Steve Hochstadt has been Professor of History at Illinois College since 2006, after teaching at Bates College for 27 years. His "Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany 1820-1989" (University of Michigan Press, 1999) won the Allan Sharlin Prize of the Social Science History Association. "Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich" has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. Hochstadt writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier.
All year the Republicans made gleeful fun of President Obama’s “hope and change” mantra from 2008. That didn’t work.
It looks like Democrats will have much more hope in their political future than Republicans, because of changes in the American electorate. The Democratic victory last Tuesday goes beyond the president. Democrats won two more seats in the Senate and probably seven more House seats, notably four in Illinois. Democrats took over five formerly Republican state houses and four state senates, while only one state house and two state senates switched the other way.
When the American population is grouped into demographic categories, the Republicans depend on shrinking sub-populations. Most significantly, the white Christian share of the electorate, who voted for Romney about two to one, has dropped from 66 percent in 2000 to 57 percent in 2012. That group is shrinking on all sides, the ethnic and the religious.
Hispanics as a percentage of voters have grown from 2 percent in 1992 to 10 percent this year. More than 60 percent have voted Democratic since 1984, except for 2004, when they just dipped to 58 percent. Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters. Latinos increased their presence in the House from twenty-four to twenty-eight and in the Senate from two to three (and the third, it should be noted, is a Republican).
Voters of Asian background make up only 3 percent of the nation’s voters, but they too are both growing and becoming more Democratic, breaking at least 70 percent for Obama. Their influence is concentrated in the Pacific states: in California, their proportion of the electorate grew from 6 percent in 2008 to 11 percent this year. Their presence in the new Congress will also be unprecedented.
Since 2000, the proportion of voters not Christian or Jewish, or who are unaffiliated, has grown from 15 percent to 19 percent. Mazie Horono will be the first Buddhist senator, and Tulsi Gabbard will be the first Hindu in Congress, both from Hawaii. They join an increasingly diverse Congress, including Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Andre Carson from Indiana, both Muslim representatives, and Hark Johnson from Georgia, a Buddhist representative. All of these members of Congress are Democrats.
Voters from ages 18 to 29 represented 19 percent of all those who voted on Tuesday, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. That's an increase of one percentage point from 2008. Obama captured 60 percent of them, compared with Mitt Romney's 36 percent. Although people do tend to become more conservative as they get older, an entire generation is becoming used to voting Democratic.
Voters also demonstrated that basic Republican positions are losing support. The Republican position on gay marriage repels more and more voters. Since the 1990s, the percentage of Americans who favor gay marriage has grown from one-quarter of the electorate to half this year. Last week, ballot measures legalizing same sex marriage were approved in Maine, Maryland and Washington. In Minnesota voters decided not to add a prohibition of same-sex marriage to the state’s constitution. Across the country, exit polling showed that 49 percent of voters said their state should legally recognize same-sex marriage, and 46 percent said it should not.
Even in the South, the only region where a majority opposes gay marriage, that proportion has been steadily shrinking. Every age group has been increasing its support for gay marriage, and those born before 1945, who are the most opposed, are being replaced every day by voters under 30, who overwhelmingly support it.
Exit polling showed other major issues where Republican ideology has fallen out of favor. A poll by Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America's Future showed that 70 percent support raising taxes on top earners, while keeping the taxes of others at the same level. Two-thirds of those polled said that any plan would be “unacceptable” if it did not raise taxes on the rich, if it continued to tax capital gains at a lower rate than wages, or if it lowered taxes on corporations.
In a different exit poll, 65 percent said most illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
But here’s a hopeful note for the future. Perhaps Republicans will realize that they might be able to increase the size of one of their reliable voting blocs. As is usually the case in presidential elections, those with incomes over $50,000 voted Republican. If the Republicans did not so flagrantly place themselves in the lap of the very wealthy, if they respected the significance of good middle-class jobs in both the public and private sectors, if they developed policies which made it more likely that middle-income Americans could get good health insurance, good mortgages, and good educations, they might help the American economy and their future political prospects.