Summing up Tuesday’s election, David Espo of the Associated Press wrote, “Obama won the popular vote narrowly, the electoral vote comfortably, and the battleground states where the campaign was principally waged in a landslide.” It’s a good line and an accurate one — but the real landslide on Tuesday was broader and deeper than the presidential race. Up and down the ticket, from candidate races to ballot initiatives, a liberal landslide swept the country.
In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay US senator, and the biggest story about the race is that her sexuality didn’t turn out to be a big story. Gay-marriage proponents won in all four states where the issue appeared on the ballot — Maine, Washington, and Maryland became the first states to approve legal gay unions; voters rejected a Minnesota initiative to outlaw them. The surge surprised many strategists working on the issue. Going into the night, only Maine was considered a strong bet.
In 2004, Republicans placed marriage initiatives on the ballot in swing states like Ohio in a successful effort to exploit anti-gay sentiment. This year, Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage, and he won Ohio.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. (A third, Oregon, came close.) Here, the liberal tide swept even beyond the Obama administration’s comfort zone. The Justice Department reiterated that marijuana is illegal under federal law and users will be prosecuted.
In California, voters defeated a major initiative, Proposition 32, to limit the power of organized labor. And, of course, the candidate of business, Mitt Romney, fared worst of all. “The notion that paper-pushing Wall Street-associated rich people better understand the economy than working people took a shellacking on Tuesday,” says Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman.
The true cause of Romney’s loss, and the reason why polls disagreed leading up to it, was that minorities and young people (liberals) showed up in record number and whites (conservatives) did not — something GOP polls didn’t anticipate. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos made up a larger proportion of the vote than ever before, whites a smaller one. A RealClearPolitics analysis estimated that 7 million fewer whites voted than in 2008.
The landslide was vividly apparent on the issue of choice. A chorus of appalling comments by GOP candidates on rape and abortion helped Obama win women by 12 points and single women by 38 points.
The strength of the liberal wave isn’t fully reflected in the numbers.
Gerrymandering saved GOP House seats that would have flipped, so Democrats, who performed strongly in Senate races, only gained about 7 seats in the House.
And the broad Republican effort to suppress minority voting surely had a real effect. An election-night survey by the AFL-CIO and Hart Research found that 9 percent of whites had to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. By contrast, 22 percent of blacks and 24 percent of Latinos had to wait that long. Many simply gave up.
This liberal landslide was the product of two forces neatly encapsulated in the examples of what happened with women’s rights and gay marriage. Until recently, acceptance of marriage equality was growing at a steady pace because of what strategists call “generational replacement” — old people who oppose it were dying off and being replaced by young people who support it. Now, acceptance is speeding up. “The president’s use of the term ‘evolution’ to describe his changing view is actually very reflective of what’s happening in the country,” says Bill Smith, an independent political consultant working on the issue.
By contrast, support for abortion rights doesn’t move much. We’re a narrowly pro-choice country. Women’s shift to Obama and the Democrats didn’t reflect changing societal views about abortion. It reflected a rejection of conservative Republicans.
Both forces shaped the election’s outcome in ways that will soon be very clear — not just in terms of who’s marrying whom or what they’re smoking or who’s president. When the 113th Congress convenes in January, white men will constitute a minority (47 percent) of House Democrats, the first time in US history for a party caucus (House Republicans will be 90 percent white men). If Republicans don’t change course, this could repeat for years to come. The latest US Census figures reveal another milestone: in 2011, for the first time in history, minority newborns outnumbered whites.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.