A Historic Election Foretold

  • 11/15/2012
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote a book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” predicting the broad outlines of a demographic shift that would inexorably favor Democrats in the long run. On Election Day, Nov. 6, their prediction was confirmed. Barack Obama won re-election with just 39 percent of the white vote, but still won by a comfortable margin—more than three million votes and counting, with 332 electoral votes.

Obama won every battleground state except North Carolina, despite a massive spending edge–totaling hundreds of millions of dollars–held by outside pro-Romney groups funded by the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers and organized by operatives like Karl Rove.  Half a dozen or so election forecasters who aggregate state level polls accurately predicted the outcome well in advance–Florida was the only state that gave some of them headaches–but none predicted it 10 years in advance the way Judis and Teixeira did.

The growth of Democratic dominance and voter participation among Latinos and Asian Americans is a big part of these results, but so is the intensification of black participation and the durability of the gender gap. All of these were actually invigorated by GOP attacks. Obama won blacks 93 to 6, Hispanics 71 to 27, Asian-Americans 73 to 26, Women 55 to 44, and younger than 30 voters 60 to 37.  The last two categories only supported Obama, however, because of the minority vote. Young and/or female white voters were significantly less pro-Romney than their older and/or male counterparts, but still gave him an edge.

This not only mattered for the popular vote, it helped shift some states out of the “battleground” category into the Democrats’ base of safe states (most dramatically, New Mexico), while turning some former safe red states into battlegrounds. Virginia and North Carolina hadn’t been won by a Democrat since 1964 and 1976 respectively, before Obama took both in 2008. Even in a much tougher year this time, he held onto Virginia and made North Carolina extremely close.  Arizona should become a swing state within one or two more cycles, with Texas probably a decade behind that.

Yet, Democrats could still be in long-term trouble if they don’t shed self-defeating conservative ideas. Case in point: the fear of government spending kept the size of the stimulus to roughly half of what economists said was needed to produce a healthy recovery, which would have made Obama’s re-election a cakewalk. Even after this election, Obama continues to obsess over a “grand bargain” with the GOP, offering $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue—a formula that President Ronald Reagan would have drooled over, and that threatens real, long-term harm to Democratic voters in particular. Thus, the Democrats big test in the long run is whether they can grow their thinking fast enough to fill their shoes. In this respect, the belated, but ultimately impassioned and inspiring push-back against voter suppression efforts–producing long lines of dedicated voters in states like Florida and Ohio–was a hopeful sign pointing in the right direction.

Voters faced a bewildering array of efforts to prevent them from voting—from photo-Identification laws (most struck down or postponed, but misleading messaging often hid this fact) to sharp cut-backs in voter registration and early voting, to lines so long that some voters didn’t get to cast their ballots until after midnight.  But on the presidential level, all these efforts fell short. The only battleground state Obama lost was North Carolina, which followed pollster’s prediction of a narrow Romney win, just as Obama won all the rest, where he lead in the polls.

There were long lines all across the county, particularly in battleground states, and particularly in minority neighborhoods. In addition, hundreds of thousands of votes remained uncounted days after the election was over. But there was also a wide array of specific barriers, harassment and intimidation as well. Illustrative examples include:

  • In Forest Park, Ohio, a predominantly black suburb outside Cincinnati, voters were forced to cast provisional ballots because records incorrectly showed they already submitted an absentee ballot.
  • In Colorado, police harnessed Latino canvassers during the week leading up to election day.

  • In Florida, 46 voters were challenged by one Tea Party activist in Miami-Dade County, and 77 were challenged in the Tampa area by another. The voters were forced to cast provisional ballots, which aren’t counted until 10 days after the election, and have high rejection rates.

Still, the end result of all this voter suppression and obstruction was failure at the presidential level. Republicans were far more successful with a less recognized approach to thwarting voters’ will in races for the House of Representatives—partisan redistricting. ThinkProgress reported a Democratic popular vote margin of 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent—a 6-point swing from 2010. “This discrepancy between popular votes and seat counts is the largest since 1950,” wrote Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium website. He concluded that the “structural unfairness” due to redistricting could be as high as 5 percent of the popular vote. “That is incredible,” he wrote. “Clearly nonpartisan redistricting reform would be in our democracy’s best interests.”

Nick Baumann, of Mother Jones magazine,. Compiled the following list of close states, Obama vote margins and House seat margins:

State ObamaVote GOP Vote
North Carolina -1.2 9-4%
Florida +0.5 (provisional)   17-10
Ohio +2 12-4
Virginia +3 8-3
Pennsylvania +5 13-5
Wisconsin +6 5-3
Michigan +8 9-5

The total for all these states—which Obama carried by an aggregate average of around 2 to 3 percent—was 73-34, better than 2 to 1 Republican. If these states had split their delegations 50-50, Democrats would have gained another 20 seats, and retaken the House.

In addition to the growth of minorities, Judis and Teixeira pointed to increased college education and the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy as trends producing more Democratic voters. They coined the word “ideopolis” for areas where the post-industrial economy thrives.  The results bear this out as well. Obama won all 10 of the top states with the highest percentage of college graduates in the over 25 age group. Romney won 9 of the bottom ten states. What’s more, the counties Obama won are tightly clustered and more densely populated, matching the ideopolis thesis.

The long-running World Values Survey strongly indicates that post-industrialism has a distinctive values thrust towards greater openness, gender equity, and quality concerns, such as environmentalism and participatory democracy, all summed up under the heading of “post-materialism”. This correlates well with bringing five new women into the Senate—for a record 20 female members—as well as the sharp reversal in voting on gay marriage initiatives, which saw a string of 32 consecutive defeats end dramatically, with three gay marriage initiatives passing (Maine, Maryland and Washington) and one ban going down to defeat (in Minnesota). It also correlates with the shifting ground on marijuana prohibition, where progress is advancing, albeit unevenly. Medical marijuana was approved in Massachusetts, the 17th state to approve it, but defeated in Arkansas, while state-regulated sales were approved in Washington, but defeated in Oregon, and Colorado legalized  possession under one ounce.

Finally, two key figures embody much of the hope and promise on which the future of a possible Democratic majority depends. Tammy Baldwin—a well-established House progressive—has become the first openly lesbian senator, with a strong labor record, not just reflected in her voting, but her passionate advocacy.  She’ll be joined by Elizabeth Warren. The Party’s future may well depend on the Harvard professor with an Oakie twang, whose politics recall former House Speaker and Senator Fred Harris, humorist Will Rogers, and the ghost of Tom Joad. The ability of women leaders like them to fuse the materialist working class politics of the Democrats’ past glory with the post-materialist politics embodied in their very presence. With any luck, one or both of them will run for president some day.

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