I was listening to Karl Rove sputter today about how Obama is the first President to win a second term with fewer electoral votes than he got the first time. And I said to myself, that's technically true. But it made me think of Franklin Roosevelt, who in four elections managed to get 472, 523, 449, and 432 electoral votes. These were massive victories all, and an anomaly in history (particularly since the Constitution now forbids it), but nevertheless demonstrative of a President continuing to win reelection with declining electoral support. Roosevelt wasn't considered any less the President because his share of votes declined in 1940 and 1944. But Rove is clearly trying to argue that, by winning *only* 61% of the electoral vote, Obama should regard this election as something of a loss. He shouldn't. He won it big.
Bill Clinton won two elections with 370 and 379 electoral votes. Barack Obama has won two terms with 365 and 332. But Clinton never got more than 50% of the popular vote (though he still won it), and Obama has done it twice: this indicates that, as the country becomes more ideologically polarized, the potential for a candidate of either party to win stratospheric electoral landslides of, say, 400 or more votes may be declining. But either way, it appears that in the post-Reagan political landscape, Democrats have a strong electoral advantage.
For comparison: George W. Bush lost the popular vote once and won it once. He won those elections with 271 and 286 votes (when his father won in 1988, he won 426 votes). It takes 270 to win, and the younger Bush won these elections with very few votes to spare: Flip one crucial state like Ohio and Florida, and his victory disappears. By contrast, Obama could have lost both of those states this year and still won. So even though his share of the electoral vote declined and the popular vote was close, his performance this year was still significantly more robust than the previous two-term Republican President ever managed.
This matters, and it has everything to do with demographic realities. In 2008, we all liked to tell ourselves that Obama's election meant that we had moved beyond the worst of racism, and that this was a new kind of country. But the main arc of Obama's first term was more or less exactly what you would have expected "the first black president" to go through: he lost the white vote (particularly the white male vote), got locked out of most of the south, and was roundly criticized for not being "American" enough. Governors and other yokels talked semi-seriously (one hopes) about secession, and policies that had once been popular in Republican circles were called "socialism" in Obama's hands. A lunatic fringe became convinced that Obama was born in Africa and guided to office as part of a sinister foreign conspiracy, and more mainstream racists libeled him as a beneficiary of preferential treatment who couldn't utter a coherent idea in standard English without a teleprompter to help him.
If Obama got fewer votes this year than last time, it can be explained by one piece of data: in 2008, he lost the white vote by 12 percentage points, and in 2012 he lost it by 20. But his support among the various other racial groups remained constant or improved. The attitude of one racial group has been mistaken for the attitude of the whole country, simply because that racial group made up 76% of the voters. But it is still only one racial group, and the fact that only that racial group had an eight point reaction against the first term of the first black President means something. It does not mean that Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and every other minority group are irrationally biased against white people or the Republican party. It means that European-Americans are irrationally biased against a black President.
As one of the 39% of white people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, I'm proud to say that this election demonstrates the awesome power of a multi-racial voting coalition against a mono-racial one. As a liberal, this makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As a human being, it makes me hopeful.
So if Obama got fewer votes in round two, I feel very confident in ascribing that "loss" to racism, no matter how the other 59% feel about that label (and who knows what the other 2% are up to). It was a unique challenge for an incumbent President (in a dour economy, no less) to overcome, and he overcame it with room to spare. On top of that, liberals had success around the country in Senate races and ballot measures. It wasn't a clean sweep by any means, and it demonstrates the continuing geographical divide that will be politically problematic for this country for some time. But it was a thumping good night for the left. In four more years I'm sure we'll all be pulling our hair out again, but for now we have victory, and we like it.
Here's to freedom, social justice, and a better outlook for the Supreme Court.