Inch by inch

While trying to motivate his team for a grueling second half in the film “Any Given Sunday,” Al Pacino implores them, “Life is just a game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.”  

The same can be said about politics. Yes, it’s increasingly grueling and ugly, but it’s also the case that demographic, economic and social changes have transformed modern electoral strategies from focusing solely on broad blocs of voters into a vote-by-vote game of inches. Elections are increasingly won on thin margins. As Karl Rove recognized in 2000 with the soccer moms, or 2004 with evangelical voters, in addition to their traditional base voters, campaigns must now identify and create new coalitions in order to win.

In 2008, the Obama team took the strategy to a new level by both expanding the potential electorate with a new coalition that included African-Americans, Latinos, young voters and unmarried women and increasing the number of competitive states beyond the traditional 18 “swing” states. 

The 2000 and 2004 elections also taught Democrats that in order to win, we would have to overcome extensive GOP voter-suppression schemes, which resulted in an estimated loss of 5 million votes in the 2004 reelection of President Bush.

A new report from the Center for American Progress analyzes the impact demographic changes and the new electorate could have on the 2012 election game of inches. They note that in 2008, while Republicans lost their majority in the South as Democrats won in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, Democrats solidified gains made in the West. As they observe, “Republicans continue to hold strong advantages when the voting electorate is older, more conservative and less diverse than the overall population.” Additionally, increases in the number of young voters (“millennials”), communities of color including African-American and Latino and unmarried women, since 2008, again favor the Obama team and Democrats. In other words, the opportunities for Democrats are expanding while the playing field for the GOP is contracting. 

So it should come as no surprise that rather than embracing these changes, the GOP has put a significant amount of money and effort into appeasing its base, as well as suppressing votes among the same emerging coalition of Democratic voters in the same traditional swing states and states where Democrats have begun to make gains. 

Enabled by Republican gains in statehouses and legislatures in 2010, new voter ID laws and voter-registration requirements have either been enacted, are pending, or in some cases have been defeated as the GOP works to make up those inches and cling to the ones they have, including: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and West Virginia.

Again in 2012, the margin of error will be small. It won’t be enough for Democrats to energize our base, 
re-energize the Obama voters and identify new voters to inch our way to the finish line. While there’s a significant lack of evidence of voter fraud, there is an abundance of evidence for the potential disenfranchisement of Americans. It’s estimated that the (at least) 21 million Americans who do not have the required identification includes 25 percent of African-Americans, 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000, 18 percent of citizens age 65 or older and 20 percent of voters ages 18 to 29. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the new laws could make it harder for more than 5 million people to vote in 2012.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.