If Republicans want to figure out why they lost the election, they might start with one number: 36. That’s the percentage of the national electorate represented by white men. Or try 28, the percentage of white men over 30.
John McCain handily won white guys, 57 percent to 41 percent. But he lost badly with other demographic groups he didn’t belong to: youth, minorities and women. The lesson is clear: No party can win a national election depending mainly on voters who are pale, male and gray.
As Jon Huntsman Jr., the Republican governor of Utah, puts it: “We’re fundamentally staring down a demographic shift that we’ve never seen before in America.”
There are many ways to analyze what went wrong for the Republicans, and one lens is ideology. The country did not become more liberal, barely one in five voters accept that label, but moderates swung sharply to the Democratic ticket, 60 percent to 39 percent. Republicans, says GOP pollster Frank Luntz, “basically lost the center.”
Many of these moderates are well-educated suburbanites who fault Republican leaders for overemphasizing some issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) while ignoring others (the environment, climate change). Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, wrote recently in the Washington Post: “Unless the Republican Party ends its self-imposed captivity to social fundamentalists, it will spend a long time in the political wilderness.”
A second way to view the election is through geography. The Republican Party in the Northeast has been virtually wiped out. In the next Congress, Democrats will hold every one of the 22 congressional seats from New England, and all but three of 29 seats from New York.
President Bush’s own grandfather, Prescott Bush, who served 10 years in the Senate from Connecticut, would not recognize a party dominated by Southern evangelicals. Christopher Healy, that state’s GOP chairman, told the Washington Post: “The Northeastern brand of Republican philosophy ... is based on smaller government and less taxes. We’re not interested in what’s going on in the bedroom.”
But the most useful way of analyzing the current state of American politics is through demography. More specifically, what is happening with three key groups who helped win the election for the Democrats, and promise to play an even bigger role in the future.
YOUTH. Voters under 30 favored Obama by 66 percent to 32 percent, the biggest margin for any party since exit polling began in 1972. Underlying trends are even more threatening to Republicans. Younger voters are more racially diverse than their elders: Only 62 percent were white compared to 74 percent for the electorate as a whole. And they are more likely to be female and secular, both signs of Democratic tendencies.
Some characteristics will change – less than one-third are married, and when they do acquire spouses (and mortgages and tax bills), they will probably tilt in a more conservative direction. But other traits could impede that shift: 45 percent of young voters identified as Democrats, only one in four called themselves Republicans.
MINORITIES. The percentage of white voters is down 15 percent from 1980. The enormous black support for Obama, 95 percent, owed partly to his race and might be hard to duplicate. But the Democrats also won two of three Latinos voters and three of five Asians.
Republicans certainly have some buttons to push with Latinos, since many are small-business owners and socially conservative Catholics. But GOP opposition to immigration reform has been a killer. Karl Rove writes in Newsweek that his party “won’t be a majority” if it cedes this vote to the Democrats. He adds: “An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal.”
Rove is right. Young Hispanics voted 76 percent to 19 percent for Obama. In four of the nine states that went from red to blue – New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida – Hispanics accounted for more 10 percent of the electorate.
WOMEN. Democrats cannot win the presidency without a sizable advantage among women. Bill Clinton won females by 16 points, but Al Gore’s margin dropped to 12 and John Kerry’s to 3. Obama built the Democratic lead back up to 13 points (and actually won the male vote by a single point). Women comprise 53 percent of the electorate, giving their choices added weight.
As Republicans plot their return to power, one stark fact emerges from the 2008 election: They can’t count on the white guys anymore. There are just not enough of them. And their influence will continue to diminish in the years ahead.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.