Seeing Red and Blue
We are happy to have this post-election analysis from Robert David Sullivan, who blogged about the presidential and vice-presidential debates for America. You can read his blog on politics and TV here, and his analysis of the 2008 election here. -- Tim Reidy
The most striking aspect of the 2012 red vs. blue map of the United States is how little it’s changed. Forty states have voted for the same party for the past four consecutive elections, despite the huge events (9/11, two wars, the Great Recession, the passage of Obamacare) that have reshaped American politics during that time, and 33 states haven’t flipped sides since 1996.
With one big exception, the states that supported George W. Bush’s re-election and also backed a second term for Barack Obama switched sides because of demographic changes brought on population growth, not because of any change in voter opinion. That’s a danger sign for the Republican Party; they’ve lost Colorado, Florida (assuming Obama keeps his thin lead), New Mexico, and Virginia because their brand has become toxic among the racial minorities and urbanites that have grown in those states. (The big exception is Ohio, where the Obama administration’s loans to the keep the auto industry afloat seem to have earned the loyalty of some former Bush supporters.)
A lot of today’s headlines refer to Obama’s sizable, even “landslide” victory in the Electoral College of 332-206 (again, assuming he keeps Florida). Technically, Mitt Romney only had to flip two states to win. But one of them had to be California, which was a hotly contested state in every close race of the 20th century and this time gave its 55 electoral votes to Obama thanks to a popular vote margin by more than 20 points. The GOP is noncompetitive in the biggest state in the US, with the biggest chunk of electoral votes in American history, because a negligible share of California’s population lives in overwhelmingly white small towns. It’s the same with New Jersey, which could have been the second flipped state and which also was competitive throughout the 20th century: Its almost completely urban and increasingly nonwhite population is a nonstarter for the GOP.
This reality must have been quite frustrating for Mitt Romney, who built his political career in the heavily urban, highly educated and immigrant-rich state of Massachusetts and then lost the state by 23 points as a presidential nominee. Even more bitter was his 21-point defeat in Belmont, where he lives and is just the kind of upscale, white-collar suburb that his “Moderate Mitt” persona should have played well.
As was evident in the presidential debates, Romney hoped to win as a Mr. Fix-It, someone who had the expertise to turn the national economy around without getting bogged down in ideological debates. But he was weighed down by the Republican Party’s flirtations with extremism. We’ll never know how hard Romney would have worked toward a privatization of Medicare, or zeroing out government spending on things like public broadcasting, but the Tea Party faction of the GOP would have demanded payback after working so hard to elect him. That prospect doomed Romney in places like the Philadelphia suburbs, where he went in the closing days of the campaign in a futile attempt to put Pennsylvania in play. Those suburbs, as well as similarly upscale suburbs around places like New York City and Washington, D.C., remained loyal to the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton, who first dragged them away from the GOP.
The electoral map is changing slowly, but the Republican Party has no choice but to rehabilitate its poor image with city dwellers and racial minorities. Conservatives have long hoped that they would make gains with black and Latino voters through social issues like opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But the Republican Party’s insistence on passing laws making it harder to vote, and its intransigence on liberalizing immigration law, have only alienated such groups. (Yesterday’s results in Maryland, where a successful referendum approving same-sex marriage lost by 2 points in heavily black Prince George’s County, indicates social conservatism, but less so than in the past.)
At least in the early stages of the campaign, it seemed possible for Mitt Romney to reach out to minority communities on economic issues, based on the idea that reduced tax rates and regulations could help promote small businesses. But his party’s insistence on repealing “Obamacare,” with its guarantee of affordable health insurance for self-employed and part-time workers, probably didn’t help his message of economic opportunity. Hostility toward urban amenities such as public transportation may be another millstone for the GOP.
As always, Barack Obama didn’t win a mandate so much as he put together a winning coalition of demographic groups and voters with particular interests. Geographically, that translated to a big advantage in the Electoral College, and there’s bound to be talk of a Democratic Party “lock” based on the states they’ve won consistently for the past quarter-century. (They include former members of the 1972-88 Republican Party “lock,” including California, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey.) This winning streak will surely come to an end, but only when the Republicans make a serious effort to improve their image in the places where most of us live.
Robert David Sullivan