By all accounts, this was the Republicans’ election to win: an economy stuck at a level insufficient to generate enough jobs or income gains; a somewhat disillusioned Democratic base; and a stunted generation of young adults who supported Barack Obama last time by a margin of 71-29 and are unlikely to do it again.
Yet Obama’s lead keeps widening. It’s worth unpacking why.
The most obvious reason, of course, is the sheer clumsiness of Mitt Romney, God’s gift to the Democrats. If a computer had been asked to generate a candidate guaranteed to alienate independents and divide his own base, it could not have done better.
The far right’s effort to “let Ryan be Ryan” only shines a spotlight on the unpopularity of the GOP’s designs for Medicare and Social Security, while Romney’s serial gaffes lead Senate candidates in swing states to disparage their party’s nominee and right-wing commentators to weep.
Another reason is that demographic trends are relentlessly moving in the Democrats’ direction, as long predicted in the Prospect’s pages by John Judis, Ruy Texeira, and others, and recently confirmed in new studies. As Tom Edsall recently wrote in The New York Times, these trends have moved Pennsylvania solidly into the Democratic camp, to the point where the Romney campaign has pulled ads, essentially writing off the state (voter suppression and all).
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in a remarkably candid impromptu chat with a few reporters, bitterly blamed the GOP ticket’s woes on shifting demographics.
"If we lose this election, performance as president doesn't matter like it used to," Graham said in a discussion with The Huffington Post and several other reporters outside the Senate chamber last week.
"There's a reason no president has ever been reelected with an economy like this," Graham said. "It would tell me that it's more of a demographic race for president than it is a performance-based race. And that may be where we're at as a nation, and maybe where we are as a party, and we just don't know it."
Graham, who said earlier that the country wasn't "generating enough angry, white guys" to keep the GOP in business, was referring to the growing trend of Republicans depending on white voters to win elections.
Even so, a decent candidate might have done far better against Obama. What’s remarkable is that a large Republican field was incapable of generating such a candidate. It’s instructive to ask: Was this outcome more random luck for the Democrats, or does it say something deeply structural about the Republicans? Is a true conservative, by definition, a hapless candidate because reality is on the progressive side and the far right just attracts goofballs?
That’s comforting to believe, but too facile. Surely a candidate like Jeb Bush—conservative enough for the Tea Party base, able to masquerade as a moderate, and competent at politics—could have done much better against Obama and even might have defeated him. Fortunately for Democrats, his name was Bush (third time is no charm), and Jeb sat this one out.
But something deeper is at work. If Romney does lose, it’s inconceivable that Republicans will decide they were too right-wing for the country. Rather, they will conclude that their standard-bearer was both too moderate and too incompetent. The Republicans will be even further in the grip of the far right for a generation to come—because there are no old-fashioned moderate Republicans left to take their party back, and at the base, right-wing populism is stronger than ever among maybe 40 percent of the voters.
Electorally, that should bode well for the Democrats. But what kind of Democrats? At the presidential level, the party keeps drifting center-right. That’s annoying at the level of principle; as a matter of sheer pragmatism, center-right isn’t solving dire national problems such as an eroding middle class, a parasitic financial system, and a ruined generation of young adults, not to mention global climate change.
Going forward, it will be a war between a far-right Republican Party that has partly succeeded in so wrecking government that voters are not sure whether to trust it and a Democratic presidential party that seems incapable of seizing transforming moments and solving deep-seated ills. This will change for the better only when Democrats manage to nominate a compelling progressive.