At first glance, it's hard to argue that this election was about much more than Barack Obama's battle to survive.
As of Wednesday night, the president had outpolled Mitt Romney by a about 2.8 million votes of 118 million votes cast for the two of them. That's no squeaker, but no landslide either. The House and Senate remain not all that different numerically from where they were when the campaign began. And the next Congress will still not convene with a rousing chorus of Kumbaya.
Early analysis of the returns, meanwhile, offered no single overriding theme, no consensus conventional wisdom as to why Barack Obama won re-election at a time when relatively high unemployment continues to bedevil our economy, the poor are poorer than ever, and the middle class continues to lose ground. Was it because (check one or more boxes) there have been signs of an economic uptick in housing starts and a downtick in unemployment rates? Because of Bill Clinton's brilliant support as the explainer in chief? Because of Obama's leadership during Hurricane Sandy? Because of Mitt Romney's fundamental mendacity and the failure of all those billionaire SuperPACs? All of the above?
Or is something bigger at play?
Pick through the exit poll numbers and there are clear signs a new American political majority is closing ranks. This coalition of voters -- committed in certain respects to a community of the whole beyond their own special interests -- came together to defeat a party still longing for a land of Leave It to Beaver, still believing that America can return to the not-so-good-old days when select groups controlled wealth and power in large part by leaving others out.
In this election, all those left out -- or at least behind -- joined together to deliver a message.
Barack Obama, these polls suggest, won the support of 55 percent of women, more than 75 percent of non-white voters, more than 75 percent of gay and lesbian voters, and 60 percent of voters under age 30. He also won substantial majorities of those earning $50,000 or less. Mitt Romney racked up big margins among the elderly and white males, and lesser majorities among better-off Americans.
Perhaps the Republican Party should pause and ask itself a question: Which of these voter subsets is more likely to grow larger in the years ahead?
It is, as the president said more than once about his opponent's tax plan, simply a matter of arithmetic. Unless Republican policies change, and significantly, the Democratic coalition in this country can only grow stronger. A GOP platform of exclusion or limitation -- of immigrant opportunity, of women's rights, of gay rights -- is, and will increasingly become, a losing proposition.
That is why this election, on the heels of 2008, fills in the lines of the new American electorate.
That is why an election too often defined by small-ball policy disputes, was nonetheless much more.
Despite a headline in my morning Boston Globe Wednesday that read "A rising economy lifts the incumbent," I believe in large part that Barack Obama won in spite of a still-weak economy, not because of it. For a lot of people, things are still pretty bad. But they also still believe in this president and his message of a more inclusive America, one that works together.
They took note of Obama's first step toward resolving the immigration challenges facing this country by enabling young adults who grew up here to come out of the shadows and gain the right to work for a limited timeframe. They heard him speak out in support of gay marriage. They heard him speak repeatedly for the rights of women to make their own decisions regarding their own bodies.
These issues may not have been front and center in the president's daily stump speech, but they were deeply engrained in the Democratic Convention and the Democratic coalition.
On election day, gay marriage initiatives passed in three states -- Maine, Maryland and Washington. An effort to ban gay marriage in Minnesota failed. These votes marked an extraordinary turnaround from past popular votes on the issue across the country. That's transformational change. On election day, four women, three Democratic and one Republican, were elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time. Of the Democrats, two are strongly liberal, one the Senate's first openly gay candidate, and one a Democrat from a highly red state. That's transformational change. And on election day, 28 percent of the electorate was non-white, the highest percentage of non-whites ever to vote in an American presidential election. That's transformational change.
That is why I believe America's voters didn't only choose a new president Tuesday. They also gave notice that neither money nor intimidation can turn American politics back to either the last century or old power relationships. If this country is going to continue to have a robust two-party system, the Republican Party should take note and should moderate its message. Otherwise it could see itself relegated to increasing irrelevance in the years of the 21st century still to come.