‘I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote,’ said President Obama at an emotional ‘last ever’ campaign meeting. ‘Because this is where our movement for change began, right here. Right here.’ And his eyes briefly moistened. The nostalgia was doubtless sincere, and the address correct, but it was misleading to describe his 2012 election campaign as a continuation of his earlier ‘movement for change’. In reality, it has been a smoothly ruthless operation to distract attention from a record that has been disappointingly bereft of change. He triumphed over himself as much as over the hapless Mitt Romney.
Until it produced a glossy economic leaflet so that the President could wave it as evidence that, like Romney, he too had a ‘plan’, the Obama campaign had concentrated on blaming George W. Bush for America’s continuing troubles. It denounced Romney as a vulture capitalist murderously hostile to ordinary people, and promised to protect women against the GOP’s supposed plan to abolish both contraception and abortion. Both sides ran relentlessly negative adverts but, as the result showed, the Democrats did it better. Obama will be President for another four years.
To win in circumstances that seemed ripe for his defeat is a remarkable achievement — but the victory can scarcely be described as glorious. The President almost tied with Romney (whom he reportedly despises) in the popular vote. The loss of Senate seats had little to do with his coattails but was largely due to the individual follies or bad luck of Republican candidates. Republicans retained control of the House and now control 30 governorships, the highest number since 2000. The President will have to deal with a hostile half of Congress in an atmosphere poisoned by the extraordinarily ruthless partisanship of this ‘post-partisan’. And in one vital particular, the campaign almost foundered.
Back in 2008, when Obama was beginning his movement for change in Iowa, he gave an interview to the Reno Gazette-Journal, in which he declared that ‘Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not… He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.’ The implication that a future President Obama would succeed where Clinton had failed was clear. But how did Obama propose to change that trajectory?
As it happens, the trajectory has been changing of its own accord, thanks to what William Frey of the Brookings Institution refers to as the Democrats’ best friend: demography. America is ‘browning’, as Frey puts it, as a result of high immigration levels from Latin America and Asia and the fact that an older white population is having fewer children than immigrants and their children. (If talk of ‘browning’ and ‘white decline’ makes you uneasy, please relax. It’s perfectly respectable in American politics, provided you don’t suggest that there’s anything wrong with such trends.)
A glance at the CNN exit polls shows why this matters. Romney had a 20-point lead among white voters, but among ethnic minorities his defeat was emphatic. Obama won by 44 points among Latinos, 47 points among Asians and 87 points among African-Americans. A Republican party that relies upon white votes is a Republican party that ought to be anxious about its future. That is not to endorse the immediate response of most commentators that ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform is the obvious solution to the party’s problems. The final tipping point will not happen for some decades, but the Census Bureau has pointed to one intermediate point: for the first time, whites represented a minority of all births (49.6 per cent).These trends were forecast as early as 1997, in a National Review article called ‘The Emerging Democratic Majority’ — a theme and a title that were later adopted by Democrats John Judis and Ruy Teixeira for an influential 2002 book. Several commentators predicted that some time in the first decade of this century the Republicans would lose the natural majority Reagan had created for them. The old model would suddenly stop working. That arguably happened when Obama was first elected, but the trends have accelerated since then and a natural Democratic majority has almost emerged.
It isn’t, of course, that simple. Although whites are declining as a percentage of the population, they will remain for some time the big enchilada electorally — 72 per cent of voters according to exit polls. A third of Hispanics in America are under 18 and can’t vote until 2016 at the earliest. The electoral overwhelming of the white majority may not have the effect that simple extrapolation suggests. Most Hispanics are white. Intermarriage is creating mixed and non-racial identities that further confuse ethnic categories. One effect could be an electorate that votes less and less along ethnic lines.
It was a bold decision for the Obama campaign to pitch a radical social appeal to ethnic minorities, young people and single women — without worrying that the religious right or other groups might be offended. This, in effect, risked losing the 2012 election with a campaign designed for 2020. But the gamble was vindicated on election night when the exit polls showed these targeted groups voting disproportionately for the President.
Romney and Republicans faced an equally tricky decision. If their support among minorities was low and even falling, then they had to compensate by getting a larger share of the white vote — especially the white working-class vote which is alienated from the Democrats and (everywhere in the English-speaking world) moving from left to right. A back-of-envelope calculation suggested that Romney needed rather more than 60 per cent of whites to give him an overall victory.
Appealing to these votes was always going to be a hard task for Romney. As a venture capitalist and the head of Bain Capital, he was exactly the wrong sort of Republican to win over blue-collar workers. His Mormon temperance and personal stiffness early on scarcely helped. And his opposition to Obama’s bailout of General Motors, though principled, threatened the economic interests of the very workers he was trying to win over.
Even if Romney could have overcome these personal drawbacks, he and all other Republicans confronted a more intangible but still formidable obstacle. Making specifically ethnic appeals to Hispanic, black or Asian constituencies is an everyday event in American politics and entirely respectable; appealing to whites as an ethnic group is not. He might have criticised affirmative action quotas. He might, indeed, have called for immigration restrictions, and flirted with doing so in the primaries. But both such appeals might have distressed the Midwest suburban voters who were coming over to the GOP. So Romney contented himself with making a general appeal to all Americans on rescuing the economy from Obama’s failed policies.
Polls showed that whites were breaking for Romney so decisively that Bill Clinton was summoned to help Obama prevent the last-minute defection of previously safe Democratic strongholds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. In the final hectic days of the campaign, a tired and hoarse but still vigorous ex-president criss-crossed what had suddenly become three or four ‘swing’ states on the east coast and in the Midwest. It was an old-fashioned street hustings climax to a campaign more often fought with television ads and social media.
It worked. Romney got only 59 per cent of the white vote and, accordingly, he lost narrowly. Clinton gave the kiss of life to Obama’s ailing ambition. The President phoned to thank him immediately after Romney’s concession, which must have been a bittersweet occasion for Clinton.
What now? The trajectory of American politics towards a natural Democratic majority will continue to be strengthened by the election. America now looks like a less naturally conservative country, more a centre-left one. Between them, Clinton and Obama have helped demography along. As these trends gain traction, however, they will provoke and aggravate a new clash in American politics.
The coming majority implies a different set of political priorities for the US government. A younger, poorer, less self-reliant electorate, rooted mainly in minority communities, is likely to demand a larger welfare state, greater regulation, more unionisation, higher government spending and higher taxes, initially ‘on the rich’. These demands will run counter to the interests of older Americans of all races, who are currently the main beneficiaries of high spending and low taxes. And the claims of both will inevitably be noticed by the watchful interests of the international investing community and America’s creditors such as China.
An irresistible political force is about to meet an immovable economic object — on the edge of a vertiginous fiscal cliff.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012