Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Obama Will Win

No one expects Obama, in November, to achieve the blow-out 365-to-173 electoral college victory he achieved in '08. But demographics are on his side.

Everyone knows Republicans have held the presidency far more than Democrats since 1968. Even Democrats have an ingrained idea that winning the White House is an uphill battle. But if Obama were a Republican, no one would be worrying.

Democrats have won three of the last five presidential elections. In the last 20 years, the Democratic presidential candidate has won 60% of the time.

Those haven't been small victories either. Clinton won in '92 with 370 votes in the electoral college, and in '96 with 379. Obama won in '08 with 365. (A candidate needs 270 to win.)

Even more importantly, the two Republican wins in this period were by incredibly slim majorities. Bush won in 2000 with just 271 electoral votes, but lost the popular vote and probably lost the electoral vote too, had Florida's votes been counted more precisely. Even as an incumbent, Bush won in 2004 with 286 electoral votes, an incredibly slim victory.

Average the last five presidential elections together, and you get Democrats with 326.6 electoral votes -- a decisive victory.

And there's a reason for that: the nation's become more liberal. The old social wedge issues that used to deliver moderates for the Republicans now swing slightly in Democrats' favor, and that's a trend that's only growing more pronounced. The nation's also becoming more diverse, which helps too.

Republicans ought to be moderating themselves to keep up with the times. Instead, the faultlines between the Reagan coalition have splintered open, and we're watching an all-out war between the insiders and the know-nothings, the fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives, the statesmen and the Tea Party. Republicans now have to take extreme views on abortion and contraception and gay rights and religion simply to compete for the candidacy. These positions have only become more and more extreme, even as the nation's moved the other way.

Of course, looking at only the last 20 years of presidential elections conveniently avoids the Republican blow-out victories of 1980, '84, and '88, when Reagan and Bush won with 489, 525, and 426 electoral votes, respectively. Each of those elections were won with majorities eclipsing any Democratic ones of the last 20 years.

That's part of why Republicans so lionize Ronald Reagan, even as their party has drifted -- incredibly -- to Reagan's right. 1980-1992 was the Republican Golden Age. But it's gone, and it has been for 20 years.

Trying to duplicate it, to go back to "bold Reagan conservatives," ignores the fact that the nation has changed.

In fact, the Republican presidential victories of the 1980s were the tail end of the Republican "Southern Strategy," which used Democratic support for the Civil Rights Act to transform the South into a Republican voting block. It was a strategy based on dividing the nation on social issues, exactly as Republicans now falsely claim that Obama is doing on economic issues.

And it worked. It delivered the presidency to the Republican party every year from 1968 onwards -- with the exception of Jimmy Carter in '76. And Carter needed Watergate to win. Saddled with a horrible economy and runaway inflation, Carter was doomed to be a one-termer from the start. Especially when Reagan was able to galvanize the nation with a smiling, optimistic campaign premised on returning America to what was then seen as its conservative Golden Age: the 1950s.

So from 1968 to 1992, presidential elections show almost absolute Republican dominance, based upon using social wedge issues. This 24-year period is divided into two stages. The first, 1968-1980, includes two Nixon terms, including the disaster of Vietnam and culminating in Watergate, which delivers Carter to the White House for a single term. But that's a blip, and it sets up stage two: 1980-1992, when Reagan went hard right, both socially and fiscally, but hid it behind a smiling face. Under him, the religious right rose to dominance of American Christianity, and Republicans thought the White House would be theirs forever.

But they'd gone too far, and the nation was shifting. Clinton in 1992 needed Ross Perot as a third candidate, siphoning off Republican votes. After he won reelection in '96, Republicans actually impeached him and spoke openly of how he didn't deserve the presidency -- the White House being a Republican position. But in fact, the nation was already transitioning.

The effective presidential tie in 2000 was probably the point at which this transition began tipping in the Democratic direction. Sure, Bush eked out a 2004 win, as an incumbent in a time of war, but with historically weak electoral results. And by the end of his second term, the global economy lay in ruins and the U.S. had never been weaker militarily.

Obama's victory wasn't only a repudiation of Bush. It was an indication of America's changing demographics, without which a black president could never have been elected.

Barring some sort of catastrophic misstep or nuclear-level disaster, Obama's going to coast to reelection. Republicans know it, and that's why so many potentially strong candidates have stayed out of the 2012 race.

But that's part of a bigger picture, in which we're likely to enter a period of Democratic dominance of the presidency. A period in which the Republican party pays the price for the same racial and social stances that allowed it to achieve dominance from 1968-1992.

What used to win elections is now an albatross around the party's neck, and that party's not moving to remove it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In retrospect, we'll probably see Obama as the moderate he is -- on the tail end of a transition from Republican social values to Democratic ones. After all, Obama's record is distinctly moderate: outflanking the right on foreign policy (killing bin Laden, anyone?) and with domestic successes all defined by their political moderation (such as insurance reform in lieu of universal health care). If he's liberal or somehow overly Democratic, it's solely by virtue of his competence. His only liability is the slow economic turnaround -- but all the trend lines are up, after Bush left the economy in a Great Depression-level pit.

The real question isn't whether Obama will win reelection, barring an unpredictable catastrophe.

It's what the increasingly liberal Democratic presidents of the next 20 years are going to look like, once we're past this transitory period and Republicans start paying the price in earnest for the regressive policies that no longer win elections -- but which the party is now screaming with even greater anger, like any religious or racial majority drifting forever into the minority.

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