So, first, I’ll get the obligatory crowing out of the way. Barack Obama won re-election last night, and if the margin in Florida holds, I’ll have correctly predicted the outcome of every single state. I’ll take some credit for this because I made the call back in May with the polls in Florida going against me, and stuck with it on Monday even though the polls hadn’t quite caught up to my prediction. However, I obviously can’t take too much credit; I owe most of my prescience to the outstanding work of Nate Silver, whose model had a roaring success last night. He was effusively praised on both MSNBC and Fox News last night, which leads me to believe we’ll only see him rise to greater and greater prominence in the mainstream media over the next two election cycles. We’ll almost certainly never see him endure the kind of dismissal he got in the media over the past couple weeks. Obviously, this is a positive development.
With that out of the way, what does President Obama’s re-election, and the margin of his re-election, mean? The obvious story that everyone is going for today is that this will lead to a reckoning in the Republican Party, which will face a huge battle over where they go from here. Unlike normal media nonsense, I think this question is absolutely appropriate, and I see no way the Republicans could or would avoid such a national argument.
That the GOP failed so spectacularly in defeating this president should be a matter of truly grave concern for conservatives everywhere. President Obama has won re-election despite an unemployment rate of 7.9% and persistent trillion-dollar deficits. President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is truly despised by the right and regarded with only tepid enthusiasm by the left. In the midterm elections of 2010, Obama’s party suffered one of the most stunning and crushing defeats in recent electoral memory. If you had presented this election to me or most other political observers as a hypothetical, I would confidently reply that the incumbent was headed for a true wipeout defeat, something akin to the resounding rejections suffered by Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover.
This election shows that the GOP had two huge problems in this election. The first is a long-term problem that Republicans must address if they wish to continue to be a viable national party: the changing demographics of the country. Simply put, the Reagan Coalition is no longer a viable group for the purposes of winning nationwide elections. Republicans can no longer afford to cater exclusively to suburban and rural white men, it just won’t work anymore. Hispanics, African-Americans, and women are the biggest growth groups in the electorate, and they all lean hard Democratic. Additionally, Republicans face the challenge of age: the incoming generation of voters is simply hostile to many of the GOP’s signature issues. The American electorate is becoming more urban and more diverse in race, gender, and sexual orientation. The changing demographics have been particularly important in turning formerly Republican Mountain West states – Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada – into a key part of Obama’s Electoral College “firewall.” In my estimation, Arizona could well join those states in the blue column next time around, and there are even rumblings that Texas may become competitive in the near future. This has to be extremely concerning to Republicans.
The second problem, of course, was Mitt Romney himself. Rick Santorum famously said that Mitt Romney was the absolute worst person the Republicans could have chosen to prosecute the case against President Obama. I think that’s a bit of hyperbole – for instance, Ron Paul or a similarly libertarian candidate would have been beaten even more soundly than Romney was – but it’s basically true. Here’s what I said about Romney back in February,
I’ll start with why the cynic should like Mitt Romney: I just don’t see how he can win a general election under normal circumstances. Romney’s “electability” argument has always been predicated on the idea that he can pull in independents the way no other Republican can. That might be true (although recent polling has cast doubt on that assertion), but there must be a great deal of concern about Romney’s ability to drive conservative voters to the polls. Romney’s team has consistently argued that antipathy toward President Obama will do their turnout work for them, but as Democrats who remember 2004 can attest, mere hatred of the President is not enough to unseat him. You have to have a candidate who is generally inspiring, somebody that party loyalists are actually excited to go out there and work and organize for, not just an opposing candidate they want to vote against. You would think that everyone would have learned this lesson in 2008, but apparently not. As I’ve been noting since this blog began, GOP turnout in contests held in blue or battleground states has been significantly down this cycle, despite a competitive nomination race and professed loathing of President Obama. Romney’s deficiencies in the eyes of conservatives must be considered a major part of this.
Furthermore, Romney is incredibly vulnerable to a host of populist arguments that President Obama has already begun making. Romney is the consummate 1%er, the guy Mike Huckabee once famously said “looks like the guy who laid you off” and who, by his own admission, “likes firing people.” He has consistently demonstrated a complete lack of any ability to relate to normal people. And of course, there is the standard perception of Romney as the unprincipled, flip-flopping, twisting-in-the-wind career politician who stands for nothing besides his own election prospects. The playbook against Romney is both obvious and obviously effective.
In retrospect, I hit this directly on the head. Romney’s image as the guy who fired your dad, his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial, and especially his comments about the 47% doomed him in Ohio, the most important state in this election. He was unable to hit Obama hard on Obamacare, one of the President’s most vulnerable areas. And, perhaps most importantly, he failed to motivate conservative voters.
If I may engage in some more prognostication, I think Republicans are likely to spend more of their energy dissecting the problems of Mitt Romney rather than addressing the structural demographic problems their party faces. I think the voices that will say Mitt Romney’s problem was that he wasn’t conservative enough will win out, it’s simply a less painful path than acknowledging the reality that their party has drifted too far right and must turn left on a host of issues from immigration and health care to women’s rights, marriage equality, and the environment. If I am right, the Republicans will have made a grave mistake, and the inevitable collapse of the Reagan coalition will be made all the worse.
Another point on the need of Republicans to come back to the political middle: ever since the whipping the Democratic Party took in the 2010 midterms, political observers (including the authors have this blog) have been convinced that the Democratic party would likely lose control of the Senate, regardless of the outcome of the Presidential election. Instead, with the re-election of Jon Tester in Montana and the election of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Democrats have actually increased the size of their caucus from 53 to 55. Additionally, with the election of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Chris Murphy in Connecticut, and Angus King in Maine, the liberal wing of the US Senate will be as strong as it has been in quite some time. In particular, trading Joe Lieberman for Chris Murphy in Connecticut is a huge upgrade for party unity. By far, the most important factor in Democrats keeping their majority has been the inability of Tea Party-backed candidates to win state-wide Senate elections in any but the reddest of states.
There’s one more point I’d like to make about last night. Four states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – delivered victories for marriage equality, the first time in history that gay marriage has been validated in statewide popular votes. Elsewhere, Massachusetts joined the 17 states before them who had authorized medical marijuana, a similar measure failed in Arkansas by just 2%, and Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Maryland voted to legalize gambling. To me, these results indicate that the old “culture wars” are close to being over, and liberals have won.