The Last White Election?

Obama Romney Election

The Article: The Last White Election? by Mike Davis in The New Left Review.

The Text: Last September, while Bill Clinton was delighting the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte with his folksy jibe at Mitt Romney for wanting to ‘double up on the trickle down’, a fanatical adherent of Ludwig von Mises, wearing a villainous black cowboy hat and accompanied by a gun-toting bodyguard, captured the national headquarters of the Tea Party movement in Washington, DC. The Jack Palance double in the Stetson was Dick Armey. As House Majority Leader in 1997 he had participated in a botched plot, instigated by Republican Whip Tom DeLay and an obscure Ohio Congressman named John Boehner, to topple House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Now Armey was attempting to wrest total control of FreedomWorks, the organization most responsible for repackaging rank-and-file Republican rage as the ‘Tea Party rebellion’ as well as training and coordinating its activists. Tea Party Patriots—a national network with several hundred affiliates—is one of its direct offshoots. As FreedomWorks’ chairperson, Armey symbolized an ideological continuity between the Republican congressional landslides of 1994 and 2010, the old ‘Contract with America’ and the new ‘Contract from America’. No one was better credentialed to inflict mortal damage on the myth of conservative solidarity.

Only in December did the lurid details of the coup leak to the press. According to the Washington Post, ‘the gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.’ The chief target was Matt Kibbe, the organization’s president and co-author with Armey of the best-selling Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. Although Kibbe, originally a protégé of Lee Atwater, is an equally devout Misean (indeed, ‘distinguished senior fellow’ at the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna), he is a generation younger than 72-year-old Armey or, for that matter, most of the Tea Party base. On the FreedomWorks website Kibbe describes himself as living ‘with Terry, his sublimely awesome wife of 25 years’ and spending his leisure time ‘reading Hayek or Rand, watching The Big Lebowski or listening to a killer Grateful Dead show.’ Yet as Armey himself had put it, ‘sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.’

Although he had support from powerful backers, including former White House counsellor C. Boyden Gray, Armey’s delusional dictatorship over Tea Party Central lasted less than a week. In conference calls with staff and supporters he denounced Kibbe for using the organization for self-publicity and personal profit (especially in the publication of his new book Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America) while keeping him—chairman and historical icon—out of the media limelight. Armey was also critical of the million-dollar annual fee that FreedomWorks pays Glenn Beck for publicity and fundraising (Rush Limbaugh reportedly has a similar deal). [4] In addition, Armey accused Kibbe’s team of failing to rally behind the doomed Senate campaign of Todd Akin, the Missouri ignoramus whose remarks about ‘legitimate rape’ had led Romney and other outraged party leaders to demand his withdrawal from the race. According to one staffer interviewed by the Post, ‘It was clear that under Armey’s leadership, the organization as we knew it was going to be driven into the ground.’ [5]

In the end, one of FreedomWorks’ major donors, Richard J. Stephenson, an Ayn Rand fan who operates a controversial but hugely profitable chain of private cancer treatment centres, offered Armey $8 million in instalments to go back to his ranch in Texas. Kibbe resumed control over 400 North Capitol Street NW, but Armey supporters continue to spread rumours about staff wrongdoing. Tea Party blogs, in turn, have accused Armey first of extortion, then of treason after he told his side of the story to Mother Jones’s David Corn. In other circumstances this duel between the black hats and rightwing Deadheads would have been a ‘tempest in a teapot’, akin to the episodic defrocking of a famous televangelist or a Congressional adulterer. But Kibbe, a cool operator in a histrionic milieu, insisted that Armey and his backers were clumsily camouflaging the larger issues at stake. In an internal document he charged that the attempted takeover was just old-guard retaliation for FreedomWorks’ sponsorship of Tea Party activists in primary campaigns against ‘establishment Republicans’ (a term which in Tea Party/Sarah Palin circles can encompass Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham as well as John McCain, Haley Barbour and John Boehner). [6] As an example, Kibbe cited the controversial Arizona primary the previous spring where redistricting had pitted two incumbent Republican congressmen against each other: Ben Quayle, the son of Bush Senior’s vice president, and David Schweikert, a prodigy of Arizona ultra-conservatism. While Boyden Gray and other wealthy trustees donated to Quayle, Kibbe lionized Schweikert for standing up to Boehner and other GOP grandees. [7]

It was inevitable that defeat in November 2012 would reopen every wound and rivalry amongst prominent Republicans, undoing all the hard work of Karl Rove and his billionaire friends in creating a beauty strip of party unity around the Romney campaign. Across the suburban steppes Republican factions started warring with each other. Since the last GOP ‘moderates’ have been driven into extinction and 1980s-vintage Reaganites are gone to pasture, the current Republican civil war (as illustrated by the events at FreedomWorks) has a distinctly Oedipal dimension: jaded Gingrich revolutionaries versus their own demon spawn. Seldom in the history of the House of Representatives has the majority party so brutally cleaved itself down the middle as did the Republicans on New Year’s Day, when 151 members—including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, most of the freshmen and almost all of the Tea Party caucus—rejected the fiscal compromise (‘Plan B’) submitted by their own Speaker. Some prominent supporters of the rejectionist bloc immediately warned that the 85 Republicans, mainly from Northern and Western states, who had voted for the bill (along with 115 Democrats) could face capital punishment in the 2014 primaries. [8] The rift in Congress continued to deepen a few weeks later—largely along a Mason–Dixon fault line—when an even larger majority of the Republican caucus (179 members) voted against emergency aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy that was eagerly sought by Republicans from Northeastern states. Boehner’s dwindling band of conservative realists are discovering that the small-government fundamentalism of the Tea Party, originally heralded as the third wave of the Reagan Revolution, is actually the road to an elephant graveyard.

Canals on Mars

Democrats, for the most part, have been surprisingly wary in making world-historical claims about Obama’s reelection or the escalating Republican fratricide. Conservatives, re-experiencing the trauma of 2008, have been more inclined to interpret the results with eschatological hyperbole. Pat Buchanan bluntly declared, for instance: ‘At the presidential level, the Republican Party is at death’s door.’ Victor Davis Hanson, a former classics professor and farmer who fancies himself a Cato of the rightwing lecture circuit, declared Republicans were now living in the ‘most foreboding times in my 59 years.’ David Frum worried, ‘Will the Obama coalition now forever outvote and pillage the makers of American wealth? Many conservative commentators say yes.’ A hysterical Quin Hillyer at American Spectator warned that Republican ‘failures on an epic scale’ left conservatives at the mercy of ‘a newly empowered, radical president—bent on leftist “revenge” and untethered by the Constitution.’ Commentary’s John Podhoretz excoriated the ‘contentlessness of the Romney campaign’ (proof of ‘the vacuity of the centre-right’) yet also conceded that ‘the Republican Party is dominated by a set of ideas and issues that are catnip to its own base but repellent to everyone else.’ Another Commentary contributor, Jonathan Tobin, judged that the dual blows of Romney’s defeat and renewed ‘civil war between establishment types and Tea Partiers’ had rendered Republican opposition to Obama ‘useless’. [9] Newt Gingrich, finally, sermonized that too many conservatives ‘underestimate the scale of the threat we face’ as cultural and demographic trends ‘turn America into a national version of Chicago or California’.

Unless Republicans profoundly and deeply rethink their assumptions and study what the Democrats have been doing the future could become very bleak and the Clinton–Obama majority could become as dominant as the Roosevelt majority was from 1932 to 1968 and from 1930 to 1994 in the House of Representatives.

Such prognostics from the Right seemingly provide confirmation for the thesis—advanced by prominent Democratic political analysts like Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin and John Judis—that 2008 was the end of the age of Reagan and the advent of a new Democratic majority. In the lexicon of critical realignment theory, 2012, despite the slippage in the Obama vote, was the classic ‘confirming election’. Certainly exit-poll data, strengthened by belief in demographic determinism, supports a circumstantial case for Gingrich’s worst fears, but midterm elections, such as the huge Republican congressional backlash of 2010, have a nasty habit of controverting presidential-year paradigms. Paradoxically, as contested elections and swing states have become fewer, the turbulence on the margins has increased, and political forecasting becomes an adventure into what the quants like to call ‘volatility space’. Indeed broad patterns in contemporary American politics are like the canals on Mars in 1900: every expert claims to see them, but no one can completely prove that they exist.

My own fuzzy image of the next four years resembles another of Gingrich’s prolific scenarios: unrelenting conflict between Democratic power in the White House and Senate, and stubborn Republican control over the House and a majority of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. (The Supreme Court is the institutional wild card.) ‘We are in a period’, Gingrich writes understatedly, ‘where there could be an alliance between 30 Republican Governors and a Republican US House of Representatives which could highlight better solutions and also highlight the failures of the federal government.’

Since 2010, an alternative America has been taking shape in states where Tea Party Republicans dominate the legislatures. As always, legislators in Kansas or Alabama are eager to skirmish with the Federal government and even the Supreme Court over gay marriage, abortion, immigration and assault rifles. But this time around they are even more focused on implementing locally what was defeated nationally. Since the rise of the Tea Party wing, powerful if ad hoc coalitions of Republican leaders and local capitalists, closely linked to ultra-conservative policy centres with billionaire patrons, have turned toward the radical restructuring of their state economies. First of all, Republican governors sucker-punched Democrats by unleashing attacks on public and private collective bargaining with the obvious aim of transforming the industrial Midwest into a right-to-work utopia like the South. In Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, angry teachers and steelworkers repeatedly confronted Tea Party supporters in capitol skirmishes that reached epic scale in the ‘Battle of Madison’. Meanwhile Republican governors in several traditional right-to-work states (Kansas, Nebraska and Louisiana), who don’t have powerful unions to break up, are pushing for the abolition of (progressive) state income taxes with the aims of shrinking the public sector and shifting the tax burden from high-income constituents to poorer people, via sales taxes.

These legislative offensives, and the designs for Tea Party government that they are putting into action, have been compared to the tax revolts of the late 1970s. But in vehemence and intent, they more closely resemble ‘Massive Resistance’ in the 1950s and 1960s when the White South, led by its governors and legislators in coordination with its congressional delegations, defied all the rules of coalition-building, compromise and obedience to the Washington establishment in order to wage all-out war against black political empowerment. (The Tea Party reincarnates much of the bigotry and intransigence of the White Citizens’ Councils, albeit with the moral salves of a few reactionary black celebrities like Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas and Tim Scott.) Further ‘Southernization’ in both the geographical and ideological sense, however, is beginning to terrify many Old School Republicans. Although they created and nursed the monstrosity, they are now coming to dread the electoral implications of a party of aging but militant white people dominated by Misean ultras, extreme Christians, assault-rifle owners and diehard Confederates.

The domestic extremism of the GOP stands even more naked after so much of the party’s foreign-policy and military agenda has been effectively co-opted by Obama. Romney was the first Republican candidate in memory who could offer no compelling vision of ‘clear and present dangers’ that Democrats were failing to confront. The attempt by Republican leaders, especially a bitter John McCain, to spin the Benghazi debacle into a ‘second Watergate’ only betrayed a lack of traction against a President who better fits the ‘Jack Ryan’ role of Tom Clancy’s special-ops president than any of his Republican competition. Obama’s enthusiasm for stealth war and murder by remote control, as well as his bipartisan appointments in the Pentagon and his ceaseless cultivation of the counter-insurgency lobby, have made his war-mongering flank almost invulnerable to traditional Republican attack, even with Netanyahu as Romney’s shadow running mate. The Republican campaign, bereft of red scares or Osama Bin Laden, was left to stand or fall with the Ryan budget, the tax cuts for billionaires, and Romney’s expertise in corporate takeovers.

The current choice before the GOP is stark. Can the party, led by a Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie, reinvent itself from the top down in order to encompass the minimal share of American ethnic and racial diversity that henceforth will be required to occupy the White House? Or will it entrench itself further behind a maximalist programme that celebrates the philosophy of the bunker, of massive resistance to providing New Deal safety nets for future generations of colour? If growth returns and some share of increasing productivity feeds through to wages (the wager that underlies Obama’s willingness to gamble the most valuable heirlooms of the New Deal), neither option matters: the Republicans will probably go the way of the Whigs. On the other hand, if the economy stagnates or declines, then the ‘brutish future’ that Thomas Edsall predicts, where the ‘two major parties are enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases’, is already foreshadowed by the recent political class struggles in Red America.

Powerful sectional forces, as evidenced by the bitter split over the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy, will also influence which of these scenarios will come true. Currently most of the embattled GOP leadership comes from the Great Lakes or border South, while the intransigent majority in the House hails either from Dixie or the Big Empty (low-population Plains and Western states). The nightmare of Northern conservatives is the transformation of a strong national party into a twenty-first-century version of the Confederate States of America. The struggle over Republican identity, moreover, has a profound bearing on the functional relationships between the GOP and the private sector. Tea Party Republicans and fiscal extremists (like their forgotten ancestors, the Taft wing of the 1940s and 1950s) lean toward the Club for Growth, even economic nationalism, not the Business Round Table or the G8. [13] If their power increases and the GOP’s centre of gravity continues to move deeper South, corporate boardrooms will undoubtedly reconsider their investment portfolios in a party that clearly measures second best to the Democrats in the management of the global and long-term interests of American capitalism.

The notes which follow sift through the exit polls, opinion pages and academic studies to better understand both the current Republican agony in presidential politics and counterpart Democratic frustrations in Congress and state politics. The US Federal political system is such an odd and complex orrery, with major electoral planets often moving in opposite directions or even around different ideological suns, that it is essential to consider not only the presidential race, but also briefly the elections for the House, the battles for control of state governments, and the new factional alignments inside the parties. Trends that already seem destiny at the presidential level may take years to arrive in the mail at the congressional or state level. Electoral ‘data’, moreover, is always subject to multiple interpretations. Looking at social forces via poll sampling is like viewing Mars through a Victorian telescope: over-interpretation is almost inevitable.

Dog on the roof

On election eve, Romney joked with reporters at the Boston Convention Center that as soon as he moved into the White House he would buy another Weimaraner. (No one had the nerve to ask where the new puppy would ride in the Presidential limousine.) Unlike John McCain in 2008, he was relaxed and supremely confident. His chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, had earlier assured him that the win was in the bag: all of the proprietary Republican surveys as well as the Gallup Poll were predicting low voter turnout for crucial Obama demographics and a strong rally toward Romney of independents in swing states like Ohio. The Romney war room, moreover, possessed an ‘unprecedented advantage’: the hugely expensive IT system known as ‘Project Orca’ which, with the help of 34,000 Republican volunteers, would monitor voting in real time to ensure ‘hyper-accuracy’ in the allocation of campaign resources to increase turnout in crucial precincts in swing states. It was signature Romney: Bain Capital was feared and renowned for employing massive data analysis before closing deals or sending companies to the breaking yard.

Before polls closed in Iowa, the champagne had already been uncorked and the Romney people were in a jolly mood. Officials at Logan International Airport told the Boston Globe that ‘their private aviation tarmac was crammed with corporate jets that ferried in campaign supporters en route to the convention centre.’ A fireworks company had been hired to ignite the sky over Boston harbour with pyrotechnics as soon as Romney claimed victory. One reporter had already caught a glimpse of the transition website ready to go online. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who like other reporters had to pay $1,000 to attend the gala, found the regal atmosphere and intense security an unsettling image of what a Romney presidency would be like. ‘The gleaming convention centre built with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, is on a peninsula in the Boston harbour that was turned into an election-night fortress, with helicopters overhead, metal barricades and authorities searching vehicles. Only a few gawkers crossed the bridge from downtown to stand outside.’

In the end the fireworks went off in Chicago, not Boston. Orca had crashed early in the day, and Democratic turnout in critical states rose toward 2008 levels. Obama’s support was not evincing the ‘motivation gap’ that underpinned Republican assumptions about the election. Indeed some trends were simply outside of the Romney campaign’s conceptual universe: for instance, the unprecedented urban turnout in Ohio that increased African-American participation from 11 per cent of the electorate in 2008 to 15 per cent in 2012. (Romney also performed worse than George Bush in 2004 in most of Ohio’s mainly white counties.) [19] Except for North Carolina, where the Democratic Party has become internally dysfunctional, the President ultimately retained the rest of his 2008 swing states.

Romney, victory speech in hand, was reported to be ‘shell-shocked’ by his rapidly mounting losses so early on election eve, as were the expensive consultants who had assured him that First Tuesday’s voters would be older and whiter. (‘After Ohio went for Mr Obama’, CBS reported from Boston, ‘it was over, but senior advisers say no one could process it.’) The Republican Party, after all, had spent four years creating a minefield of legal obstacles to registration and voting by the 47 per cent, perhaps the most systematic attempt at voter disfranchisement since Jim Crow. Moreover the Roberts Supreme Court’s egregious ‘Citizens United’ ruling, which gave First Amendment rights to corporations and PACs, had opened the floodgates to negative advertising by the GOP’s super-wealthy supporters. The Romney camp outspent Obama in all but two of the swing states, and hundreds of millions of dollars of negativity—50 per cent more advertising than in 2008—super-saturated the television screens of the swing states for weeks on end.

The king of this shadow campaign world, of course, was the unindicted felon Karl Rove. His court was the so-called ‘Weaver Terrace Group’ (named after his DC address), a coordinating committee of Republican mega-donors, super-PACs and traditional supporters like the US Chamber of Commerce, which has had a chronically fraught relationship with Tea Party groups and the Koch family. To conquer the House in 2010 and the White House and Senate in 2012, Rove and his allies created two parallel money machines—American Crossroads (a super-PAC which reports donors) and Crossroads GPS (a 501[c][4] which does not) [23]—sharing interlocking leaderships with Romney’s Restore Our Future, Jeb Bush’s American Action Network and Haley Barbour’s Republican Governors Association. Ensemble, this is the ‘Republican Establishment’ against which Kibbe, Palin and DeMint rail. The two Crossroads channelled $270–300 million into the presidential campaign, much of it for ads targeted at disillusioned white Obama supporters in industrial states. Until the very end, Rove was still frantically shovelling coal into the campaign furnace, the last fifteen or twenty million reportedly from Sheldon Adelson in Vegas and a group of Dallas developers and industrialists.

Rove’s humiliation on 6th November was necessarily more profound than Romney’s. After all, as he had bragged to Time magazine, ‘I’m not a human being, I’m a myth.’ [24] With ghoulish glee, Donald Trump congratulated Karl Rove for ‘blowing $400 million this cycle’. He claimed—correctly—that Republicans lost every race that Rove’s Crossroads GPS had invested in. ‘What a waste of money!’ [25] As the Economist noted, the opposing hurricanes of negative advertising in late Fall simply blew each other out. [26] More effective—connoisseurs agreed—had been the Obama campaign’s preemptive strike against the Romney image in the months before the Republican convention. Having no primary opponents to call you names and waste your campaign funds was a substantial Obama advantage.

So too was the decision to make doorbells the key technology of the campaign in swing states. ‘The Obama campaign’, John Ward writes, ‘began placing organizers in key states in April 2011, a full year before Mitt Romney would even win the GOP nomination. Those organizers plugged themselves into the volunteer networks, known as neighbourhood teams, that were in some cases still operating after the 2008 election.’ The coordinator of this swing-state volunteer strategy was Jeremy Bird, a student of the legendary Marshall Ganz, who convinced the campaign’s general staff to aim for one organizer in the field for every fifty targeted voters. To achieve such saturation 2.2 million Democratic volunteers, almost twice the size of the 2008 field army, trawled neighbourhoods and ran phone banks. Romney’s team, which began parachuting into the swing states only in summer 2012, never achieved more than one campaign worker per thousand voters. [27]

Running out of white people

The news networks were able to call the key races and confirm Obama’s reelection before bedtime. It was not a cliffhanger: the president’s margin of victory was nearly 5 million votes (see Table 1, below). Yet the late counts from Western states plus chaotic exit-poll statistics created the brief illusion that abstentionism was at a new high, with millions of missing blue-collar Republicans or Millennial generation Obama fans, depending on your point of view. In fact, turnout (59.4) was above the 1992–2008 presidential year average (57.2), although nearly three points lower than 2008. [28]

Setting aside Hurricane Sandy and its local impacts on voting in New York and New Jersey, the obvious first-order cause of the decline from 2008 was the increased concentration of campaign resources and candidate appearances in the swing states. Only one-third of the electorate was heavily wooed; elsewhere participation depended upon the salience of local and state issues as much as who won the presidential debates. Thus in the high-profile swing states the average turnout was 62.7 per cent, and the absolute vote was slightly higher than in 2008, while in the safely Red or Blue states the turnout was only 54.8 per cent. [29] Many of the missing 2008 Obama supporters—some 3.6 million—stayed home in states like California or Texas where the electoral vote was incontestable. (The one unequivocal trend in turnout that cannot be attributed to the swing-state asymmetry was a sharp decline in the small city and rural vote, mostly at cost to Obama.) [30]

The most impressive feat of the 2008 Obama campaign had been winning the big, traditionally Republican suburban counties on the edges of Philadelphia, Washington DC, Columbus, Cincinnati and Denver. Although the President’s overall suburban vote (48 per cent) was smaller than four years earlier, he easily kept possession of such hard-won crown jewels as Prince William and Loudoun counties in Virginia; Montgomery and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania; Hamilton county in Ohio, Hillsborough county in Florida, and Arapahoe and Jefferson counties in Colorado. As a result, he slam-dunked Ohio and Nevada, squeezed through once again in Florida, nailed Virginia and Colorado by 4 and 5 per cent, and coasted home on comfortable margins in Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin (Paul Ryan’s home state).

Romney’s team was initially incredulous that Obama was winning so easily while exit polls were indicating a white-voter landslide for Romney. According to Ronald Brownstein, both sides had magic formulae for victory. Romney’s was winning 61 per cent of the white vote, with whites constituting at least 74 per cent of the turnout and the Obama percentage of the minority vote holding at or below the 2008 level. Although Obama that year had won 43 per cent of white ballots—an impressive improvement upon John Kerry and Al Gore—the Democratic share of the white vote in the 2010 midterm election had dropped to an all-time low of 37 per cent. Thus the Romney campaign was convinced that they could win, if only for the last time in American history, with all their chips piled on the white square. Democrats, on the other side, were equally confident of victory if they could achieve an 80/40 split—that is, 80 per cent of the minority vote and 40 per cent of the white vote—with a minority turnout equivalent to the 26 per cent of 2008. [31]

It was arguably the most racially polarized presidential election in American history. The Republicans depicted Obama as the redistributionist ‘food-stamp president’ pandering to the half of the country who were ‘takers’, parasites or public employees sponging off the hard work of white entrepreneurs and the minority of minorities who emulate them. Obama, sounding like a World War Two Victory Bond ad, appealed to better angels and inclusive patriotism, but just as Romney’s handlers had hoped, his white vote dropped to 39 per cent (see Table 2). Compared to 2008, his vote amongst white men was down 9 points; white women, 4 per cent; and, most dramatically, white twenty-somethings by 10 per cent. He lost the white vote in such major states as California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Only in some of the New England states and Iowa did he win white majorities. Despite the unprecedented efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheldon Adelson to turn the election into a referendum on bombing Iran, he also retained the support of Jewish voters (about 2 per cent of the national electorate, but a crucial 5 per cent in Florida), although his tally was reduced to 69 per cent from the stunning 78 per cent of 2008.

Romney in contrast garnered the same (rounded off) 60 per cent share of the white electorate that had given George H. W. Bush 426 electoral votes in 1988, and allowed Bush Junior to beat Kerry by more than 3 million votes in 2004 (see Tables 3 and 4, below). [32] But this old math is now obsolete. Thanks to the higher-than-expected minority turnout, the white share of the vote was 72 per cent, not the 74 per cent that the Republicans had banked on; as a result pro-Romney whites cast barely 48 per cent of the total vote. [33] Moreover, for the second presidential election in a row white turnout declined. Republican pollsters warned in the aftermath, ‘trying to win a national election by gaining a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller portion of the electorate is a losing political proposition’. The GOP had ‘run out of persuadable white voters’. [34]

Rainbow rebooted

The African-American turnout rate, in contrast, surpassed the white for the first time in history. [35] Record participation was galvanized not just by Obama, but also as a protest against the Republican strategy of voter suppression. Since the black political majority in New Orleans was toppled in the wake of Katrina and the demolition of undamaged public-housing projects, conservative strategists have been brazenly probing the defences of universal suffrage. As a result, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the cornerstone victory of the Civil Rights Movement, is now under the ominous scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s reactionary majority. (In Alabama, white majority voters defeated a bill to remove the Jim Crow provisions from the state constitution, adopted in 1901.)

Although the Obama administration’s record on civil liberties, from drone murders to internet surveillance, is appalling (an issue that only the Ron Paul campaign raised), the President rekindled belief in his commitment to civil rights with his signature on equal-pay legislation in 2009, the abolition of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in 2010, the executive order to defer deportations of young immigrants in 2012, and a continuing effort by the Justice Department to defend voting rights. Aside from guaranteeing his reelection, these belated initiatives reinforced the rights-based unity of minority voters who, in turn, have surprised pollsters with their increasingly positive perceptions of one another. African-Americans in recent polls, for instance, have become more supportive of immigrant rights and the growth of Latino and Asian populations. [36] A majority polled also endorse gay marriage despite opposition from many church leaders and the stereotype that blacks are a homophobic voting group. Indeed black voters were key to the success of gay marriage legislation in Maryland. [37] Likewise three-quarters of Latino voters, despite their reputation as social conservatives and extreme pressure from the pulpit, now support women’s right to choose.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the exit polls, as well as the most eloquent evidence that a genuine ‘rainbow coalition’ is growing in the grassroots, was Obama’s 73 per cent share of the Asian vote: an 11 per cent (15 per cent in California) increase over 2008. [39] Although Asian voters have traditionally been the most geographically concentrated (Hawaii, California and New York), they are now voting in significant numbers in other nationally important areas. Asians, for example, now constitute about 15 per cent of the populations of Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia—some of the most crucial swing turf in the country. A generation ago Republicans had high expectations of winning Asian-Pacific majorities outside of the Democratic citadel of Hawaii; but China-bashing, racist campaign ads, nativist immigration policies and a poor commitment to affordable public education have turned most younger voters, whether of South or East Asian origins, solidly against the GOP. Like Jewish-Americans, to whom they are often stereotypically compared, the currently small Asian share of the electorate (about 2 per cent in each case) is being leveraged by outsized achievement in health and physical sciences, engineering and increasingly public administration. But unlike Jews or whites in general, the eligible voting population (if not yet the participation rate) of Asians will dramatically increase.

Finally, as Karl Rove lamented, Obama improved his share of a larger Latino turnout by 4 per cent over 2008 (850,000 more votes in absolute terms; see Table 5, below, for Latino turnout figures). In Florida, where exit-poll results are still being debated, Obama may have won a landmark 51 per cent of the Cuban vote, a result of generational turnover and the erosion of monolithic ‘exile’ identity. Likewise in Ohio, the early analysis of exit polls suggests that the decisive margin of Obama’s victory was his 82 per cent share of the Latino vote (74 per cent nationally) plus a small but crucial increase over 2008 amongst white males. Every year, 800,000 Latinos turn 18, providing an estimated 40 per cent of the growth of the electorate through 2030. In 2016 they will overtake African-Americans to become the largest minority voting bloc. [The writing on the wall is clear enough to most GOP leaders. As a recent internal memo epitomized the party’s dilemma: ‘If Republicans achieve 40 or more per cent of Hispanics nationally, they can elect conservative Republicans to national office. Settling for a quarter or less of the Hispanic vote nationally will relegate Republicans to a regional party with few national prospects.’

The GOP is being paid back with richly-deserved interest for border fences, anti-immigrant referenda outlawing bilingual education in several states, SB1070 in Arizona (the state that has become the ‘Mississippi’ for Latino civil rights), Republican sabotage of the Dream Act, Romney’s vicious advocacy of ‘self-deportation’, and much more. Of course, the actual reign of terror—mass deportations on a scale that exceed all Republican precedents—is being carried out by Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. But even if the Minute Men were to wear sombreros and the GOP suddenly embrace amnesty and the Dream Act, it is unlikely that Latino voters would become the family-values ‘natural Republicans’ envisioned by Rove and other Bush strategists in the early 2000s. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru is ruthlessly candid:

The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation . . . Better ‘communication skills’, that perennial item on the wish list of losing parties, will achieve little if the party does not have an appealing agenda to communicate.

As demographic change in the American electorate accelerates, it would be foolish to assume that gender, marital status and age are necessarily interacting with race and class to reproduce the same kinds of group political identities as those in 2000, 1992 or 1978. For instance, the US Census now recognizes ‘mixed race’ because several million younger Americans regard this as their most accurate identity. The ‘religiously unaffiliated’, an unimportant category in electoral analysis a generation ago, now constitute 25 per cent of the 18-to-29 year old cohort and have become a hotly debated new variable in voting behaviour. Likewise the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—a highly engaged 5 per cent of the national electorate who gave an estimated 78 per cent of their vote to Obama—are a permanent existential crisis for the GOP.

All the more reason, then, to pry open the traditional clichés of election analysis, including ‘gender gap’ and ‘youth vote’, to see what is actually inside. For example, it has been claimed that Obama was reelected by winning 55 per cent of a female vote which in turn comprised 53 per cent of the turnout. [48] This is indisputably true and registers, in some part, a backlash against Romney’s threat to defund Planned Parenthood as well as the idiotic remarks by two Tea-Party-endorsed Senate candidates on rape. But does the statistic itself actually prove that gender was the most important variable in determining the vote?


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