12/06/2012 07:51 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

The Election One Month Later: Barack Obama and the Politics of Realignment

In the month since President Obama's victory, the magnitude of his accomplishment and its implications for the future of American politics have become increasingly clear. Since the outbreak of the American Civil War more than 150 years ago, only four Democrats have been re-elected as President of the United States: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Just two of them twice won the presidency with over 50 percent of the vote. The first was Roosevelt, and on November 6, 2012, Barack Hussein Obama became the second.

Obama's victory was historic, but it was not the kind of landslide re-election that, in the past, has frequently signified a fundamental political realignment­a transformation accompanied not only by a dominant new political coalition, but also by major institutional change and "the creation of a new dominant political worldview or zeitgeist."[1] Perhaps the two most conspicuous examples in the 20th century were the triumphs by Roosevelt in 1936 (61-36 percent) and Reagan in 1984 (58-40 percent). In stark contrast, Obama -- ­who inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression and faced implacable opposition from a rejectionist Republican Party­ -- was re-elected by a modest margin of 3.6 percent (50.9 to 47.3 percent), compared to 7.2 percent in 2008 (52.9 to 45.7 percent). If this is The Emerging Democratic Majority the title of an influential 2002 book by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira[2], it is still a narrow majority (albeit one considerably larger -- over 4.5 million votes -- than was apparent on election night).

Obama was surprisingly unable, despite his best efforts, to soften the racial divisions that have plagued America since its very origins. As a candidate in 2008, he seemed uniquely situated to reduce the racialization of American politics. Obama received 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 (as did Clinton in 1996); no Democrat had done better among whites since 1976, when Jimmy Carter, himself from the Deep South, was supported by 47 percent of white voters. By 2012, that number had dropped to under 40 percent and a 20-point racial gap­, 59 percent of whites for Romney and 39 percent for Obama ­had emerged. In white America today, the simple truth of the matter is that every presidential election is a Republican landslide; since 2000, the Republican margin has never been less than 12 points (2000 and 2008), and in the Reagan landslide of 1984, whites preferred the Republican candidate by 29 points (64 to 35 percent).

The exodus of whites from the Democratic Party has deep roots and dates back at least to 1964, when Republican icon Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act catapulted him to victory in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. Four years later in 1968, the migration of whites from the Democratic Party accelerated sharply when the overtly racist and segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, garnered over 13 percent of votes nation-wide and 15 percent of the white vote as the candidate of the now-forgotten American Independent Party.

The departure of whites from the Democratic Party sundered the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics from the 1930s to the 1960s, and it was at the center of Nixon's "Southern strategy." In 1969, Kevin Phillips, a brilliant young graduate of Harvard Law School who had worked in Nixon's winning presidential campaign of 1968, published The Emerging Republican Majority, a prescient work that served as a playbook for the Republicans for a quarter of a century[3]. Phillips' great insight was that the old New Deal Coalition was disintegrating under pressure from the civil rights movement, and other sixties movements, and that the moment was ripe for the formation of a new coalition that could ensure Republican Party dominance for years to come.

Phillips' two-pronged strategy­ -- which involved the recruitment into the Republican coalition of the 15 percent of whites who had voted for Wallace as well as the growing number of northern working-class ethnics alienated by a Democratic Party increasingly influenced by the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements -- ­came to apparent fruition in Richard Nixon's resounding victory over George McGovern in the 1972 election. But Watergate, followed by Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976, temporarily reversed the movement toward a Republican majority; not until 1980 did the full magnitude of the shift of the electorate towards the Republicans became fully visible.

If there was any doubt about the centrality of racial appeals to white voters in the larger Republican political strategy, it was put to rest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign with a vigorous defense of states' rights in a speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi­, the very town where martyred civil rights workers James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered 16 years earlier. "States' rights" was, of course, a long-standing and well-understood code for blocking the civil rights of blacks, and Reagan's appeal did not go unrewarded. With the sole exception of Jimmy Carter's home state of Georgia, Reagan swept the 11 states of the old Confederacy. While winning the election by 10 points overall, Reagan's margin among white voters was 20 points­ -- a landslide by any measure.

Large majorities among white voters helped keep the Republicans in power until 1992, when Bill Clinton, himself a Southerner, shifted the Democratic party to the center. Clinton's accomplishment, in both of his victories, was to retain the loyalty of black voters while reducing the Republican advantage among whites. His formula, which included tougher policies on such racially sensitive issues as welfare and crime, succeeded in creating cracks in the Republican coalition, but it did not produce a clear Democratic majority. The 2000 election between Gore and Bush was one of the closest (and most contested) elections in American history, with Bush triumphant despite losing the popular vote. Bush's narrow 2004 re-election victory over Kerry in a post-9/11 environment signified that the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats remained close to equipoise.

By 2008, with the nation disenchanted with Bush's war in Iraq and the economy in deep trouble, the electoral landscape had improved dramatically for the Democrats. On political terrain far friendlier to liberals and progressives than it had been for years, Barack Obama launched an audacious and unlikely challenge in the Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee. Aided by his early opposition to the war in Iraq, his exceptional rhetorical skills, his unique background, and a remarkable campaign operation, Obama seized the Democratic nomination, placing him just one step away from becoming the nation's first black president.

As a candidate, Obama repeatedly insisted that, as he famously put it in his speech at the 2004 National Convention, "there's not a black America, and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." But white working-class voters, especially in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, proved resistant to Obama's appeal, instead voting heavily for Hillary Clinton.

Obama's victory over McCain in the 2008 general election was an astonishing historical breakthrough (who could have imagined that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama would be elected President of the United States?), but his margin of victory was modest, especially given widespread popular disgust with the Bush administration, growing opposition to the Iraq war, and increasing anxiety about an economy that was by then in free fall. Amidst the exultation at the election of the nation's first black president, it felt unseemly to ask whether his race could, despite it all, have had a negative effect of the magnitude of his victory. In perhaps the best-known of the studies addressing this question, University of Iowa political scientist Michael S. Lewis-Beck and colleagues found that Obama's race cost him an extra three to five points and concluded that, "in a racially blind society, Obama would likely have achieved a landslide."[4]

Lest this research on an admittedly sensitive topic be misunderstood, it is not suggesting that most Americans are racist, nor is it assuming that a majority of whites would have voted for Obama in the absence of racial prejudice. But it is saying that there is a small group of white Americans -- ­perhaps 3 to 5 out of 100 people -- ­who, based on their general political and ideological positions and their demographic characteristics, would likely have voted for a similar Democratic presidential candidate who was white. Given America's tangled racial history, it is surprising -- ­and arguably encouraging -- ­that the number is so low. But presidential elections are often decided by even smaller margins, and Obama's race may well have prevented him from entering the White House on the heels of the biggest victory in a presidential election since 1984.

Yet if racial prejudice against blacks is still a feature of American politics, it operates within a landscape drastically different from the late 1960s, when the Southern strategy was devised. At that time, the electorate was over 90 percent white; in 2012, only 72 percent of voters were white. In these numbers resides the key to Obama's victory: the extraordinary level of support he received not just from African-Americans (93 percent), but also from Latinos (71 percent), and Asian-Americans (73 percent). Until recently, garnering the support of fewer than four in 10 white voters -- ­as Obama did in 2012 -- ­would have been fatal. But now 44 percent of all Democratic votes come from minorities, compared to just 11 percent of Republican votes. With the minority vote destined to play an ever-growing role in American politics, the "Southern strategy"­ -- the foundation of Republican dominance for the quarter century between 1968 and 1992 -- ­is dead.

It is not yet certain, however, whether the new Democratic formula constitutes a solid foundation for an "emerging Democratic majority." To be sure, blacks­ -- who have not voted less than 80 percent Democratic in more than half a century -- ­are solidly in the Democratic camp. But Latinos cast 44 percent of their votes for George W. Bush as recently as 2004. And women are far more divided politically than the liberal rhetoric about the "Republican war on women," would suggest; in 2012, 44 percent of women and a remarkable 56 percent of white women cast their votes for Romney.

Yet Democrats under Obama have made major progress among demographically ascendant groups. Young people, in particular, have twice proved the conventional wisdom that they do not turn out in sufficient numbers to have a major impact on elections utterly wrong; 18 to 29 year-olds were a higher percentage of all voters in 2012 than in 2008 (18 rather than 17 percent), and they voted overwhelmingly for Obama (60 percent in 2012 and 66 percent in 2008). The strong support for Obama shown by Hispanics is well-known; what is less well understood is their astonishing projected growth rate from 16 percent of all Americans in 2010 to 19 percent in 2020 and 27 percent by 2040 (roughly double the size of the black population). Much less publicized than increasing Hispanic support was the remarkable shift of Asian-Americans for Obama from 62 percent in 2008 to 73 percent in 2012. (As recently as 1992, 55 percent of Asian-Americans supported the Republican candidate.) Finally, another demographically ascendant group -- ­voters with postgraduate education (18 percent of the electorate in 2012) -- ­is now tilting Democratic: in 2008, 58 percent of them voted for Obama, 55 percent in 2012.

So it is very possible that the voters identified by Judis and Teixeira 10 years ago in The Emerging Democratic Majority­ -- minority voters, including blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans; women, especially working, single, and highly educated women; and professionals­now constitute a coalition that could dominate American politics for years to come. Ironically, the seeds of the coalition were planted in the late 1960s by the very Southern strategy that had permitted the Republican Party to rule for so long. But in the very different demographic context of the twenty-first century, the Republican Party's whiteness (and an estimated 98 percent of the delegate at the 2012 Republican National Convention were white) has become a huge liability.

While campaigning for the nomination against Hillary Clinton in early 2008, Obama noted that "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of American politics in a way that... Bill Clinton did not" and signaled his ambition to be a transformational president. Yet establishing a new majority -- or even winning a landslide, as did in Johnson in 1964 and Nixon in 1972 -- ­does not necessarily lead to a fundamental political realignment. Although Obama has now been in the White House for four years, no such realignment has yet occurred. Even his much-heralded health care reform ("Obamacare"), which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will leave 30 million Americans without health insurance in 2022, was constrained from the beginning by his strategy of reaching secret deals with the pharmaceutical and hospital industries rather than risk arousing their opposition[5]. And Obama refused to take on either the costly special tax breaks given to financiers or to prosecute a single Wall Street executive implicated in the crash. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom were willing to confront the most powerful economic interests of their day in pursuit of their broader agendas, Obama has been cautious to a fault in dealing with big business.

Obama's electoral success is undeniable, but his place in history is not yet clear. Between 1920 and 2008, only five presidents were re-elected and served two full terms: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who was elected as president an unprecedented four times), Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recently noted, just two of these men -- ­Roosevelt and Reagan­were genuinely transformational presidents, producing an "ideological inflection point" that signified a political realignment. Two others -- ­Eisenhower and Clinton -- ­paradoxically ratified the ascent of their transformative predecessors from the opposing party (Roosevelt and Reagan) by leaving the fundamental institutional changes and ideological assumptions they had inherited untouched. Obama clearly wishes to be a transformational president. If he is to realize this ambition, he will have to be pushed by the unprecedented multi-racial coalition that brought him to office and finally confront the extraordinary concentration of economic and political power that defines our era.*

[1] For a good discussion of the concept of political realignment, see John Judis, and Ruy Teixeira. The Emerging Democratic Majority. New York City: Scribner, 2002, pp 12-17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kevin P. Phillips. The Emerging Republican Majority. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House: 1969.

[4] Michael S. Lewis Beck, Charles Tien, and Richard Nadeau. "Obama's Missed Landslide: A Racial Cost?." PS: Political Science and Politics 43.1 (2010): 69.

[5] Congressional Budget Office, Estimates for the Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act Updated for the Recent Supreme Court Decision. July 2012. On Obama's strategy of negotiation with the major health care interest groups, see Paul Starr, Remedy and Reaction, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, pp 194-238.

*An earlier and much abridged version of this article appeared in French in the December 2012 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.