No Republican presidential nominee has won more than 50.8 percent of the popular vote since 1988. That's largely because the party has remained almost completely dependent on whites for its support in a rapidly diversifying country. Romney, like John McCain in 2008, relied on whites for nearly 90 percent of his votes in a country with a 40 percent nonwhite population. Romney may have sealed his fate when the words "self-deportation" left his lips during a Florida primary debate. "We are in a position now where we have to — through differences in policy, differences in tone, and differences in candidates — reach out [to minorities] in a way we've never reached out before," says veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "Or we will not be successful as a national party."
After these results, the big question facing the GOP is whether it can improve its performance among minorities, especially Hispanics, without returning to George W. Bush's support for immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. That policy shift would face impassioned resistance from conservatives. "Looks like a brawl coming soon," says longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy. "The question is: Will the party base accept these facts, since they chose to ignore similar facts after Obama's election four years ago?"
At the same time, the election also confirmed the reversal of roles in the competition for 270 Electoral College votes. From 1968 to 1988, Republican nominees dominated the Electoral College so thoroughly that analysts spoke of a GOP lock. But with Obama's victory, Democrats have now won 18 states — the "blue wall" — for at least the past six consecutive elections. That's the most states Democrats have won consecutively for that often since the formation of the modern party system in 1828.
Those 18 blue-wall states (joined by the District of Columbia) now offer 242 Electoral College votes. So long as Democrats hold all of them, Republicans must navigate an extremely narrow and unforgiving pathway to reach a majority.
By contrast, while defending the blue wall, Obama besieged two types of swing states in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt — and ultimately captured most of both. His success proved that his Sun Belt breakthroughs in 2008, which built on movement toward the Democrats earlier in the decade, were not onetime flukes but the result of systemic demographic forces that have reconfigured the partisan balance of states that leaned reliably Republican from the 1970s until the beginning of this century.
Compared with the resounding victories of many other reelected presidents, Obama's triumph was hardly commanding. It more resembled George W. Bush's razor-thin reelection in 2004. Obama's share of the vote declined in all but six states. He became the first elected president since Andrew Jackson in 1832 to see his share of the popular vote decline after four years. And depending on the final count, Obama's margin of victory, measured as a share of the popular vote, could replace Bush's 2004 margin as the smallest ever for a reelected president.