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(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

How the U.S. voters changed their stripes Add to ...

A memo to Republicans: Try getting to know the American voter.

Sure, back in the glory days of Morning in America, the ballot-booth sweetheart was a white male – possibly a good working-class chap from a swing state. But as President Barack Obama’s win this week made plain, there’s a new electorate – and it looks very different. Latinos made up 10 per cent of the vote. Blacks made up 13 per cent. Asians 3 per cent. Women (of all ethnicities) 53 per cent. And rich doesn’t necessarily mean conservative.

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The change has been gradual, but its impact has been dramatic, with Democrats capturing all the growth, and Republicans confined to a shrinking piece of the pie.

Consider, for instance, Colorado. The state was reliably red in former presidential races, but has now twice backed Mr. Obama. To understand that shift, look at those exit polls – 14 per cent of the state’s voters were Latino, and three-quarters of them backed the President. It was enough to clinch the state, and the race.

You can certainly forgive Latino Democrats here a bit of a gloating. “We stopped Romney in his tracks,” said Mannie Rodriguez, the jubilant 64-year-old chairman of the Democrats’ Latino initiative in Colorado, where the Latino population has risen 45 per cent in a decade. “The message is you’d better get out there and get the Latino vote if you want to win.” Indeed, only one segment went to Republican Mitt Romney: He drew 62 per cent of white men and 56 per cent of white women.

Whites accounted for just 72 per cent of the vote, according to CNN exit polls. Compare that with 88 per cent in 1980, when Ronald Reagan swept aside Jimmy Carter (and men were also still a majority, at 51 per cent).

Since then, things have changed, gradually: By 1992, when Bill Clinton came to power, women had risen to 53 per cent of the electorate, as they are today, and favoured the Democrats, as did black voters, who made up 8 per cent, while Latinos were only 2 per cent. By 2000, when George W. Bush won the presidency but lost the popular vote, Latinos had jumped to 7 per cent, and were leaning hard to the Democrats.

Mr. Obama has capitalized on these trends in key swing states – Ohio and Florida, as well as Colorado – leaving Republicans to do some serious soul-searching.

Or, as Colorado political scientist Tom Cronin puts it: “You can’t just have a party of angry white men.”

In many ways, Prof. Cronin’s state illustrates the shifting sands best: It is growing, heavily urban, rich, well-educated, increasingly diverse and ever more progressive. Voters here legalized marijuana on Tuesday and, two days later, the Colorado House of Representatives appointed its first gay speaker.

And as Mr. Rodriguez was celebrating, Prof. Cronin and two colleagues gathered in conservative Colorado Springs, an hour south of Denver, to entertain a delegation of government officials from five Asian countries – and share some head-scratching.

The guests were bleary-eyed from the election marathon the night before. But their first question was still this one: What’s happening to the demographics of American politics?

Bob Loevy, a long-time Colorado College professor, is a dwindling breed of Republican – his great-great-grandfather was a roommate of Abraham Lincoln, glory days now far gone by.

He was despondent (“Of course, it’s a grim morning for me”) and told the room that a major realignment is taking place. It’s a factor of gender and race, but also of the rich, another growing arm of the Obama coalition, both in Colorado and across the nation.

“The wealthiest counties in Colorado have simply shifted from Republican to Democrat,” he explained. Hard-line Republican stances, and Tea Party influences, are “driving the well-educated classes out,” and this, more than anything, threatens the Republican model by taking suburban counties out of the party’s hands.

If all this continues, the Republicans “will become even more of a regional party, not a national party.”

It was in Denver that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign began in 2008, before a packed, deafening crowd that filled the city’s football stadium, when he became the Democrats’ nominee for president. Until then, Colorado had been firmly Republican when it came to presidential races.

Since then, Mr. Obama has proved that it’s a prominent “purple state” – part Republican red, part Democrat blue. While most of House of Representatives members from Colorado are Republican, both senators are not.

The President’s formula here relies on a broad coalition of minorities, women and young voters. But Latinos were thought to be a tougher sell.

That’s because they overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton in her race against Mr. Obama, a race that ended when he took the stage in Denver four years ago. There were questions about whether Latinos would show up to vote for him, and even some suggestion they night resent a black candidate for president.

He won them over slowly. His health-care bill was popular among parts of America’s Latino community, large swaths of which were uninsured. He pushed for the DREAM Act, which would give legal status to scores of young, American-raised Latinos. When Congress balked, he struck up a program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that opened the door to giving young illegal residents work papers.

This won him favour with Latinos. What didn’t was the hard line he took on deportation – no president has booted out more illegal residents than Barack Obama.

But Republicans took a harder line. Mr. Obama didn’t so much win Latinos as capitalize on their anger. It made Mr. Rodriguez’s job easy, as the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center said that 14 per cent of Colorado’s voters were Latino this year, with 75 per cent backing Mr. Obama and 23 per cent backing Mitt Romney.

But the Colorado version of Mr. Obama’s so-called coalition goes beyond Denver’s Latinos – it includes the richest enclave in the state.

Not surprisingly, the town at the heart of Colorado’s wealthiest area is Aspen, the ski resort and billionaire playground. The surrounding county went overwhelmingly Democratic on Tuesday, and is one of the 10 richest in America – eight of which, CNBC reported, went to Mr. Obama.

There has long been a link between being rich and being Republican, but “in the state of Colorado, that correlation does not hold,” says Tom Cronin, the political scientist.

Leading the party’s effort in Aspen and the surrounding county was Blanca Uzeta O’Leary, a 54-year-old Latina lawyer who mobilized a grassroots coalition of women, the rich and Latinos, typically from towns around Aspen.

She calls Aspen a “blue dot” enclave of Democratic support, with independents and moderates, despite the money. “Wealthy people have been coming here forever, and even the Republicans that come here aren’t the Tea Party republicans,” she says.

For young women, Democrats stressed Planned Parenthood funding and reproductive rights – which, to the surprise of Ms. O’Leary, was a top issue among young Latinas. “That’s what I couldn’t believe ... I thought the Catholic Church was a big deal, until this summer,” she says.

Even immigration, typically a top issue for Latino voters, wasn’t registering. “It was birth control and planned parenthood. I thought that was cool. They just don’t think that’s right.”

Among the rich, it was issues of climate change and the middle class. Among the older Latinos, it was immigration, and the Republicans had already angered voters. “They went out of their way to top each other on who could be the most racist and slanderous to people with brown skin,” Ms. O’Leary said, adding the Republicans made her job “hugely” easy. “They did it all themselves.”

Back in Colorado Springs, the third political scientist to address the visitors from Asia, echoed the theme of her colleagues: “We’re seeing a changing landscape.”

Dana Wittmer researches women voters, and says unmarried women broke 2-to-1 for Mr. Obama. Clearly, she adds, the Republicans’ constituency is shrinking and the consequences for the party are dire. “When you start to think about the changing demographics of the country, that’s not the best strategy moving forward.”

The opposition, meanwhile, is expanding a tent that was already big enough to help Mr. Obama overcome a dreadful economy to beat the odds and win re-election. In his acceptance speech, he evoked some of the soaring rhetoric that put him on the radar in 2004.

“If you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or where you love, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or native American, or young or old, or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try,” Mr. Obama declared, to thundering applause from his hometown crowd in Chicago.

“I believe we can seize this future together, because we are not as divided as our politics suggest.”

For Republicans in Colorado, though, it’s a lesson – the politics of division are paying diminishing returns. No one knows it better than Prof. Loevy, who has seen Colorado become more Democratic as his party has driven away all those upon whom the Obama coalition is built.

He, too, sees a gloomy future.

“I have been tracking this change for 20 years – I expect it to continue,” he explains. “My view is, for the next 10, 15 years, Colorado will be a purple state, but it will progressively change into a blue state if these present trends continue, which I think they will.

“My view is, until the Republicans solve their problem with social issues and, above all, the purging of liberals and moderates that’s taking place, there’s no reason to think these trends won’t continue.”

The changing voter

1996 (Clinton vs. Dole)

White 56%

Black 50.6%

Asian NA

Latino 26.7%

18-35 39.6%

Women 55.5%

2008 (Obama vs. McCain)

White 59.6%

Black 60.8%

Asian 32.1%

Latino 31.6%

18-35 48%

Women 60.4%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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