Democratic realignment in the making if Republicans don't adapt

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In 1896, William McKinley beat William Jennings Bryan by only 4 percent (51-47) and won their rematch by 6 percent in 1900 (52-46). McKinley’s narrow wins, however, presaged a strong shift to the GOP in a rapidly industrializing North, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. McKinley’s coalition won 5 of the next 7 presidential elections (interrupted only by Wilson’s narrow victories, triggered by Theodore Roosevelt dividing the GOP coalition in the three way 1912 race).

Walter Dean Burnham long ago defined a three prong test for realignments: 1) short-lived but very intense disruptions of traditional voting behavior; 2) highly intense and sharp political conflict; and 3) durable political consequences, lasting 20-25 years – marked by sustained governing success.

We are a long way from pronouncing a realignment for the Democrats. Today, Democrats skate on thin ice amongst the large blocs in the middle of the electorate, dominating the suburbs: married women, college educated men, white Catholics and moderate independents. Nevertheless, the sharp shift in political demographics favoring the Democrats, means the current GOP must adapt or potentially face the fate of the Whig Party.

The aggregate minority vote grew to a record 28% share in 2012 and Obama carried it by a 4-1 margin. Obama improved his Hispanic numbers to a 71-29 percent split, while the Hispanic share grew to 10 percent. The Asian vote surged to a 74-25 percent split for Obama and grew to a 3% share of the total vote. The Census trends portend an ever-larger pipeline of new voters amongst Hispanic and Asians. Down the road, the GOP will have little chance of carrying Florida, the Pacific West, the Mountain West, and will even have difficulty carrying Arizona and Texas by the end of the decade, unless this trend line amongst Hispanics and Asians is reversed. 

Gender gap will only grow more pronounced in favor of Democrats, if the ranks of highly educated and unmarried women continue to grow and the Democrats carry unmarried women by 2-1 margins, as they did last week. Overall, Obama carried women by 12 percent as the female share grew to a record 54 percent of the electorate.

Finally, the new fault line in our politics is a generational divide. The pundits presumed that the under 30 vote would recede from its 18 percent share in 2008, but it grew to a 19 percent share. Obama carried under 30 voters with 60 percent last week, 7 percent less than in 2008, but he still won that bloc by a 20 percent margin, helping him to hit that magic threshold of 40 percent of the white vote, enabling the minority wave to power his re-election.

In fact, the new fulcrum point in American politics is the under 40 vs. the over 40 vote. In 2008, almost all of Obama’s margin came from the under 40 voters. Last week’s exit polls revealed that Romney carried over 40 voters by 9 percent, but Obama won because he carried the under 40 voters by double digits. This fulcrum point no longer tilts towards seniors, which also threatens the GOP. 

I think Karl Rove quickly internalized the meaning of these returns. If Obama’s second term is marked by an economic recovery truly taking hold, with increasing stability in the world, both tall orders with neither assured, the ice will thicken for the Democrats amongst swing voters, while the underlying currents amongst minority, female and younger voters, are likely to become a waterfall for Democrats in future elections. 

Rove astutely sensed a McKinleyesque realignment on the horizon, but he never saw an Obama at its vanguard. So I for one am willing to cut Rove some slack, for it’s sad to see dreams crushed.    

Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications in Albany, New York and an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Albany.