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Obama's Feat: Not Just Winning, But How He Won

President Obama greets the crowd after a Sept. 22 speech in Milwaukee.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama greets the crowd after a Sept. 22 speech in Milwaukee.

Maybe it's just math, but it may also be a great political accomplishment.

President Obama has put together a coalition that's not only been a winner for him, but promises to pay dividends to his party for years to come.

A mix of minorities, young people and educated white professionals has now driven him to two majority-vote presidential victories — the first Democrat to pull that off since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"What historians and political scientists will focus on is that he changed the coalition of the Democratic Party," says Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown. "The new coalition is groups with ascendant demographics — new minorities and young people."

As has been widely noted this week, Obama managed to recapture broad support from groups largely responsible for his 2008 election: African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, single women, and young and highly educated whites.

Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the overall white vote, according to exit polling. With whites shrinking as a share of the electorate — and Republicans struggling to appeal to minorities — it wasn't enough.

To some extent, Obama was building on past party success. Minority groups have traditionally favored Democrats, and women haven't given a majority of their votes to a Republican since 1988.

"It's important to keep in mind that the voting patterns contributing to the president's re-election are not new," says Scott Keeter, a pollster with the Pew Research Center. "The strong support of young people for Democratic candidates is relatively recent, but it predates Obama — young voters were John Kerry's best age group in 2004."

Obama benefited from the growth in the minority share of the electorate. But he was also able to build up the margins among such groups. African-Americans, for instance, gave 88 percent of their vote to Kerry in 2004; Obama won 93 percent of their vote this year and 95 percent in 2008.

A bigger share of Hispanics voted for Obama than for some earlier Democrats, too — and more of them were voting. What's more, they cast votes in strategically important states.

"My own feeling is the Democrats may have dodged a bullet because Republicans did not try to compete with much of Obama's demographic base, especially Hispanics," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "This may have cost them Florida, Nevada, Colorado and possibly Virginia."

2016 And Beyond

But while Obama has clearly marked a path toward success for Democratic candidates, there's no guarantee they'll be able to stay on it.

Obama may have a special appeal for certain minority groups as the nation's first African-American president. And his campaign was especially assiduous about turning out members of demographic groups previously notorious for failing to vote as reliably as whites and senior citizens.

Amara Hayles, 6, sits atop her dad's shoulders as the crowd shouts "four more years" during a speech by President Obama Nov. 5 in Columbus, Ohio.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Amara Hayles, 6, sits atop her dad's shoulders as the crowd shouts "four more years" during a speech by President Obama Nov. 5 in Columbus, Ohio.

It remains to be seen whether Latino and African-American voters will regularly turn out for Democrats "with someone other than Obama atop the ticket," writes Sean Trende, an elections analyst with Real Clear Politics.

Democrats are feeling pretty optimistic. Not only is Obama a two-time winner, he's won over groups that will continue to grow as a share of the electorate. (Remember that this was the year when minority births in the U.S. outweighed those of whites for the first time.)

Obama, in fact, has given the party its first stable coalition of support that is big enough to win national elections since the New Deal coalition put together by FDR — a solidly Democratic South wedded to farmers, union labor and white ethnics in the North and Midwest.

That coalition began to fray in the late 1960s, when civil rights legislation damaged Democrats politically in the South and liberal activists in the party began to alienate working-class whites in the Midwest and elsewhere.

Just as Republicans today are wondering how they can make inroads with Hispanics, Democrats debated for years whether they needed to work on regaining some appeal in the South. Over the 40 years leading up to Obama's first victory, Democrats managed to win the White House only when they put Southerners at the top of the ticket (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).

Electoral College Advantage

Obama has shown the party it can not only win but dominate the Electoral College with very little support in the South, outside states such as Virginia and Florida that are conducive to his coalition.

But there's no guarantee that other Democrats will be able to draw on the same sources of support. African-Americans and young people did not turn out in force in 2010, which was one big reason Republicans enjoyed big victories at the congressional and state levels that year.

"I wouldn't say that other Democrats could automatically count on it," says David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that studies minority affairs.

But, Bositis notes, there are other prominent Democrats who should be able to appeal to the same sort of constituencies that propelled Obama to victory.

"Obama certainly helped mobilize many of these groups to vote," says Keeter, the Pew pollster. "But there is no reason to think other Democratic candidates wouldn't be able to do well with them in the future."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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