The Reality of New America Brings Obama Victory

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Photo: Robyn Beck /AFP/Getty

Just after 11 p.m. CST last night, I was camped out in the bowels of the neo-brutalist monstrosity that is McCormick Place, the massive convention center where Barack Obama held his victory party in Chicago, trying to sober up after an early dinner at the Gage in which I'd thrown back one too many tumblers of Buffalo Trace, when a text message hit my phone that spoke volumes about the reaction of many Obama fans to the decisive victory that the networks were then declaring for the president over Mitt Romney: "Reality wins."

There were many ways to read this message. The first and most obvious was in reference to the reality that the polls so many nuthouse conservatives had decried for months as deliberately skewed — and that even some righties in full possession of their faculties had argued were inadvertantly so — had been proven right at both the national level and in every battleground state. Another was more plainly partisan: that Obama's victory was triumph of facts, reason, and science over the fiction, irrationality, and humbug that Romney was peddling. Given that the text in question came from a poll-obsessed top-ranking editor at this website who also happens to be a supercilious, borderline-pinko Brit, both of these interpretations were perfectly plausible, and I wouldn't argue with either. But it's a third sense in which the verdict was true that strikes me as most meaningful: The reality that won last night was the reality of the emerging new American electorate, which is self-evidently changing our politics profoundly and will remake them fundamentally in decades to come.

Just as he was in 2008, Obama again in 2012 was the immediate beneficiary of that transformation. Taking the stage a bit past midnight with Michelle and their two girls, the president wore a look of infinite satisfaction, justifiable pride, and palpable relief, and then proceeded to deliver what was arguably his best speech of the 2012 campaign: mature, unifying, generous, and, yes, hopeful — which is to say, pretty much pitch perfect. But what struck me most as I watched the thing from a TV riser high above the hall was less the action on the stage than on the floor. Here was the Obama coalition in all its rainbow glory: black and white, yellow and brown, and still strikingly youthful. A tableau, in other words, at radical variance with the crowds at the Romney events I'd attended over the weekend and for months before, which were among the most homogenously ultra-Caucasian of any I've ever encountered for a major-party nominee in twenty years in this business.

That the essence of Team Obama's reelection strategy was to capitalize on their man's strength with what National Journal's Ron Brownstein calls "the coalition of the ascendant" has long been clear. Back in May, I wrote a cover story for the magazine laying out Chicago's plan to focus laser-like on four key voting blocs: African-Americans, Hispanics, college-educated white women, and voters of all ethnicities aged 18-29. At bottom, their theory of the case was that, despite the fragility of the recovery and the doubts that many voters had about Obama's capacity to put America firmly back on the road to prosperity, the deft and aggressive exploitation of coalition politics (along with the ruthless disqualification of Romney as a credible occupant of the Oval Office) could secure the president a second term. That in 2012, in other words, demographics would trump economics.

By Monday morning, when I hooked up with Obama in Madison, Wisconsin, for his final day as a candidate, it was abundantly clear that his advisers were serenely confident that their strategy had worked. David Plouffe, who in 2008 managed Obama's campaign and in 2012 served in the White House as its nexus with Chicago, boldly suggested to me that there was even a chance that his side would win all nine of the battleground states — and although that did not come to pass, if Obama holds on and carries Florida, the only swing state he will have lost is North Carolina. And,  hey, let's be real here: eight outta nine ain't bad!

A quick glance at the exit polls confirms the extent to which the coalition of the ascendant is responsible for that performance. Contrary to the assumptions of the Romney campaign, the electorate that turned out on Tuesday was more diverse than 2008's, not less. Nationally, the share of the vote comprised by whites fell from 74 to 72 percent, while the black vote held steady at 13 and rose among Hispanics from 9 to 10, among Asians from 2.5 to 3 percent, among women from 53 to 54 percent, and among young voters from 18 to 19 percent. Obama's share of each of those blocs was overwhelming: 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asians, 55 percent of the ladies, and 60 percent of the kids. Together with a decent performance with white voters overall — 39 percent, four points lower than what he garnered in 2008 — those margins were what allowed him to win the popular vote as well as in the electoral college, thus averting a split decision that his team was worried would be messy and controversial.

 It was also those margins with the elements of the ascendant coalition that made the difference in the battleground states. Had it not been for Obama's vast advantages with minorities, he would never have carried Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, or (assuming he holds it) Florida. Had it not been for his whopping advantages with young voters and college-educated women, the races in Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire would have been corset-tight rather than 5-to-7-point walks in the park.

Now, make no mistake, Obama's victory was not a landslide. It was, in truth, a rarity: a presidential race won by an incumbent with a lower percentage of the popular vote, a lower number of total votes, and a smaller number of electoral votes than he snagged the first time around. (Typically, incumbents either lose or do better in their reelection bids than their initial victories.) And coming out of the election, he will confront a wide array of governing challenges, to which I'll return in detail in my column in next week's magazine.

Yet the challenges facing the Republican Party are far greater and far graver; indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that they are existential. Before Election Day, there were some in GOP yakkety-yakosphere who were warming up to pin the blame for Romney's impending defeat on Hurricane Sandy, a dubious proposition rendered utterly absurd by what happened yesterday. Not only was the problem not Sandy — it wasn't even simply Romney. True, the weaknesses of the Republican nominee were manifold and glaring, but they had nothing to do with the party's having squandered its chance to take back control of the Senate by pissing away two eminently winnable seats (in Missouri and Indiana) by dint of having nominated abject cretins (Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock). Or with the passage, for the first time, of ballot initiatives in two states (Maine and Maryland) legalizing same-sex marriage, and the legalizing of marijuana in two others (Colorado and Washington).

What all of this signifies is that the Republicans now find themselves facing a moment similar to the one that Democrats met in the wake of the 1988 election, when the party found itself markedly out of step with the country — shackled to a retograde base, in the grip of an assortment of fads and factions, wedded to a pre-modern policy agenda. And so, like the Ds back then, the Rs today must undertake a wholesale modernization of their party, starting with, but not limited to, making real inroads with those ascendant elements of the electorate. Doing so will be a Herculean task, and one that will require not just institutional resolve but individual leadership; it will require, that is to say, that the Republicans find their own version of Bill Clinton circa 1990. But daunting as the task may be, what last night indicated is that the party has no choice but to undertake the assignment — because to forgo it would be to risk not just irrelevance but extinction.