WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is remaking the Democratic Party, forging a new political coalition that is steadily replacing the old party alignment first built by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Obama, the first African-American and first post-Baby Boom president, is doing it by amassing large numbers of female, minority, youth and gay voters.
His re-election was made possible by the same voters who approved gay marriage in three states, access to in-state tuition for young illegal immigrants in one state and elected a record number of women — at least 97 — to Congress.
Now, after propelling Obama to victory, the lobbying begins and some groups warn that Democrats will need to keep their promises to keep the coalition viable beyond this election. These core constituencies want comprehensive immigration reform, equality for gays and lesbians, and climate change solutions.
Meanwhile the Republicans, having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, plunged Wednesday into an intense period of self-examination, blame-setting and testy debate over whether their party needs serious change or just some minor tweaks.
The fallout will help determine whether the GOP might return to heights approximating the Ronald Reagan years or, as some fear, suffer even deeper losses as the nation’s Democratic-leaning Hispanics increase in number.
“The party is clearly in some sort of identity crisis,” said Rick Tyler, a past aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The Democrats must deliver
“Our collective labor as a community has engaged marginalized voters and brought them into the political process — and now our collective labor will demand that President Obama use every bit of his power to help us — all of us — get equal,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, national field director for GetEQUAL, a national gay rights organization.
“In 2012, communities of color, young people and women are not merely interest groups, they’re the `new normal’ demographic of the American electorate,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States.
In his acceptance speech early Wednesday, Obama referenced the nation’s changing population.
“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, disabled, disabled, gay or straight — you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try,” he told thousands in Chicago.
Will GOP move even further right?
Hard-core conservatives, furious at President Barack Obama’s re-election in the face of a weak economy, called for a wholesale shift to resolutely right positions on social and fiscal matters. Some demanded that party leaders resign.
Establishment Republicans largely shrugged off the tirades. But they split into two main camps themselves, portending potentially lengthy soul-searching, especially in Congress.
One group calls for calm and a steady course. It emphasizes that the party still controls the House, and notes that Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than in 2008.
“The Republican Party is exactly right on the issues,” said Terry Holt, a veteran GOP strategist with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The party mainly needs to nominate candidates who can relate to average Americans better than multimillionaire Mitt Romney did, Holt said.
Some other Republicans, however, see bigger problems. The party must shed its “absolutism on issues like tax increases,” which congressional lawmakers oppose at virtually every level, said John Ullyot, a former Republican Senate aide.
“The only way the party is going to move more to the middle is when we get sick of losing,” he said.
Some activists in both parties say Republicans eventually must move to the middle to survive. But their primaries are dominated by staunch opponents of tax hikes, abortion, immigration reform and government regulations. Until and unless that changes, a shift toward the center may be impossible.
“It’s harder for the Republicans, because they are more ideological than Democrats,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. “The religious fervor of the Republican base makes it hard to change or compromise, even though that’s what’s needed to remain viable as a party.”
While many Republicans say the party is aligned with most Americans on big issues, Tuesday’s exit polls raise doubts in some areas. Six in 10 voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the highest share saying so since the mid-1990s. Two-thirds of voters said illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
Nearly half of all voters supported Obama’s plan to raise taxes on couples’ incomes above $250,000. Thirteen percent said taxes should be increased on all Americans, and 35 percent said no one should pay higher taxes.
The reshaping of American politics
Standing outside Obama’s house in Chicago, TyRon Turner, an African-American supporter who traveled from Inglewood, Calif., to attend Obama’s victory party, couldn’t stop thinking about the divisions in the country evident on TV on election night as cameras panned to the saddened, mostly white faces at Romney’s party to the jubilant, racially diverse audience at the president’s.
“We were all hugging each other, black and white,” Turner said. “I said to someone, `Look at all the different races in this room.’ We were all together as Americans, as we should be. This is what America looks like.”
Supporters and opponents alike had questioned the staying power of Obama’s coalition in the years after he won his first election. But on Wednesday, even Republicans began to acknowledge that they needed to make their own changes.
Republican commentator Dick Morris wrote Wednesday that he had mistakenly believed Romney would win in part because he thought the 2008 surge in black, Latino and young voter turnout would recede in 2012.
“These high levels of minority and young voter participation are here to stay,” he wrote. “And, with them, a permanent reshaping of our nation’s politics.”
Independent political analyst Charlie Cook said Obama won on the “cold number, the demographics of who voted,” and that Republicans must look beyond white males to win again. “That’s just not where this country is going to be five, 10, 15, 20 years from now,” he said. “This country is changing and they’ve got to change.”
The nation’s rapidly changing demographics were on Obama’s side. Population increases in key battleground states were largely among Democratic constituencies, including African Americans, Asians and Hispanics.
An estimated 10 percent of the electorate was Latino, up from 9 percent in 2008. And Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls, up from 67 percent four years ago.
He received 60 percent of the vote from people ages 18-29. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement — CIRCLE — a youth research organization at Tufts University, said that early estimates show that 22 million to 23 million young Americans — or at least 49 percent — voted. CIRCLE director Peter Levine said turnout for young voters has increased over the last three elections — averaging what he called a “new normal” of about 50 percent — and making the once not-so-reliable voting segment now an “essential political bloc.”
The gay vote is not yet measured in exit polls. But a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research said that 5 percent of voters self-identified as gay, lesbian and bisexual and more than three-quarters of them cast their ballots for Obama.