Republican leaders awoke Wednesday to witness their grim future. Without a makeover, a party that skews toward older, white and male voters faces political peril in an increasingly diverse and complex America.
President Obama’s decisive victory over Mitt Romney served as a clinic in 21st-century politics, reflecting expanded power for black and Hispanic voters, dominance among women, a larger share of young voters and even a rise in support among Asians.
Nationally, the steady and inexorable decline of the white share of the electorate continued, dropping to 72 percent, down from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004.
The Hispanic share grew again, encompassing one in 10 voters nationally and reaching higher levels in states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, which have become comfortable turf for Democrats in presidential politics.
In Colorado, a state many Republicans thought they could win, Obama won three-quarters of Hispanics, up from 61 percent in 2008. Obama increased his Hispanic performance along similar lines in Florida as well, a result that included Democratic dominance in the heavily Puerto Rican swing precincts around Orlando and the election of a Cuban American Democrat to Congress, symbolizing the end of the GOP’s decades-long lock on that community.
In Ohio, African Americans showed up in large numbers and offered near-unanimous support to reelect the country’s first black president, making up 15 percent of the electorate in a state long known for the political power of its white working-class voters.
The Republicans’ troubles were further illustrated in a string of victories for gays, including voter approval of same-sex marriage in Maryland and Maine and the election of the country’s first openly lesbian U.S. senator in Wisconsin, a state many Republicans thought would swing their way.
Obama’s triumph showed how Democrats win in the modern era, using targeted messages to piece together ethnic groups while adding enough white voters in the old Rust Belt. The challenge for them moving forward will be re-creating that patchwork in a post-Obama era, when candidates may lack the charisma or connection to the party’s core African American constituency. And a Republican candidate could emerge as an Obama-type figure for the right, turning politics upside down again.
Still, that Tuesday’s results assured victory for an incumbent presiding over a still-fragile economy, high unemployment and a record of enacting widely divisive legislation, such as his health-care overhaul, confounded many Republicans, who had hoped that Obama’s 2008 strength reflected an anomaly and not a trend.
“We’re going the way of the dinosaurs, and quick,” said David Johnson, a top GOP strategist in Florida. “The meteor’s already hit, and we’re just trying to wonder what the blast zone will look like.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American Republican viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, declared after Obama’s victory that Republicans “need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to minorities and immigrant communities.”
Democrats on Wednesday were assessing a far brighter reality. Although the results showed declines in support among whites and Jews and weakness among union voters, party strategists noted that people younger than 30 made up a larger share of the electorate than those 65 and older, further enhancing what they see as a generational shift toward Democrats. If Republicans seemed to cling to a 20th-century formula, focused on working-class whites, that helped elect Ronald Reagan, Democrats saw in Tuesday’s results the contours of their own long-lasting coalition.
“This election affirms that there is a new politics, a new demographic reality in America, and that the Democrats are further along in adapting their politics to these new realities than the Republicans are,” said Simon Rosenberg, whose liberal NDN think tank has been tracking the changing Hispanic electorate and other trends and who correctly predicted Obama’s electoral college total.
Obama’s success followed intense efforts by his campaign and outside groups to recruit and register minority voters. The campaign registered hundreds of thousands of blacks and Hispanics in Florida alone, surpassing its 2008 efforts. Nationally, the NAACP aimed to bring 1 million new African Americans into the electorate, and the Service Employees International Union devoted much of its $75 million effort to registering minorities in eight battleground states.
The challenges are deep for Republicans hoping to address the issues, illustrated most clearly by the fate of Romney’s campaign. Once viewed as a centrist with potentially broad appeal, the former Massachusetts governor was compelled over two presidential campaigns to shift far to the right, particularly on immigration, in a way that alienated many Hispanic and centrist voters.
Years ago, Karl Rove and other strategists saw the coming shifts and tried to push the party toward a more inclusive style of politics, helping President George W. Bush win about 40 percent of Hispanics in 2004 and fueling fantasies of a long-term governing majority. Bush and his team used what some in the party called an “I love you” strategy to court Hispanics, showing affinity on conservative cultural and family values issues while pursuing a welcoming immigration policy. A Bush campaign video in 2004 showed him marching in a Mexican Independence Day parade, waving a Mexican flag.
But since, hardened GOP opposition to more liberalized immigration laws, such as putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, and sharp anti-illegal immigration rhetoric from Romney and other top Republicans alienated many conservative Hispanics. Obama, meanwhile, won goodwill for using his executive powers to halt deportations of many young undocumented immigrants and for waging what Democrats say is the most aggressive and expensive Hispanic outreach campaign ever — even though many Hispanics were disappointed by his record.
Republican rhetoric, many party strategists believe, turned immigration into more of an identity issue, turning off even those Hispanic voters who might agree with the GOP on many issues but perceived the party to be anti-Hispanic.
Javier Ortiz, a Republican strategist who advises his party’s congressional leadership, said early Wednesday that he had been in touch with senior officials about formulating a new approach to minority outreach. Such conversations have been happening for a few years, he said, but Tuesday’s election results are a kick in the pants.
“If these results do not escalate the conversation, then we’re doomed,” Ortiz said.
One place that conversation will happen is the weekly meeting of conservative movement leaders, headed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Norquist said the party faces a difficult task of minimizing the power of immigration hard-liners.
“Ten years from now, you want to be splitting the Hispanic vote by something close to 50-50,” he said. “That’s completely doable if the threat of deportation was removed. But it’s not doable as long as that’s hanging over, and some Republicans talk as if they’re for the deportation of your mother or your aunt.”
Big questions loomed Wednesday about who, in a party without a clear national leader, would push the GOP to transform itself.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) faces a daunting task holding together his own coalition, which is dominated by tea party conservatives skeptical of liberal immigration laws.
White evangelicals remained a strong piece of the GOP coalition, voting more solidly for Romney, a Mormon, than they did four years for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and making it unlikely the party would relent on its staunch opposition to gay marriage.
“The Republican coalition is the same coalition as it’s been for years: culturally conservative, small government, lower taxes, pro-family, pro-life and strong national defense,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an evangelical group. “I don’t know of anything in that agenda that we would want to drop.”