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Beyond Identity Politics

Demographic polarization hurts the country more than it hurts either party.

I’m assuming, based on the facts as they stand so far (Florida neck-and-neck with 80% counted, North Carolina still not called, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan all called for Obama), that the odds are pretty high that the President is going to be reelected tonight.

As I said this morning, that shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Knowing only that Obama is an incumbent President who didn’t face a primary challenge, and that the economy is growing (if modestly), you’d expect him to be reelected (if by a modest margin).

Assuming that pans out, there’s going to be a lot of post-mortem discussion about what the GOP “must” do to get back in the game. A lot of these discussions will center on demographics – how Republicans have to win more of the Hispanic vote, or more of the secular vote, or more of the woman’s vote.

In my view, this is completely backwards.

This analysis would only be true if it was impossible to increase Republican margins among white voters/male voters/religious voters to offset their losses elsewhere. And I haven’t heard a cogent argument why that would be the case.

Based on exit polls, Romney has captured a percentage of the white vote comparable to the 1984 Reagan percentage. But, to look at it another way, the white vote still dominates the Democratic part of the electorate – over 60% of the Democratic vote came from white voters. Something like 45% of men will have voted Democratic. 41% of those who attend religious services weekly will have voted Democratic. If the goal is increased demographic polarization, there’s plenty of room for either or both parties to pursue such polarization.

The question is not whether you can win in the future on the basis of demographic polarization. The question is what the consequences would be – for the demographic groups in question, and for the country as a whole.

In my view, the fact that black and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly prefer the Democratic party hurts black and Hispanic voters more than it hurts the Republicans. Republicans don’t need to court these voters – these voters need to court the Republican Party. The fact that highly religious white voters overwhelmingly prefer the Republican party hurts highly religious white voters more than it hurts the Democrats. The Democrats don’t need to court these voters – these voters need to court the Democratic Party. And polarization on the basis of identity hurts the country more than it hurts either party.

Trench warfare is bad for privates – they get slaughtered going over the top – but good for generals – the front lines don’t move much, so nothing is likely to happen that will get them canned.

The changing shape of the competing electoral coalitions is interesting, and tells us something about what each party is likely to do. But the median voter theorem dictates that no coalition can achieve long-term dominance. So what all Americans should want is for these coalitions to be maximally fluid, because that is what will keep the government accountable.



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