Dems face tough questions post-election

The outcome of the presidential election has sent Republicans into a period of soul-searching as they examine why they were beaten so badly among several key demographic groups.

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But Democrats face some hard questions, too: Namely, whether President Obama’s strong performance, especially among non-whites, is replicable by party candidates in the future, or whether the elections of 2008 and 2012 represent high-water marks, reached in part because of Obama’s unique appeal.

Democrats have run up striking margins in presidential contests featuring Obama, while Republicans have encountered disorienting shifts.

In 2004, exit polls showed President George W. Bush claiming 44 percent of votes cast by Hispanics. By 2008, that fell to 31 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This year, GOP nominee Mitt Romney received only 27 percent of Hispanic support.

Given that the Latino share of the electorate ticked up from 8 percent to 9 percent to 10 percent across those three elections, it is unsurprising that leading Republicans like Speaker John Boehner have already indicated a willingness to seek a deal on immigration reform.

But it isn’t just rising Hispanic support that paved the way for Obama’s victory. Many commentators had been skeptical that the president could draw the same intensity of support from African Americans that he enjoyed during his 2008 quest.

Instead, the African-American share of the electorate held steady nationwide, at 13 percent. In the crucial battleground states where the Obama campaign put in its most intense efforts, the black vote increased. African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the electorate in Ohio this year, up from 11 percent in 2008.

Asian Americans, meanwhile, represented 3 percent of the electorate this year, and Obama won them by a 47-point margin, 73 percent to 26 percent. His margin with Asian voters was 27 points in 2008. The 2004 Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), achieved only a 12-point edge.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons cautioned that future Democratic candidates, at the presidential level and elsewhere, should remember that support from non-whites grew out of policy priorities rather than a more nebulous sense of ethnic solidarity.

“I think the president was very good at turning out those [non-white] constituencies because he energized them on things they care about,” Simmons said. “It is going to be important for other Democrats, white Democrats, to talk to those communities about things they care about, and not assume they are going to be there in 2016 or 2014.”

Simmons suggested that education was of especially acute interest to all immigrant communities. In addition, he noted the abiding African-American concern with economic and social justice, and the criminal justice system.

Simmons and other Democrats also noted, however, that Obama benefitted this year from a shift toward a more hardline position on illegal immigration on the part of the Republican Party.

During the GOP’s presidential primary process, Texas Gov. Rick Perry faced criticism from fellow conservatives when he suggested that heartlessness motivated opponents of his policy of offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrant students.

Romney himself promised to veto the DREAM Act, if it were passed, and suggested that illegal immigrants already in the country could be encouraged to “self-deport.”

“The Republican Party has really pushed away the Latino community, into the arms of the Democrats,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is also a columnist for The Hill. “They go out of their way to demagogue the Latino community. If they’re smart they change radically — but I don’t know how smart they are. And there is also the fear of being beaten in the primary.”

Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, argued that it was within the GOP’s power to narrow the gap.

“How the Republican Party presents itself as a party that appeals to all demographic groups is a real issue,” he said. “It’s unfortunate what the party has done for a few years, in particular, with the immigrant community, not just the Hispanic community. It has deteriorated with Asian Americans as well.

“If you have located yourself where the perception is that you are opposed to immigration, there are consequences to that.”

Fratto also pointed out that Obama’s quest had succeeded not just because he appealed to key demographic groups but also because his campaign had proven extremely adept at turning out the vote.

He argued that there was no reason to suppose that this edge was something the Democrats could take for granted in future elections.

“They used exceptional techniques to reach those communities and did it over a sustained period of time,” he said. “But their use of digital [technology] and the targeting they did is not proprietary. That knowledge is out there and the question is whether Republicans will make the effort to acquire those techniques and skills.”

Mellman, however, argued that the Obama edge in this area was significant, hard-won and unlikely to be surrendered by the Democratic Party, even now that the president has competed in his final campaign.

“That’s a tremendous asset and the Democratic Party would be foolish to let it atrophy,” he said. “The brain power and the technology is clearly there and I don’t expect it to disappear.”

Interestingly, however, in the final conference call of the campaign, after victory had been won, key Obama adviser David Plouffe suggested that future Democratic candidates could not simply plug into the infrastructure Team Obama had built.

“You just can't transfer this, right?” Plouffe said. “I mean, people are not going to spend hours away from their families and their jobs, contributing financially when it's hard for them to do it, unless they believe in the candidate.

“For candidates who want to try and build a grassroots campaign, it's not going to happen because there's a list or because you have the best technology. That's not how this works,” he continued.

“The reason those people got involved was because they believed in Barack Obama. It was a relationship between them and our candidate.”