Here's a big question: why were Republicans so blindsided by the Obama victory? Answering this question will lead us to an even bigger Republican nightmare: a chance that the Democrats are on track to create a New Democratic Party Majority, and end divided government for a generation. The answer is not just "changing demographics." It is a change in strategy, uniquely fueled by the first African American who had a chance to be elected president. Follow along, friends.
In 2008, Republicans expected to lose, because their president had broken the country financially. They deserved to lose, and they knew it. But 2012 was supposed to be their year.
Here's why: Republicans won a huge victory in the 2010 midterm elections, and misread what that meant.
Ah, the midterm elections. These are the sucker-punches of American politics. Every four years, the presidency is on the line. Every two years, every seat in the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate is on the line. In the midterms, whichever party holds the presidency generally loses seats. That provides the party out of power with bragging rights, and a mistaken sense that the voters have delivered a mandate to oppose the sitting president. For a while, political scientists tried to argue that voters were making a rational choice. That voters somehow liked the idea of checks and balances on the president's power, they just loved divided government and stalemate. But neither of these explanations works as well as a much simpler theory that fits the facts: the electorate is always much, much smaller in the midterms. That creates a different electorate. Smaller, whiter, older, and yes, angrier. They are the most motivated to turn out, while everybody else stays home watching reruns of Friends. Political scientists call this the "surge and decline" model of voting.
But if you drink the Kool Aid of the midterm mandate myth, that your party, defeated just two years ago for the presidency, is back, baby... well, you're just plain wrong. Republicans in 2010 saw what they wanted to see: that 2008 was a one-time thing.
Here's what they did not see: in 2008, the Democrats had grown a new electorate. By virtue of his status as the first black major party candidate for President, Obama changed what had been fifty years of conventional wisdom that minorities wouldn't even register. The Obama team made sure minority folks registered to vote. And kept registering to vote. And then, they voted! Obama's team went further, paying an enormous amount of attention to two other groups that also, traditionally, did not even register to vote: college students and Latinos. This new electorate showed up in 2008, but was not excited in 2010. Who could blame them? They did not turn out to vote for a bunch of old white incumbents running for reelection to Congress. They "declined" to vote in 2010, and Republicans misread what this meant.
In 2012, the young, minorities, low-income folks, and women were, once again, fired up and ready to go. Republicans complained about the polls "over-sampling" Democrats, and why? Because the Republicans were expecting a turn-out more like 2010 than 2008. Pollsters understood the "surge and decline" model of turnout. The pollsters were right.
What does it all mean? The next necessary step for the Democrats is to turn these new voters out during the midterms, and change the surge and decline model into waves of voter participation in every federal election. If they could do this, they could give Obama the team he needs to end filibusters in the Senate. But to do this, they need Obama's attention and time. If President Obama campaigns in the 2014 midterms, the potential exists to build and grow a New Democratic Majority that could end divided government for a generation. This would cement a Democratic realignment. Republicans wouldn't be blindsided anymore; and they might eventually respond as Republicans did after the Democratic realignment in the 1940's, when they turned down their rhetoric and became a loyal opposition that helped get things done for the good of the country.