precisely congruous, a direct lineage exists from the Nixon-forged Southern Strategy of the 1960s and ’70s, to the Reagan Democrats of the ’80s, to Mark Penn’s Bubbas of the ’90s and on to the Values Voters of this decade. These swing voting groups are overwhelmingly white, not very urban, heavily blue-collar, generally Southern and always socially conservative. Even though the labels have changed, these four criteria have been the genetic code of swing voters for nearly forty years. In every case, the decisive swing voting group has been hostile to impending social change brought on by various civil rights movements and resentful of the cultural predilections of an urban, bicoastal “liberal elite.” The quest to capture these voters has created an entire generation of pundits, strategists and party leaders who will do everything possible to appear not-liberal, not-elite and in touch with the values of small-town America, whatever those values happen to be at any given moment. A Southern accent helps, too. A Democratic politician’s willingness to distance himself or herself (but usually himself) from–and to use “Sister Souljah” moments frequently to denounce–the left wing of the Democratic Party helps even more.
Consider, for example, the last two Democratic Presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. They were successful where other Democratic nominees of the past forty years were not, almost entirely because of their superior appeal to this archetypal swing voter. In 1992, looking only at Democratic and Republican voters, Clinton actually received a smaller percentage of the African-American vote than Dukakis had four years earlier (83 percent to 89 percent) and performed identical to Dukakis among Latinos (both at 70 percent of the two-party vote). However, Clinton still won the two lowest income brackets by twice the margin Dukakis had (24 percent to 11 percent). His superior performance was almost certainly due to a far higher share of working-class white voters than Dukakis. In 1976 Carter received a percentage of the liberal vote similar to Walter Mondale’s in 1984 (74 percent to 71 percent) but made up the difference by scoring the highest Democratic percentage of the self-identified conservative vote (30 percent) since the advent of exit polls. This was largely because Carter won ten of the eleven states that once formed the Confederacy, even as he lost what are now the blue states of California and Illinois.
Carter and Clinton did not win by increasing Democratic appeal to, or increasing the electorate’s percentage of, self-identified liberals, racial and ethnic minorities, or what social and economic theorist Richard Florida has termed the Creative Class. Both are Southerners and remain the only two Democratic nominees since 1968 to win a Southern state (Florida 2000 notwithstanding, of course). While Carter lost white voters by four percentage points in 1976, and while Bill Clinton lost white voters by two points in both 1992 and 1996, every other Democratic nominee since 1972 has lost the white vote by at least thirteen points. Their path to victory required increasing the Democratic percentage among Southerners, Reagan Democrats, Bubbas and Values Voters. They had to win over a substantial percentage of that sort of swing voter because, in sheer demographic terms, that sort of swing voter was a dominant percentage of the electorate during the final decades of the twentieth century.
Obama, on the other hand, will probably lose working-class whites by about the same percentage as Dukakis, and may win the election anyway.
Despite Clinton’s and Carter’s relative successes, conservative Republicans have almost always proved more successful at appealing to this type of swing voter than Democrats of any stripe. However, when combined with broad national demographic trends, the successful strategies conservative Republicans used to appeal to this swing voter contained the seeds of their eventual defeat. In order to solidify their support among the white, blue-collar, nonliberal, nonurban swing voters described above, conservative Republicans from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush employed a series of identity-based “backlash” narratives against a diverse array of minority demographic groups who were scapegoated for the problems the swing voters faced: liberals destroyed traditional culture and humbled America before its enemies. African-Americans used affirmative action to take jobs they didn’t deserve and created a national plague of crime. Immigrants illegally took American jobs and public services without even bothering to learn our language. Homosexuals destroyed families and threatened to convert your children to their lifestyle. Non-Christians forced Jesus out of public places and declared war on Christmas. All of these rhetorical strategies pitted a majority of voters (the religious, the white, the middle class, the straight) against some minority. Given the math, it’s perhaps not surprising that the strategy worked: Democrats have failed to receive more than 50.1 percent of the national vote in all of the past ten presidential elections.
But even as the scapegoating solidified conservative Republican support among the archetypal swing voter of the past forty years, it also had the rather predictable side effect of pushing all of the demonized groups into overwhelming, more than two-to-one support for Democrats. The end result is that even though Howard Dean was pilloried for saying this three years ago, the two major political coalitions in the United States can be quickly summarized as a relatively homogeneous white Christian Republican coalition and an extremely diverse, pluralistic nonwhite and/or non-Christian Democratic coalition.
Looking at the most recent national elections, the 2006 midterms, these gaps are unmistakable. According to weighted averages derived from the national House exit poll, Republicans won white voters 51 percent to 47 percent, while Democrats won the 23 percent of the electorate that self-identified as nonwhite 75 percent to 24 percent. Further, looking only at the white vote, while Republicans won self-identified white Christians by a sizable 57-41 gap, Democrats won the 14 percent of the electorate that self-identified as both white and non-Christian (Jewish, “Other” or “None”) by a 73-24 margin, virtually identical to the Democratic margin among nonwhites. Despite losing the white Christian vote, which still forms almost two-thirds of the electorate, by a hefty sixteen-point margin, the Democrats ran up enormous numbers among the scapegoated groups, which carried them to a very healthy, overall 8.2 point victory. In an election when Republicans used immigrants as their main scapegoated group, the Latino vote was particularly key in this victory, as 2.4 percent of the overall 10.7 percent pro-Democratic swing came from Latinos. By contrast, less than 0.7 percent of the Democratic gain came from self-identified Republicans, even though Republicans made up 36 percent of the 2006 electorate and Latinos composed only 8 percent. It was the largest victory for either party in a national election since Reagan’s 1984 landslide over Mondale, and it was delivered more by scapegoated Latinos than by any other swing group.
Given that Republicans consolidated a shrinking majority against a series of rising minorities, unless the scapegoating stops, their electoral future appears bleak. In 1992 Latinos and Asians made up only 3 percent of the electorate, but in 2006 they accounted for 10 percent. In 1990, according to the National Survey of Religious Identification conducted by the City University of New York, only 10 percent of the country self-identified as non-Christian. According to a 2001 follow-up from CUNY as well as a 2008 study conducted by the Pew Forum on religion and American life, that number had increased to 22-23 percent of the national population. Although it receives somewhat less fanfare, the national drift away from Christian self-identification is changing the cultural face of America even more rapidly than the large influx of Latino and Asian immigrants. Combined, these two trends are changing the cultural and political structure of America with such alacrity that, according to a 2005 study by Greenberg Quinlin Rosner, “OMG! How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” only 39 percent of Americans born between 1965 and 1994 (inclusive) self-identify as both white and Christian, compared with 66 percent of Americans born in 1964 or earlier. Given the partisan voting habits of nonwhites and non-Christians discussed in the previous paragraph, it isn’t hard to see that Republicans are facing a slow-motion electoral tidal wave that is turning the country nearly 1 percent more Democratic every year, regardless of specific political conditions.
It is from this rising tide that Obama should find his victory. For all the talk of his appeal to the youth vote, the truth is that overwhelming Democratic advantages among young voters are a derivative of pro-Democratic demographics, such as nonwhites and non-Christians (and single women and the LGBT population) forming a disproportionate share of the youth vote. For all of Obama’s bipartisan and postpartisan rhetoric, he will actually gain far more votes from the millions of newly self-identified Democrats that this rising political tide creates. Extensive polling from Rasmussen Reports in June indicates that the 2008 electorate will self-identify at 40-41 percent Democratic, up from 37 percent in 2004. Given that this pro-Democratic shift began in February, the cause of it appears primarily due to the epic nomination campaign between Obama and Hillary Clinton, which registered more than 3 million new Democrats nationwide and may have created an even greater number of self-identifying Democrats. The result of this shift is that even if Obama wins 60 percent of the Independent vote, he will actually improve on John Kerry’s vote total more from self-identified Democrats than from self-identified Independents. Also, for all the talk of potentially increasing African-American turnout, inevitably Latino, Asian and white non-Christian turnout will increase more because they are rapidly increasing their share of the electorate. As such, Obama will improve on Kerry’s 2004 vote totals much more from the latter groups than from African-Americans.
As the first nonwhite presidential nominee in recent American history, Obama serves as a powerful symbol to head this rising coalition at the moment when it becomes a national majority. From 2008 forward, it will be possible for even those Democrats who have been labeled “liberal elites” to win national elections. This goes for Obama, too, given that the “elitist” label has haunted him for months and, according to a June poll from the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News, only 23 percent of the electorate considers him either a moderate or a conservative. In other words, an African-American Democrat of nontraditional faith who is perceived as a liberal elitist seems to be the favorite to win a national election despite losing white Southerners, Reagan Democrats, Bubbas and Values Voters.
Republicans will find they cannot sustain a working majority without better margins among the marginalized. Party leaders from Karl Rove to Grover Norquist have already predicted long-term problems for the GOP if its base continues to demand the most punitive immigration policy possible, driving Hispanic voters into the Democratic Party in greater and greater numbers. The more America looks like California, the more national Republicans will mold themselves after Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than, say, Newt Gingrich. Hungry for a victory, Republican primary voters might even follow. Already, in contested primaries in 2008, John McCain won the GOP nomination by scoring overwhelming margins among Republicans who said they were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the Bush Administration, even though Mitt Romney won a plurality of voters who indicated they were “enthusiastic” or “satisfied” with it. (It is difficult to imagine the party abandoning its core commitment to the interests of capital and big business.)
When this happens, the era of the conservative electoral dominance of identity politics will be over, and the newly prized swing voting groups in the national discourse will be, at least according to the prescient pundits and strategists, Latinos, Asians, single women and white non-Christians. After all, the groups that are rapidly expanding their percentage of the national population are always the key voting groups, at least for strategists and pundits who are concerned with more than just the next election. It will be the electoral fulfillment of the “Emerging Democratic Majority” that Ruy Teixeira and John Judis predicted at the start of this decade.
This should have a profound effect on our politics. If Democrats come to realize they do not need to cater to inherently conservative voters, they may find themselves liberated to pursue a more boldly progressive agenda. Rather than serving as an anchor that drags national politics to the right, the dominant swing groups will have the exact opposite effect. There can be little doubt that this increasingly liberal mood is connected to the changing demographics of the country. As long as Presidents and members of Congress felt accountable to conservative swing voting groups, this more progressive policy mood (like the Emerging Democratic Majority itself) struggled to take hold. That’s finally about to change.