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Calvin Trillin (Della Rollins For The Globe and Mail)
Calvin Trillin (Della Rollins For The Globe and Mail)

essay

Obama’s army of voters: ‘The man can count’ Add to ...

For a reporter travelling with a political campaign, I used to say, the Republicans were less fun but also less likely to lose your luggage. They started meetings on time and stuck to the agenda and kept their collar buttons secured even after the meeting was adjourned. Democrats were seen as being in more or less permanent disarray: During the administration of Bill Clinton, the picture in the public mind of a White House meeting was of a noisy gathering that got started late and went on too long and often got sidetracked and resulted in takeout pizza stains on the briefing papers. Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher from Oklahoma, famously said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

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But apparently this impression of Democratic disorganization is no longer valid, if it ever was. In the 2012 presidential campaign, political reporters agreed that the Obama team’s ground game – the laborious and, these days, technologically complicated process of identifying sympathetic voters and delivering them to the polls – blew away the equivalent operation of the Republicans (whose ticket was headed, of course, by a man who began his career as a management consultant). Old-fashioned American political operatives, the sort who knew all the poll-watchers by name and furnished the smoke in smoke-filled rooms, had a phrase that they used as a high compliment for a politician they admired for his realistic view of the way things worked: “The man can count.” Barack Obama’s troops could count.

In fact, one way to look at the presidential election is that the Democratic Party did everything in its power to bring out the voters in every demographic that research and past election results had shown to be predominantly sympathetic to its cause – young people, Latinos, African Americans, college-educated women – and the Republican Party seemed intent on driving those voters away.

A lot of Latinos and African Americans and young people of all backgrounds, for instance, must have thought that Mitt Romney was talking about them in that leaked video from a fat-cat gathering in Boca Raton, Fla. – the video in which he told big donors privately that he could never persuade the 47 per cent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax to take responsibility for their own lives instead of enjoying victimhood. It’s easy to guess the impression those remarks made on some alleged moocher who was working two jobs and, considering payroll taxes, among other things, was being taxed at a higher rate than Mr. Romney.

I can still brighten up a grey afternoon by trying to imagine who smuggled the video camera into that gathering of rich Republicans. I heard a rumour that it was the wife of one of the guests. You could see her as a closet Democrat, but I prefer to think of her as someone who simply hates her husband. She likes the Lexus. She likes the beach house in Boca Raton. She loves the private jet. But she hates her husband.

Imagine, also, calling in a consultant who specializes in attracting female voters and having that consultant say, “I think we should talk about rape and imply that it’s not really an unmitigated evil.” That’s what the Republicans appear to have done. As Mr. Romney tried to soften his views in order to appeal to women – his latest position on abortion named rape and incest as exceptions to his opposition – he was burdened by Republican senatorial candidates such as Richard Mourdock, who said the embryo produced by a rape had to be protected because God intended it to be, and Todd Akin, who said there is no embryo to worry about since “legitimate rape” shuts down the reproductive system. (Congressman Akin, it almost goes without saying, is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.) That gave Democrats the opportunity to remind voters that the Republican platform favours giving an embryo – or “unborn child,” as the platform puts it – all of the constitutional rights enjoyed by what I suppose it thinks of as “born people,” presumably meaning that a doctor performing an abortion under any circumstances could be arrested for premeditated murder.

As the Republican primaries pushed candidates further and further to the right on the question of immigration, Mr. Romney said he would take care of the problem of about 12 million undocumented immigrants through “self-deportation” – which sounded something like Robert DeNiro addressing the mirror in Taxi Driver. (“You talking to me, officer?” “Yes, you’re looking a bit swarthy today. Could I please see your papers.” “Funny you should ask, because when I changed jackets this morning, I forgot …”) Mr. Romney got 27 per cent of the Latino vote.

He did about the same with Asian Americans and even worse with African Americans. He was left with the white (particularly older white male) vote, and, in the words of a former Republican congressman who was quoted in The New York Times two days after the election, “There just aren’t enough middle-aged white guys that we can scrape together to win.” It’s a sure bet that this weekend the people who pontificate from Washington on Sunday-morning programs – the people I customarily refer to as the Sabbath Gasbags – will discuss (again) whether a party whose core is a steadily diminishing portion of the American electorate can long survive as a national party.

Instead of crafting a message that might appeal to the groups they had been losing – the groups that are steadily becoming an increasing portion of the American electorate – the Republican strategy seemed to have been to make it more difficult for them to vote. Across the country, Republican state legislatures passed restrictive election laws, supposedly to fight voter fraud but actually to disenfranchise people who customarily voted Democratic. It was a strategy that struck many people (including some federal judges, who threw out some of the laws) as not just anti-Democratic but anti-democratic.

I was among those people, as reflected in these lines from a poem I wrote recently on how the Republicans seem to be dealing with the demographic changes in the electorate:

Yes, too many voters of darker complexion

Can cause the wrong person to win an election.

And college kids mostly are just in a phase

That makes them left-wing and supportive of gays.

To us, each of them is a dangerous blighter

Whose voting should wait ’til he’s older and whiter.

The voting we need in this land of the free

Is voting by people with whom we agree.

How the vote went

Americans eligible to vote

72 per cent, whites

10 per cent, Latinos

53 per cent, women

13 per cent, blacks

3 per cent, Asians

Americans who voted for Obama

39 per cent of whites

5 per cent of Latinos

53 per cent of women

90 per cent of blacks

39 per cent of whites

Sources: University of Connecticut; CNN exit polls

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