This much is undisputed: In 2012, President Obama lost white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history. In his reelection, Obama lost ground from 2008 with almost every conceivable segment of the white electorate. With several key groups of whites, he recorded the weakest national performance for any Democratic nominee since the Republican landslides of the 1980s.
In 2012, Obama won a smaller share of white Catholics than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980; lost groups ranging from white seniors to white women to white married and blue-collar men by the widest margin of any Democrat since Ronald Reagan routed Walter Mondale in 1984; and even lost among Democratic-leaning college-educated women by the widest margin since Michael Dukakis in 1988, according to the latest National Journal analysis of the trends that shape the allegiances of American voters.
And yet, behind rousing support from minorities everywhere, and often much more competitive showings among whites in both Democratic-leaning and battleground states, Obama not only won reelection but won fairly comfortably.
Few decisions may carry greater consequences for the Republican Party in 2016 than how it interprets these facts. The key question facing the GOP is whether Obama's 2012 performance represents a structural Democratic decline among whites that could deepen even further in the years ahead -- or a floor from which the next Democratic nominee is likely to improve.
In recent months, a chorus of conservative analysts has bet on the first option. They insist that Republicans, by improving both turnout and already-gaping margins among whites, can recapture the White House in 2016 without reformulating their agenda to attract more minority voters -- most prominently by passing immigration-reform legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally. On the other side is an array of Republican strategists who view minority outreach and immigration reform as critical to restoring the party's competitiveness -- and consider it suicidal for the GOP to bet its future on the prospect that it can squeeze even larger advantages out of the diminishing pool of white voters. Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's two presidential victories, has noted that relying entirely on whites would soon require Republicans to regularly match the towering advantage Reagan recorded among them when he lost only a single state in his 1984 reelection. "It's unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep," Rove said at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer.
The results of previous elections can't forecast how voters will divide next time. But they do show clear trends in both the electorate's composition and the preferences that will shape the competition between the parties in 2016 and beyond. To better understand these dynamics, National Journal has updated a project we conducted in 2008 and 2012 that analyzed, in unusual detail, the fault lines among American voters. In those initial reports, titled "The Hidden History of the American Electorate," we examined the results from the general-election exit polls conducted by news organizations in every presidential campaign from 1980 through 2008. In this latest report, we expand the analysis to include the results of the national and state 2012 National Election Pool exit poll conducted for a consortium of media organizations by Edison Research. The poll surveyed 26,565 voters at 350 polling places on Election Day, and another 4,408 absentee and early voters through a telephone survey.
Because the exit poll includes so many more voters than a typical survey, this effort allows us to explore much more finely grained shifts among voters than are usually available -- the evolving preferences, for instance, not only of Hispanics overall but of those with and without college degrees, or the (substantial) differences between college-educated white women who are single and those who are married. The result is a uniquely panoramic look at the fluctuating boundaries of change and the insistent currents of stability over the past nine presidential elections. And that prism offers a unique perspective on the choices facing the two parties as they begin contemplating their strategies for 2016.
Initially most Republican leaders viewed Obama's reelection as a demographic wake-up call for their party. They did so with good reason. Despite the lackluster economy, Obama surprised many observers by winning 51 percent of the popular vote, garnering 332 Electoral College votes, and outpolling Mitt Romney by nearly 5 million ballots. The president's victory meant that Democrats had carried the popular vote in five of the previous six presidential elections, matching the Republican record from 1968 to 1988. Obama notched striking gains among both Hispanics and Asian-Americans, equaled the overall 80 percent of nonwhite voters that he carried in 2008, and amassed a solid 60 percent majority among voters under 30 (who are themselves heavily diverse). Although many Republican analysts predicted Obama could not replicate the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, minorities and young people both increased their share of the overall vote, as whites fell to 72 percent of the electorate, the lowest level ever. All of this allowed Obama to win his unexpectedly comfortable victory, even though his performance among white voters deteriorated from 43 percent in 2008 to just 39 percent in 2012. Romney, by winning 59 percent of whites, roughly equaled the best performances ever among them by a Republican challenger (essentially matching Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and George H.W. Bush in 1988) and actually exceeded the 56 percent of whites that Reagan won in 1980 (although not the 64 percent peak the Gipper reached during his reelection tsunami).
Numbers such as these prompted the "Growth and Opportunity" internal review commission, which Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus appointed after the 2012 election, to conclude: "The nation's demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become…. Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections; the data demonstrates this." That same concern about regaining ground among minority voters, particularly Hispanics, encouraged the participation of four Republican senators (led by Florida's Marco Rubio) in the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" that began negotiating immigration reform.
But through 2013, the sense of demographic urgency inside the GOP has palpably dissipated. Instead, an array of conservative analysts has advanced a competing theory for Romney's defeat: He failed to generate a big enough margin among whites. Sean Trende, a writer for the conservative-leaning website RealClearPolitics, has promulgated the most comprehensive version of this argument. Using census figures, Trende insists that Romney failed to turn out about 5 million to 6.5 million white voters who should have voted, most of them "downscale, Northern, rural whites" demographically similar to voters who flocked to Ross Perot in 1992.
Though Trende heavily cross-stitched his pieces with caveats and qualifications, at bottom he argued that Republicans were less likely to recapture the White House by gaining among minorities than by improving both turnout and vote-share among whites -- which he suggested could reach as high as 70 percent. "It seems a bit touchy to assume that Republicans will max out at around 60 percent of the white vote," he wrote. "This might be the case, but ... it's entirely possible that as our nation becomes more diverse, our political coalitions will increasingly fracture along racial/ethnic lines rather than ideological ones .... I don't see any compelling reason why these trends can't continue, and why a Republican couldn't begin to approach Ronald Reagan's 30-point win with whites from 1984 in a more neutral environment than Reagan enjoyed."