In the six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012, the Democratic party has regained the solid popular vote majority it enjoyed during the New Deal/Great Society era (1932-64) but relinquished in the six elections between 1968 and 1988.
Since losing in 1988, Democrats have carried the popular vote in five of six elections and won the Electoral College in four. Of the two close elections in the current era (2000 and 2004), Republicans won the presidency in both. The four Democratic victories, by contrast, came by comfortable popular margins of 5.6, 8.5, 7.3, and 3.9 percentage points (in order, the two Clinton and two Obama wins). These Democratic showings were good for 370, 379, 365, and 332 electoral votes, while George W. Bush’s two wins featured 271 and 286 electoral votes, just slightly above the 270 needed for election. In 2012 Barack Obama became the first president since Ronald Reagan to win two popular majorities
(52.9 percent in 2008 and 51.1 percent on November 6).
Republicans cannot take much comfort in their 234 seat majority in the House of Representatives. For one thing, Democrats won the 2012 House popular vote by 1.2 percentage points, a sharp improvement from their 6.6 point deficit in 2010. More important, since ticket splitting achieved mass proportions in the 1950s, greatly aiding House and Senate incumbents seeking reelection, congressional dominance has been on a different track from presidential dominance. It has arguably become something of a lagging indicator. The fact that Republicans never came close to a House majority between 1968 and 1988 was small consolation to Democratic nominees who lost the presidency time after time. More recently, Republican congressional landslides in 1994 and 2010 did nothing to prevent the subsequent reelection of Democratic presidents.
In the midst of these recent losses, Republican analysts (including me) became adept at finding one off, “special” circumstances to account for supposedly anomalous Democratic wins. Bill Clinton ran as a moderate or even a conservative on selected issues like crime and welfare reform. Ross Perot’s independent candidacy confused the electorate and divided the Republican vote in 1992 and 1996. Barack Obama in 2008 benefited from bipartisan goodwill as the first minority nominee for president. A mediocre or bad economy wrecked Republican chances in 1992 and 2008.
But Obama’s reelection makes the GOP’s minority status in presidential politics impossible to analyze away. Economic conditions—stagnant growth and high unemployment—seemed to fulfill the classic conditions for a “referendum” election that would very likely result in the ouster of the incumbent. The president’s signature domestic accomplishment, Obamacare, was rejected by majorities in poll after poll. The charisma and voter euphoria that marked Obama’s election in 2008 had seemingly long since dissipated.
When most polls during 2012 showed Obama with a slender lead over Mitt Romney, Republican elites questioned the pollsters’ methodology. Some samples projected a bigger Democratic share of total turnout than in the banner Democratic year of 2008, which seemed implausible given the close national numbers. Many polls showed Romney leading among independents, in past elections a harbinger of victory. Moreover, the Romney-Ryan ticket made no game changing mistakes, and in the judgment of both sides, Romney dominated the first presidential debate, invariably in earlier cycles the most important.
But when all the votes were counted, the election was not very close. Obama’s victory margin was a hair under 5 million votes. Of the 28 states he had won in 2008, he held 26. Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11—8 of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin—that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9—Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes.
In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes. This means that to win, a Republican nominee must either break a generation long Democratic winning streak in one or more states, or carry 168 of 194 electoral votes among the “purple” states that have gone both ways since 1992. Not for nothing have political insiders taken to calling the GOP path to an Electoral College majority the equivalent of drawing to an inside straight.
If the next two decades are anything like the last two, the presidential outlook for Republicans is pretty bleak. Yet even while digesting some earlier defeats, conservatives could take a bit of comfort from the notion that Democrats had been forced to move toward the center to become competitive again after their disastrous showings in the presidential elections of the 1980s. In the elections from 1992 to 2000, and even to a degree in 2004, the term “New Democrat” was often heard in the land. After 1984 Democrats seldom campaigned for broad-based tax increases or deep cuts in defense spending. Far more Democratic senators voted for the authorization of war against Iraq under George W. Bush than had voted to authorize the Persian Gulf war against Iraq a decade earlier under his father. More Democrats were talking tough on crime, many became supporters of the death penalty, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the party pretty much dropped its decades-long campaign for federal gun control. In 1996 President Clinton made good on his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” and in 1997 signed a good-sized tax cut as part of a deficit-reduction deal with a Republican Congress. Even on the core Democratic commitment to unlimited abortion rights, New Democrat rhetoric was to make the procedure “safe, legal, and rare.”
Things began to change in the last decade and a half with the rise on the Democratic left of what came to be called the “Netroots.” At first it seemed possible this was a reaction to high profile events that infuriated the left, especially the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the election of George W. Bush, who in December 2000 was in effect declared the winner of the Electoral College by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court in an election carried by Al Gore in the popular vote. MoveOn.org, a trendsetting militant left organization, got its name from opposition to 1998’s impeachment process, and there is no doubt that the resolution of the 2000 election was a traumatic event for the left. Bush’s unusual status as an elected president who had lost the popular vote contributed to making Democrats far more confrontational toward him than they had been toward his father.
But when Howard Dean saw his presidential fundraising go through the roof in 2003, it was clear something much deeper was happening in the Democratic party. By 2008, all three Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination—Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards—were running to the left of earlier primary candidates and (in the case of Clinton and Edwards) well to the left of where their own Senate voting records had been just a few years earlier. Obama’s nomination was correctly considered a victory for the left, and Clinton clearly benefited from her husband’s centrist aura in the more conservative primary states, yet it is difficult to remember a single issue where either Clinton or Edwards was to the right of Obama’s stated positions. Today the term “New Democrat” is the equivalent of a curse among the party’s political and policy elites.
The Democrats’ sharp move to the left since 1998 is the most recent leap forward in polarization, which has been the underlying trend of American politics since the 1960s. What few could foresee is how well the Democrats’ decision to embrace the left would work politically. Political polarization involves a rallying of popular forces behind or against a worldview. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nixon rallied what he called the Silent Majority against the left-led cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. Reagan did something similar in California when he took office as governor in 1967 in the wake of unprecedented campus upheavals and urban rioting that had erupted there in 1964 and 1965.
Reagan was also increasingly involved in the American conservative movement, which had unexpectedly prevailed over the Eastern establishment in the epic Republican nomination struggle of 1964. In becoming its preeminent figure following the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater and his own election as governor, Reagan inherited a grassroots state-by-state infrastructure that helped him battle an incumbent president to a near-standstill in the primaries of 1976, laying the groundwork for his nomination and election in 1980.
Reagan did more than benefit from an existing conservative movement. He transformed it and brought it to maturity. Influenced by Jack Kemp, between his 1976 and 1980 campaigns he embraced supply-side economics, adding an important pro-growth component to Goldwater’s advocacy of limited government. In foreign policy, he fully identified with the anti-Communist forward strategy of Goldwater and National Review but placed increased emphasis on America’s commitment to spreading our founding principles and democratic values around the world. He directly challenged the realism of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and became an advocate of “morality in foreign policy” (the title of a Reaganite plank added unanimously to the 1976 platform). On social and cultural issues, which in an earlier form had been key to his election as governor, he had a pro-life conversion and added the first militantly anti-abortion plank to the Republican platform in 1980. In his first term Reagan became such a central figure in the debate about the right of people of faith to advance their beliefs in the public square that during the 1984 campaign, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale accused him of being an “ayatollah.”
All of this proved effective in pushing previously Democratic voting streams toward the Republican presidential coalition between 1976 and 1984. But the most striking thing about Reagan as a political leader was his integrated worldview and his determination to advance it on a broad range of policy fronts. None of Reagan’s five successors as GOP nominee fully shared his integrated worldview, but the momentum of his positive polarization continued in 1988 when Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, both high level alumni of the 1984 campaign, turned the race against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis into a debate about the Massachusetts governor’s social liberalism on such issues as prison furloughs and his veto of saying the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Nonetheless, before the end of his first and only term, George H. W. Bush had turned against supply-side economics and embraced a “big tent” on the abortion issue—ironically via a speech delivered by Atwater—which was designed to play down polarization on behalf of a “kinder and gentler” society and presidency.
Barack Obama, of course, openly models himself not on Reagan’s Republican successors or on his own pragmatic Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, but on Reagan, whom he has recognized as transformational. In the context of his first term, his reelection campaign, and (especially) the weeks since, Obama is proving effective in pushing an ideologically comprehensive, consistent, and unapologetic left agenda. By its nature, this involves polarization. And in our age of polarization, aided by the comeback of the left that began to gain momentum after 1998, this has already made him a more consequential president than Bill Clinton, for all his popularity, could ever dream of being.
Since the 1960s, two social trends have laid the groundwork for the revitalization of the American left. The earlier and more significant one is the left’s reorientation toward social and sexual liberation, rather than government ownership of business, as its center of gravity. This was not so much an innovation as a return to the origins of the left in late 18th-century France. It then took the form of an assault on organized religion and the traditional family, formulated by Rousseau and first executed politically by Robespierre and the Jacobins in the 1790s, when the left was first named.
The second is the steady increase as a share of the electorate—about 1 percent per year for the last 10 years or so, as measured by surveys of the Pew Charitable Trust, among others—of voters who list “none” as their religious affiliation. In an era marked by frequency of religious observance as the single most important factor in determining Republican/conservative allegiance, the rise of the “seculars” has added several percentage points to the share of self-described liberals in the composition of voter turnout, though by no means bringing them close to parity with conservatives. The Obama campaign of 2012 was well aware of this trend in a reelection effort heavily dependent on turning out its existing ideological base, and this explains much of its in-your-face pursuit of social issues like same-sex marriage, support for Planned Parenthood, and imposition of contraceptive and early-term abortion mandates on the Catholic church and other traditional religions.
In taking a passive position in response to left-inspired polarization on these issues, the Romney campaign was pursuing an economics-only strategy fully supported by the Republican establishment. It even extended, with establishment approval, to Romney’s decision not to bring up the Obama administration’s Benghazi fiasco in the presidential debate on foreign policy. One can be confident of this full establishment agreement from the fact that Karl Rove and his associates, with close to a billion dollars of completely independent advertising money, did not run a single ad critical of the administration on social issues or any aspect of foreign and defense policy, including Benghazi. Instead their ads limited themselves to echoing the Romney campaign theme that the U.S. economy was not vibrant and had continued high unemployment.
There is little evidence that for all this advertising, Republicans achieved much of a net benefit even on economic issues. When Bill Clinton in his convention speech asked rhetorically why, with some progress being made, we would want to return to the policies that brought us the financial crisis in the first place, the Romney campaign and other Republicans offered zero rebuttal. The lack of a persuasive economic narrative is still haunting Republicans in the polarized economic debate pursued by the president since the election.
So why is the left winning, and in particular why did it prevail in 2012? In the words of Christopher Caldwell’s postelection article in these pages (“Values Voters Prevail Again,” November 19, 2012): “[S]tructurally the outcome was the same one that we have seen decade after decade. Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.” This is particularly true in our age of polarization, and Republicans need to relearn the lesson taught by both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama before their party drops completely off the charts.
Jeffrey Bell is policy director of the American Principles Project and author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter Books, 2012).