This article appeared in print as "The Tipping Point."
PLAYING THE CARDS
So, given all of these factors, which party holds a stronger hand for the years ahead? Most Democrats believe that, whatever Obama's fate, the shifting demography provides them an edge over time against a Republican Party that still relies on the slowly shrinking white population for about 90 percent of its total votes. "I think this is a sustainable majority coalition," Greenberg says. Teixeira agrees, saying, "You are riding the wave instead of trying to somehow swim against it." Winograd and Hais believe that the 2012 election, like 1936 for the Democrats and 1972 for the Republicans, could be a "confirming" election that lastingly secures the party's hold on millennials, minorities, and upscale, socially liberal women. "In a lot of ways, Obama is doing what FDR did: cementing a young generation, an ethnic generation, to his party with programs and policies, and, really, emotions that are aimed at that generation," Hais says.
But Republicans such as Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, argues that Democratic optimism minimizes the party's own difficulties and overstates the likelihood that the GOP won't respond to the shifting electorate. "I start with the strategic premise that political parties "¦ tend to adapt to what they have to do to survive and prosper," Reed says. "If the Republican Party is going to create anything that resembles a national majority party, it is going to have to address areas where we have dropped the ball among young people, women, and minorities, especially Hispanics. But that's doable."
Galston, injecting a cautionary note in the Democrats' optimism, concurs that "in principle, it may be easier for Republicans" than Democrats to solve their largest demographic problem. Win or lose, he argues, Republicans after the election will face enormous pressure to moderate their stance on immigration-related issues, and if they do, "it would be a real game changer" by potentially restoring their competitiveness among Hispanics. By contrast, Galston maintains, it may be tougher for Democrats to reposition the party in a way that can recapture more whites. "You'd need another insurgency of the center," he says, of the sort Clinton pursued with his "New Democrat" agenda. Beyond that, if Romney wins, and the economic recovery accelerates, either because of his policies or merely because of the spinning of the economic cycle, the GOP would obviously be in a strong position for 2016 and maybe beyond.
The 2012 results will powerfully influence the direction of these arguments, as each party assesses the competing role of ideology, demography, and economics in the outcome. In truth, this campaign is likely to demonstrate that all of these matter in driving results. On the one hand, the electorate's changing demography has allowed Obama to remain competitive despite economic headwinds and skepticism among older and blue-collar whites that would have doomed Democratic nominees in earlier years.