The inevitable narrative after a presidential election is that the losing side is on its way to extinction. In 2008, the argument was that the GOP had become a regional party of white southerners. We’re seeing a variation on that this time around, with the claim that Republicans can’t win an election because minorities and women are eclipsing the white male demographic:
The Los Angeles Times is leading the charge with a story headlined “Obama’s reelection marks a turning point in American politics: With the growing power of minorities, women and gays, it’s the end of the world as straight white males know it.”
Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the straight white male in America is over. …
Exit poll data, gathered from interviews with voters as they left their polling places, showed that Obama’s support from whites was 4 percentage points lower than in 2008. But he won by drawing on a minority-voter base that was 2 percentage points larger, as a share of the overall electorate, than four years ago.
The president built his winning coalition on a series of election-year initiatives and issue differences with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the months leading up to the election, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, unilaterally granted a form of limited legalization to young illegal immigrants and put abortion rights and contraception at the heart of a brutally effective anti-Romney attack ad campaign.
The result turned out to be an unbeatable combination: virtually universal support from black voters, who turned out as strongly as in 2008, plus decisive backing from members of the younger and fast-growing Latino and Asian American communities, who chose Obama over Romney by ratios of roughly 3 to 1. All of those groups contributed to Obama’s majority among women. (Gay voters, a far smaller group, went for Obama by a 54-point margin.)
There are two ways conservatives can respond to this analysis. One is to devolve into a Buchananite frenzy that the White Male is under siege and the country is being hijacked by minorities and women who are fundamentally at odds with the Republican Party. Not only is that unhelpful, it also buys into identity politics in a way that runs counter to the conservative and American message.
Instead, why not challenge the notion that people vote primarily based on their allegiance to an identity group, rather than their individual interests? It’s supported by the statistics. While immigration is an important issue for Hispanic voters and can have a big influence on their vote, their biggest individual concern in 2012 was jobs and the economy. The same goes for women voters and abortion.
Just look at the Jewish vote. The overarching issue that connects American Jews is Israel, but as a bloc they vote reliably for the party that has a weaker record on Israel because it is liberal on social issues.
The point is, people don’t always vote based on their primary identity interest. There are, however, group sensitivities that need to be considered. A Democratic politician who sounds like Tom Tancredo isn’t going to win over Hispanic voters, just like Jewish voters aren’t likely to support Charles Barron, no matter how liberal he is on abortion and welfare programs.
It was these sensitivities that Obama exploited. He was able to use his presidency to indulge identity groups in small but concrete ways, while arguing that Romney would set back their interests if he were elected. Hence, the executive order on immigration, the “evolution” on gay marriage, the birth control insurance mandate, the auto bailout, and so on. This was helped along by Romney’s hard line on immigration during the primary, Romney’s inability to support gay marriage, controversial comments from Republicans about abortion, and Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout.
But that strategy isn’t going to be as easy for Democrats in 2016. First, the Democratic candidates won’t be able to distribute these handouts before the election. And second, Republicans aren’t likely to give Democrats as many opportunities to demagogue them on immigration and women’s issues (at least not if they learned any lessons from this year).
Rather than pander to different groups, it’s more helpful to find common ground between identity groups and broader national interests. For example, the GOP isn’t going to become a pro-choice party anytime soon, and it doesn’t need to. The majority of Americans support restrictions on abortion to some degree — just not in cases of rape and incest. Pro-life politicians would be smart to focus on the former and steer clear of the latter. Even if they personally oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, there’s no need to bring those controversial personal views into the policy debate.
Tone is just as important here as policy. It didn’t matter that Romney wouldn’t have governed as a hardliner on immigration; Democrats were able to use his comments from the primary to portray him as anti-immigrant. And it didn’t matter how many times Romney’s campaign insisted he wouldn’t support an abortion ban — Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock set the tone for the entire party.
The only way the Democratic Party can keep its identity-based coalition together in 2016 is if Republicans give them enough fodder to do it.