A Real Realignment

By Harold Meyerson
Friday, November 7, 2008

At first glance, the victory of Barack Obama and the Democrats inspires that sense of awe that comes when we realize we are in the presence of a momentous historical transformation. At second glance, though -- how much of a change in the American political order does it actually portend?

After all, Obama ran only slightly ahead of John Kerry four years ago among white voters -- raising the Democrats' total from 41 to 43 percent in the midst of a major recession, according to Tuesday's exit polling. John McCain actually bettered George W. Bush's margins four years ago in 22 percent of the nation's counties, most of them in the South. And Obama won a number of his states by the slimmest of margins.

But this is an election that demands a third glance. Even though Obama's victory was nowhere near as numerically lopsided as Franklin Roosevelt's in 1932, his margins among decisive and growing constituencies make clear that this was a genuinely realigning election.

For one thing, Obama received 66 percent support within the one continually growing slice of the American electorate: Latinos. The figure is 10 percentage points higher than Kerry's 2004 total. What makes the Latino vote disproportionately significant is that it's a key to the realignment of the Mountain West, which has been one of the three regional bastions (along with the South and the Plains states) of Republican strength for the past quarter-century. In Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, three states that Obama turned from red to blue on Tuesday, Obama received 73 percent, 76 percent and 69 percent backing, respectively, from Latino voters, whose share of the states' electorates also grew. The Latino share of the electorate increased by nine points over its 2004 levels in New Mexico and Colorado and by five points in Nevada. And the Latino surge helped Democrats (and the Udall family) pick up two Senate seats in those states and four House seats.

The effects of the Latino vote are not confined to the Mountain West. In Florida, the one state where Latinos (chiefly, Cuban Americans) have favored Republicans, they gave 57 percent of their vote to Obama -- in part because Cubans no longer constitute the lion's share of the state's Latinos, in part because younger Cubans are voting Democratic.

When Ronald Reagan won the presidency, his electoral college majorities were anchored by the three major Sunbelt states -- California, Florida and Texas. On Tuesday, the Democrats, bolstered in large part by the Latino vote, captured two out of three, and one could imagine even Texas -- where 63 percent of Latinos backed Obama -- moving into the Democratic column after several more elections.

The Latino surge is just one element of the Democratic realignment. Six years ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued in their book "The Emerging Democratic Majority" that the political transformation of professionals -- among the most Republican of voting blocs during the Eisenhower era, and today among the most Democratic -- was a decisive factor in pushing the nation toward the Democratic Party, as was the steady Democratic drift of female voters. In an article published on the New Republic's Web site Wednesday, Judis noted that Obama carried all of the 19 states with the highest percentage of voters who have an advanced degree. Obama's strength in such Southern states as Virginia and North Carolina is partly the result of increased African American turnout, but it is also a consequence of the large numbers of highly educated professionals who've moved to those states over the past two decades.

The final element of this realignment is the shift in public sentiment toward governmental activism -- a shift in good measure occasioned by our long-term economic decline and short-term economic collapse. Tuesday's exit polls showed that 51 percent of Americans believed government "should do more" than it is -- a reversal of the Reagan-era majorities that believed government should do less. (Latinos are the demographic group most supportive of an activist government.)

Republicans stumble from Tuesday's contest, then, in worse shape than they've been in decades. They suffered major House losses in the Northeast, losing multiple seats in New York, as well as one apiece in Pennsylvania and Connecticut (their last seat in New England). Next year, they will hold just three of the 51 House seats in all of New England and New York. Their strongholds are increasingly confined to the Plains and those Southern and Mountain West states where rural areas predominate.

Indeed, eight years after Karl Rove stormed into Washington proclaiming that he would create a 21st-century version of the Republican realignment that emerged from William McKinley's victory over William Jennings Bryan in 1896, today's emerging Republican minority looks confined to Bryan's base in America's rural backwaters. The future in American politics belongs to the party that can win a more racially diverse, better educated, more metropolitan electorate. It belongs to Barack Obama's Democrats.


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