Calling all 50 states the day before the election as Nate Silver did is one thing — predicting President Obama’s winning majority 10 years in advance is hard to top.
But that’s what Ruy Teixeira did. Since 2002, when Democrats were at a low point and sinking lower, Teixeira has consistently argued that long-term demographic trends pointed to brighter days ahead for the party. He and John Judis published a book that year, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” that envisioned a governing majority in the next decade consisting of three rapidly growing voting blocs — women, minorities, and professionals.
Along with young voters, these three groups are credited with powering Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories. Latinos were critical in contests across the country on Tuesday, especially in Western states like New Mexico (no longer even a swing state), Nevada, and Colorado. African American turnout helped put Obama over the top in states like Ohio. Huge advantages with women helped secure states like Iowa (28% gender gap). And a growing professional class in Virginia and North Carolina — solid red states when Teixeira published his book — put the former in Obama’s camp for a second straight election and kept the latter competitive until the end.
It’s easy to forget now, but after President Bush won re-election in 2004, there was a popular school of thought that America was entering an extended period in which Republicans would hold an unshakable majority. Karl Rove claimed the results as a “realignment” in which evangelical and suburban turnout would destroy the Democrats’ viability as a national party. Other observers like Michael Barone backed him up. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of them predicted a Romney landslide last week.
Teixeira stuck by his theory, however, and now one of the big post-election questions is whether Obama’s majority is the new political reality in America or a passing phase. TPM talked to Teixeira, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal DC think tank, on Thursday about what his research tells him about the future of the party.
TPM: After 2004, there was a lot of talk about a permanent Republican majority that turned out to be premature. How durable do you think the Democrats’ gains are this time around?
TEIXEIRA: I think that it can be fairly durable. I think the word “permanent” is not appropriate since there are no permanent majorities in American politics even if the Democrats are able to do quite well with these emerging constituencies like Hispanics and Asians for awhile. Obviously, blacks are the group you’d least expect to defect, but certainly the rest of the growing minority population is in their corner and even more than they were just a few years ago. Democrats are doing well with college eduated women, they have professionals on their side, and of course the Millennial generation continues to vote pretty heavily Democratic.
But it’s all very dependent on how Republicans respond to this. If that party moves back towards the center in some meaningful way over time — which they show some signs of doing now — if the electoral vote stays against them long enough, eventually the forces in the party that see it as a problem will prevail. But that could take years. I think permanence isnt the issue so much as how long is a long time. Five years? Eight years? 20 years? I certainly think for this decade it looks like Democrats could have a continuing advantage because it’s likely to take the GOP awhile to right itself in the sense of getting more sensible on politics. And even when they develop the desire to do so, it takes time to implement it credibly and thus win constituents over. That sounds more like an eight-year project than a two- year one, but that’s just a guess.
Also, as the GOP looks for an answer, the same changes that have disadvantaged them over time are going to continue. It’s a moving target, a problem that is growing larger not smaller. For all these reasons I suspect the Democrats, while they will not win every election in the next 10 years, will have some sort of significant advantage from demographic shifts.
How much is this compounded the longer the other side waits to respond? At a certain point, do voters who’ve backed Democrats in several elections just start thinking of themselves as loyal Democrats?
Certainly we believe that to be the case with young voters. Their party attachments are in the process of being formed, so you would certainly expect this to have a long lasting effect. And for the younger members of various groups like Hispanics, you’d expect a fairly permanent effect on voting patterns. Any group that leans heavily in a given direction and votes that way over the course of a few elections forms habits and those voting habits also reflect underlying dispositions about issues, about which parties are on their side and what they’re looking for in a political party. If they’re basically giving Democrats a rebuttable assumption that they’re the party of their interest, it takes work to dislodge.
Just look at the white working class, which got dislodged over a number of elections by Republicans from the Democrats. Conditions changed that made it easier to make the sale. There was a habit before then of voting for Democrats among many white blue collar voters around country. And arguably we have a similar thing now with emerging demographics forming the backbone of the current Democratic party.
I can’t help but notice, as some pointed out on election night, that the leading alternative to your theory was literally called the Rove-Barone thesis. Do you think their assumptions then were reflected in their predictions this year of a Romney win?
Their theory [in 2002] was that white evangelicals were becoming a massive army of Republican voters and the more people lived on the fringes of suburban areas, the more Republican they would be. I think it’s been completely discredited. As I pointed out at the time, there were not many people in the far flung exurbs and white evangelicals were flat as a share of the population, so it wasn’t a credible thesis.
But even the Rove-Barone types don’t try to pretend any more the demographic trends are on their side. I think their current favorite view, expressed most intelligently by [RCP analyst] Sean Trende, is that these voters are not permanently attached to the Democrats. They can be dislodged and will desert them at the drop of a hat if Republicans can just make the slightest effort. Basically, that there are no current demographic advantages for anyone, the coalitions are fragile and unstable.
But yeah, they certainly got egg on their face. They look like complete idio—I don’t want to overstate it, but they were pretty wrong. Barone’s a smart guy. Rove’s a kind of hack, I think he’s just letting his ideology get in the way of analysis.
The election seemed to answer questions about whether Obama’s 2008 coalition was a one-time backlash against President Bush. But the next question people are raising a lot is whether the coalition he stitched together would work with someone like, say, Andrew Cuomo at the top of the ticket.
I don’t really think it’s that dependent on Obama. Look, a couple points were shaved off the African American vote even with Obama on the ticket. It’s possible they might shave another point or two off with someone else on top, I don’t know. But African Americans have been so heavily Democrats for so long that your expectation is they’ll vote 90 percent Democratic. Then for other minorities, I don’t see why Hispanics, Asians, or other groups are so wedded to Obama they couldn’t handle another Democrat. Their attitudes on policy issues, both social and economic, line up with Democrats. If you look at party ID among Hispanics and Asians it’s hugely lopsidedly Democratic and we know party ID is the best single predictor of how you’ll vote. So I don’t think the top of ticket is an issue.
The biggest thing keeping them together is growth. I think this is a coalition that demands growth and prosperity: who will make them happiest and provide them with the opportunities and education they need and provide government with the revenues to do stuff. There’s nothing harder then selling belt tightening in a depressed economy. It’s a huge potential problem if either A) it’s impossible to gin up more growth or B) what I worry about, the Obama administration errs on the side of deficit reduction in a “grand bargain” and forgets there’s still about 8 percent unemployment.
How big a difference would Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform make? That seems to be the most popular suggestion among establishment Republicans this week.
I think it runs deeper. I think they have to do a pretty thorough rethink and move to the center and that includes not just immigration, but broader social issues like same sex marriage. And the thing they have the hardest problem with: they will have to some day dump this quasi-libertarian approach to government in which tax increases are verboten while military spending has to be raised. I think it’s just not what people want, but especially not what the constituencies they’re being beaten so badly with want.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.