Mixed Message: Divided Nation Is Still Divided

by Stuart Rothenberg November 9, 2012 · 10:14 AM EST

Tuesday’s results were not unexpected, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t send shock waves through the political establishment.

The president was re-elected at the same time Democrats retained the Senate and Republicans continued to hold the House, but the elections seem to raise more questions about the future for the GOP.

While the president won only a narrow popular vote victory of a little more than 2 points, all of the swing states swung his way, creating a solid electoral vote victory for him. Democrats also won all of the pure tossups in the Senate — including Wisconsin, Montana and Virginia — and most of the House tossups, giving them a better night than they could have hoped.

No, this was not a blowout election for Democrats, but the hardening of the party coalitions and the changing face of the country — and the electorate — pose major problems for the Republican Party.

Let’s be clear what happened on Tuesday: A divided nation showed its fundamental fractures in a way that largely could have been predicted a year ago.

In fact, in June 2011, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed President Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among registered voters. Sixteen months later, in the Oct. 12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, the president held an almost identical advantage of 49 percent to 44 percent over Romney, which translated to 47 percent for each man among likely voters.

During the next 16 months, Obama’s numbers on the ballot test fluctuated from 51 percent to 46 percent of registered voters, while Romney’s ranged from 43 percent to 47 percent. When Republicans started getting excited about Romney — after the first debate — his likely voters numbers moved up from the mid-40s to the upper 40s, even though his registered-voters numbers didn’t move dramatically.

The race tightened significantly when pollsters changed from reporting registered voters to reporting likely voters. At that point, the race turned into a tossup, well within the margin of error. And at the end of the day, Obama beat Romney 50 percent to 48 percent.

Exit polling showed Romney improved on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 showing among many groups: white men, white women, independents, 18-29-year-olds, college graduates, self-described moderates and voters 65 and older. But he made no substantial inroads among blacks or Hispanics.

More important, white voters constituted only 72 percent of the electorate this year, compared with 74 percent in 2008, a trend that has been apparent for years and will continue. Hispanics, on the other hand, inched up from 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 10 percent this year, and younger voters, age 18-29, continued their unusually high rate of participation, constituting 19 percent of the electorate this time compared with 18 percent four years ago.

For Republicans, the picture should be pretty clear: The Democratic coalition is growing while the GOP base is shrinking. Just as important, key Democratic constituencies seem less vulnerable to defecting than do GOP-leaning groups.

In the Senate, for example, North Dakota voters gave Romney a 21-point victory, but many of those Romney voters chose Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the state’s Senate race.

In Utah, Romney carried the state by 48 points, yet voters in the solidly Republican 4th district re-elected Rep. Jim Matheson (D) over Republican Mia Love, who was regarded as a potential rock star in her party. And in Georgia, Democratic Rep. John Barrow survived comfortably in a Republican district.

Republicans were not so lucky on the other end of the spectrum. Two very moderate Republican House candidates in New England, Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Andrew Roraback in Connecticut, lost narrowly, almost certainly because not enough Democratic voters split their tickets. Moderate Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) couldn’t overcome redistricting and the heavy Obama vote in his district to win a second term.

New England clearly remains a black hole for the GOP. In addition to the losses by Tisei and Roraback in the House, Republicans lost both House seats in New Hampshire, the Granite State governorship, Scott Brown’s Senate seat in Massachusetts and retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe’s seat in Maine.

They also came up short in their shot at what once looked like a very winnable Rhode Island Congressional district, and in Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon once again received 43 percent of the vote, a sure sign of her ceiling in the state.

Democratic victories at the House level came disproportionately from New England and two states affected by redistricting: Illinois and California.

In the Land of Lincoln, four GOP seats flipped to the Democrats, and Democrats held on to a vulnerable seat of their own. And in California, Democrats appear headed to defeat three Republican incumbents — Dan Lungren, Brian Bilbray and Mary Bono Mack — in addition to winning a tossup open seat and holding onto two potentially vulnerable incumbents.

Elsewhere, the GOP more than held its own, including winning key Member-vs.-Member races in Ohio and Iowa, picking up redrawn districts held by Democratic Reps. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) and Larry Kissell (N.C.) and by retiring Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Mike Ross (Ark.), and turning back formidable challenges against Republican Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Mike Coffman (Colo.) and Daniel Webster (Fla.).

While Democrats didn’t come close to winning back the House, that disappointment is more than offset by the president’s victory and the surprisingly strong showing by Democrats in the Senate.

The big question is now how the parties — both in Congress and in the grass roots — interpret the election results and what kind of leadership and approach the president will take on dealing with the economy and the budget. Dusting off the previously ignored Simpson-Bowles proposal might well be a good place to start.