Late into the evening on election night, as we were waiting for Mitt Romney to concede and President Obama to declare victory, striking images began dominating our television screens.
One moment we saw the Romney crowd in Boston, some of them leaning on each other as if for support — most of them white, many of them older, all of them apparently quite depressed.
Then in a flash, we saw the Obama crowd in Chicago, dancing, smiling and — strikingly — full of young, often brown faces, all of them quite jubilant.
At first I focused on the winner/loser contrast. The emotions were compelling. But as we’ve begun to digest the exit polling that told us who voted for whom, the anecdotal evidence provided by the election-night crowds began to sink in.
The president pledged that night that he would be the unifying leader of the entire nation. He even invoked his declaration in his 2004 Democratic convention speech that America is not just blue states and red states.
“There is no doubt about the fact that this president reflects this country,” Obama adviser David Axelrod told reporters two days after the election. It was this broad coalition that drove the success of the reelection effort.
But the election results may tell a different story.
The evening was full of surprises. New Hampshire will send an entirely female congressional delegation to Washington in January and elected a female governor. Flawed GOP candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — who injected rape and abortion into the debate — arguably took stronger Republican Senate candidates like Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Rick Berg in North Dakota down with them. (Both lost to Democratic women.)
Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who kept Newt Gingrich afloat in the primaries and spent $60 million of his own money —the most ever from an individual — into 2012 GOP races, won not a single one.
And there was this: the Sunlight Foundation reports that the powerful National Rifle Association spent $11 million this year, but — once winners and losers were tabulated —got less than 1 percent return on their investment. By contrast, Planned Parenthood’s return on the $5.1 million it spent was nearly 98 percent.
Axelrod suggests that people who contributed to the GOP super PACS should be asking for refunds.
(Another surprise — to me, at least — was that the most popular phrase employed in Facebook political conversation on Election Day — by a factor of 10-to-1 — was Big Bird, of all things.
But the Romney defeat, when it came down to it, did not turn on fuzzy yellow characters or money or Hurricane Sandy, although all of these things played their bit parts. It turns out the outcome was driven by a far more basic question: Who is America?
“I thought this was going to be a 50-50 race, and instead it was a tsunami,” Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union told Beth Reinhard of National Journal. “The losses across the country in federal and state races — it’s a tsunami that none of us expected. There are glaring demographic shifts in this country that will not allow the Republican Party to compete unless immediate attention is paid.”
Here is what everyone is paying attention to now:
While the pre-election political headlines were all about what alienated white males would do, the key lies elsewhere. This cool graphic shows why:
- The gender gap was not so clear. Fifty-three percent of married women broke for Romney, but the President won 67 percent of nonmarried women.
- Fifty-nine percent of white voters went for Romney — just under 40 percent for Mr. Obama. But the Democrat won 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of Hispanics. In the battleground state of Colorado, he won 75 percent of the Latino vote, according to network exit polls.
This suggests a grievous split within the body politic that red and blue do not begin to describe. “It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are,” Romney supporter Marianne Doherty told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York on election night in Boston. “I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do.”
But not all Republicans see things that way right now, especially those who have unsuccessfully pushed for issues like immigration reform.
“If we as Republicans had moved just a few percentage points of the Hispanic vote in states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia, it could have thrown the election to Romney,” former Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida told Reinhard. “This is not a choice. It’s either extinction or survival.”
Obama adviser David Plouffe sees the divide differently. He told reporters that the Obama campaign won because it concentrated on persuadable moderates, not by exploiting the red/blue divide. And, he suggested, the president won because he is Barack Obama. “You just can’t transfer this,” he said.
That should give any Democrat who wants to duplicate this year’s remarkable victory pause.
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