A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
After President Obama's faltering, uncertain performance in the debt-ceiling crisis, and with polling showing self-described “conservatives” outnumbering “liberals” by crushing, consistent margins, Republicans ought to face the upcoming presidential race with eagerness and confidence.
Nevertheless, political professionals uniformly predict that the president could easily cruise to reelection and will, at the very least, wage a close, hard-fought campaign against even the most formidable Republican opponent.
This glaring contradiction between the nation’s ideological tilt to the right and the president’s continued status as frontrunner for 2012 exposes two important secrets about voting patterns of the American electorate.
First, ideological orientation seldom determines the success or failure of presidential contenders. And second, race remains a decisive factor for enough U.S. voters to dictate the outcome of close national elections.
On ideology, Republicans felt powerfully encouraged by the results of an Aug. 1 Gallup poll showing nearly twice as many American adults calling themselves “conservative” (41 percent) as those who see themselves as “liberal” (21 percent). The survey reports that these numbers have remained surprisingly constant since 2009, and that liberals have languished below 25 percent for nearly 20 years.
Similar numbers in all major surveys show that the president would have to do far more than rally his liberal base to earn victory in 2012. If both Democrats and Republicans drew 90 percent support from liberals and conservatives, respectively, Barack Obama would need to carry a farfetched 85 percent of self-described moderates in order to reach a bare majority of 51 percent—a dramatic improvement from the 60 percent of moderates he won in 2008, according to exit polls. No candidate, not even landslide victors like Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson, has ever managed to prevail among middle-of-the-roaders by the unimaginable 6-to-1 margin that Obama would, theoretically, need.
How, then, could the president plausibly win reelection?
By concentrating on one of the most significant but frequently overlooked aspects of electoral behavior: In presidential contests, voters seldom (or never) make final decisions based on ideology.
Consider, for instance, the strikingly different outcomes of the last two races for the White House. In 2004, conservative incumbent George W. Bush became the first candidate of either party in 16 years to win a clear majority of the popular vote. Four years later, outspokenly liberal challenger Barack Obama won by a decisive margin of nearly 7 percent.
Did this switch mean that a big chunk of voters shifted their ideology in the course of four years, rejecting conservatism and embracing liberalism?
Absolutely not. In fact, exit polls show that in both 2004 and 2008, precisely the same portion of voters identified themselves as conservative (34 percent), while liberal voters represented a slightly higher proportion of the electorate for John Kerry's losing contest (22 percent) than for Obama’s historic victory (21 percent).
Considering the strident, hyperpartisan polarization in Washington, it may come as a shock that more than one out of five Americans who use the word "conservative" to define their ideology still think Obama does a fine job as president.
In other words, Obama didn’t win because he persuaded more Americans to describe themselves as liberals, or drew more previously committed liberals to the polls. He won based on a general yearning for a fresh face, vague promises of hope and change, and disgust with President Bush, not because voters made an ideological left turn. His candidacy scrupulously avoided ideological labels, and even drew a surprisingly big slice of conservative citizens, winning a full 20 percent of their votes.
What’s more, he’s maintained (or even bettered) that level of support among conservatives in every approval-rating poll of his presidency. The Gallup pulse taking at the end of July found 22 percent of conservatives who approve of his performance as president. Considering the strident, hyperpartisan polarization in Washington, it may come as a shock that more than one out of five Americans who use the word “conservative” to define their ideology still think Obama does a fine job as president.
Who are these conservative Obama lovers?
The answer to that question points toward the second revelation that helps explain how an unequivocally liberal president maintains a chance to prevail in an increasingly conservative nation. The voters who support Obama in spite of ideology are to a great extent black, Hispanic, and Asian conservatives who feel drawn to right-wing ideas but remain allergic to the Republican Party.
This phenomenon became painfully obvious in California in 2008, when hefty majorities of both African-Americans and Latinos voted to defend traditional male-female marriage in the bitter Proposition 8 fight. On the same ballot, Obama carried the state in a landslide, powered largely by the same black and Latino voters who disagreed with Democrats on Proposition 8 (known to liberals as “Proposition Hate”).
These black, Hispanic, and Asian conservatives aren’t just expressing solidarity with the nation’s first nonwhite president. In the Republican sweep of 2010, with Obama’s name nowhere on the ballot, Republican candidates struck out once again with voters of color, barely improving their feeble performance of two years before in minority communities. In national balloting for House seats, only 9 percent of black voters backed GOP candidates, along with 38 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of Asians. Despite the successful GOP campaigns of new Latino governors in New Mexico and Nevada, new Hispanic House members from Idaho, Washington, and Texas, and the emergence of dynamic black GOP congressmen in Florida and South Carolina, the reluctance to vote Republican barely budged from 2008.
Depressed turnout among minorities pushed the white percentage of the 2010 electorate to 77 percent. But there’s no chance that the GOP could—or should—rely on a similar victory formula in the upcoming presidential race, when participation is always higher across the board. Conservatives in the black, Hispanic, and growing Asian communities should therefore become a special target for any GOP challenger to Barack Obama. In every ethnic enclave in America, a significant percentage of the population (many of them loyal churchgoers) espouses right-leaning values but currently feels uncomfortable with the Republican Party. Part of this unease stems from multigenerational family traditions, or from the GOP’s longstanding reputation as a closed country club welcoming only elderly, white, Christian males, or from cynical Democratic efforts to suggest that any criticism of Obama proves the presence of deep-seated Republican racism.
GOP candidates and operatives must do more than dismiss such allegations; they should spare no effort in countering and disproving them. The polling numbers indicate that it’s imperative to intensify Republican outreach efforts aimed squarely at conservatives in minority communities.
If the GOP candidate can unite conservatives of every heritage and skin color, he (or she) can hardly lose in 2012. Recent surveys show that if conservatives stick together, they need to supplement their numbers with a mere one fourth of so-called moderates in order to assemble a majority. If, on the other hand, many nonwhite (and even Jewish) voters once again allow ethnic instinct to overcome core conservative values, then it may allow Barack Obama another term as the anomalous left-wing president of an increasingly center-right nation.