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the national interest

Will Obama’s Majority Survive?

U.S. President Barack Obama lifts a baby handed to him from a supporter during a campaign rally at Elm Street Middle School October 27, 2012 in Nashua, New Hampshire. With ten days before the presidential election, Obama and his opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are criss-crossing the country from one swing state to the next in an attempt to sway voters. President Obama, already thinking five election cycles ahead.

Since November, the prospective death of the Republican coalition has hovered over American politics, and the autopsy has gained renewed attention in light of the debates over gay marriage and immigration, both of which split the GOP from rising chunks of the electorate. I’m an advocate of the theory, first put forward a decade ago by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, that the electorate is forming a natural Democratic majority. The Republican Party appears to be caught in a double bind, in which the electorate is growingly progressively less white, and even younger white voters hold less conservative views than older ones. What’s more, evidence suggests that voters maintain the partisan allegiances they form at a young age. The picture looks grim for the GOP.

The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis has always had its critics, though. Before the 2012 election, Sean Trende argued repeatedly that the apparently ineluctable rise of the nonwhite vote was non ineluctable at all. Since the nonwhite vote in fact did continue to rise in 2012, the critique has shifted, and it hasn’t come entirely from the right.

Political scientist John Sides provocatively argues in the Washington Post, “it’s premature to make similar predictions about a Democratic majority or write the GOP’s epitaph.” Sides’s primary evidence is that most voters in 2012 viewed Mitt Romney as ideologically closer to the center, and to themselves, than Obama. To Sides, this suggests the Republican Party does not have a fundamental image problem. To me, it suggests that abstract measures of proximity to the center aren’t a very good measure of a party’s standing – since, after all, Romney was seen as more moderate but still lost by five points.

The Nation’s Rick Perlstein has launched an epic three-part series arguing that conservative Republicanism will come back. Part one argues primarily that various pundits have, at various times, made predictions about the future that have turned out to be wrong — an argument that seems to have no real relevance at all. (You could compile an endless list of economists wrongly forecasting a recession, but it wouldn’t invalidate any particular prediction of a recession.) Perlstein, more interestingly, delves into the history of the sixties — his specialty — to detail the way the New Deal coalition crumbled apart over race. Perlstein concludes that the ability of conservatives to divide the public over racial and other fears is permanent and unyielding, that the strategy that was used to pry apart the New Deal coalition will keep working forever.

Here’s my very different version of that history. The Democrats forged a national majority beginning in 1932. That majority came apart beginning in the mid-sixties, from which point, through about the nineties, Republicans were generally able to cast Democrats as carrying out an agenda that redistributed resources from the white middle class to the (disproportionately nonwhite and presumptively undeserving) poor.

Bill Clinton built a political message that allowed him to thrive within this hostile environment. But over the last couple election cycles, the environment itself has changed. Racial and cultural divisions no longer naturally cut in the GOP’s favor. Another, very simple way to tell the story is this graph of partisan preferences, which political scientist Eric Schickler offers up in a persuasive rebuttal to Sides:

The large plural of voters who still saw themselves as Democrats largely endured through the seventies. Only by the end of the eighties had these voters stopped thinking of themselves as “Democrats who often vote Republican” and begun to think of themselves as “Republicans.” But beginning at the end of George W. Bush’s disastrous second term, the Democratic advantage has opened up again, and shows no signs of closing. And the partisan edge, while much smaller than the New Deal–era version, is more stable. The old Democratic coalition was ideologically diffuse, and depended on overwhelming support among white Southern conservatives who elected reactionaries to Congress and frequently defected on the presidential ballot. The current Democratic advantage represents a smaller but more stable ideological plurality.

As I always take care to note, the caveats matter. Parties that hold natural majorities can still lose elections. Something could happen to dissolve the new Democratic majority just as race and the sixties dissolved the last one. Even if it doesn’t, it won’t last forever. The Republicans will adapt to the new political climate, or else they’ll simply bore more deeply into the political institutions, discovering and expanding ways to exercise power without appealing to a majority of America. But the changing contours of America really do seem to have swept aside the old conservative majority, and there’s no foreseeable event to bring it back.

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Photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; pollster.com