The Return of the Obama Coalition

A rising electorate, recovering economy, and rejection of conservative ideology drove the president’s historic re-election in 2012.

President Barack Obama's 2012 election marks the culmination of a decades-long project to build an electorally viable and ideologically coherent progressive coalition in national politics. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
President Barack Obama's 2012 election marks the culmination of a decades-long project to build an electorally viable and ideologically coherent progressive coalition in national politics. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

With President Barack Obama’s decisive victory in the 2012 election, he becomes the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and the only president since Ronald Reagan—to win two consecutive elections with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Although the election was closely contested, President Obama successfully solidified his historic progressive coalition from 2008 and held on to all of the states he won that year with the exception of conservative-leaning Indiana and North Carolina (as of posting, the results in Florida were still too close to call). And after the electoral disaster of that Democrats suffered in 2010 at the congressional level, the party expanded its majority in the Senate with significant wins in Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and even Indiana.

Why did this happen? A potent mix of demographics, a steadily improving economy, a clear rejection of the GOP’s extreme conservatism, and an embrace of pragmatic progressive policies on social and economic issues propelled the president and his party to victory. The president’s central message that “everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same rules” was more convincing to Americans dealing with rising inequality and diminished economic opportunities than the conservative alternative of supply-side tax cuts, deregulation, and limited government. His policy choices—from the stimulus bill and auto and financial sector bailouts to the health care law and support for expanded rights for women, Latinos, and gay and lesbian families—clearly paid off politically as the nation decided to give the president more time to lay a new foundation for our economy, society and government.

With his clear Electoral College and national popular vote majorities, President Obama has arguably created a genuine realignment at the national level that could continue to shape American politics for years to come. Obama’s strong progressive majority—built on a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition in support of an activist government that promotes freedom, opportunity, and security for all—is real and growing and it reflects the face and beliefs of the United States in the early part of the 21st Century. The GOP must face the stark reality that its voter base is declining and its ideology is too rigid to represent the changing face of today’s country.

The remainder of this memo will provide a concise overview of the demographic breakdown of the election based on exit poll and election data available today. Updates will be made as more data are finalized.

What happened in 2012?

Basic election results

President Obama achieved re-election with at least 303 electoral votes. Moreover, he seems likely to carry Florida as well, where he has a slight lead with few votes remaining to be counted, the majority of which are from Democratic-leaning areas. That would bring him to 332 electorate votes, only 33 below his 2008 election victory total.

Obama also carried the popular vote. As we write, he is leading the nationwide vote count by around 2,800,000 votes, a 2.4 percentage point margin (50.4-48). Just as they did in 2008, These margins are likely to grow as the vote is fully counted from the West Coast. The president’s final popular vote margin should be closer to 3 points.

The Democrats had a very strong showing in Senate races. They entered the night with 23 seats to defend, compared to just 10 for the Republicans, an imbalance that led many observers to believe that Republicans could recapture control of the Senate. But that did not happen as Democrats instead expanded their 5- seat majority to 55 (including two independents who will caucus with the Democrats).

Republicans did manage to hold onto their control of the House of Representatives, by about a 237-197 majority, plus or minus four seats. And they retained their domination of the nation’s governorships, adding a 30th seat, the governor’s mansion in North Carolina.

Despite these setbacks, it was clearly an excellent night for the Democrats overall. Below we discuss what underlies this impressive performance, starting with who voted in this election—the composition of the electorate—followed by how different groups voted in the election and concluding with the significance of this election for our future.

Who voted?

The voters who showed up in 2012 were far different from those who showed up in 2010, when the Republicans made historic gains in the House of Representatives. Voters in 2012 were much less white, much younger, and less conservative. In these respects, 2012’s electorate marked the return of the Obama coalition of 2008 and, more broadly, an electorate that looks like the America of today, not yesterday.

Race. Voters in 2012 were 72 percent white and 28 percent people of color. The minority figure is an increase of 2 percentage points from the 2008 level of 26 percent, and 5 points from the 2010 level of 23 percent. The increase since 2008, which we predicted in our “Path to 270” paper, is consistent with historical trends and observed increases in the minority share of eligible voters over the last four years. Prior to the election, however, many prominent national surveys were drawing likely voter samples that projected the minority share of voters to remain static or even decline relative to 2008. Gallup estimated minority voters around 22 percent, Washington Post/ABC around 23 percent, and the Pew Research Center around 24 percent. Virtually no pollsters had the minority share reaching the actual 28 percent. This suggests an ongoing problem for the industry in keeping up with a rapidly changing America.

The share of African American voters remained at its 13 percent level from 2008, despite the predictions of many observers that black voter enthusiasm would flag and these voters would not turn out in the same huge numbers for the president. And Hispanics, in line with their growing share of the electorate, increased their share of voters to 10 percent, up from 8.5 percent in 2008, despite similar skepticism about their level of voter enthusiasm. The “sleeping giant” has evidently woken up, aided of course by massive voter registration and GOTV efforts.

Age. Young voters also defied skepticism about their likely levels of voter turnout. They comprised 19 percent of voters this year, up from 18 percent in Obama’s historic campaign of 2008, and way up from 12 percent in 2010. Most of the turnout increase relative to 2008 appeared to be concentrated among the youngest members (18-24 year olds) of the Millennial generation, who increased their share of voters from 10 percent to 11 percent. On the other end of the age distribution, seniors’ turnout was the same as in 2008: 16 percent of voters.

Ideology. Liberals were 25 percent of voters in 2012, up from 22 percent in 2008. Since 1992 the percent of liberals among presidential voters has varied in a narrow band between 20 percent and 22 percent, so the figure for this year is quite unusual. Conservatives, at 35 percent, were up one point from the 2008 level, but down a massive 7 points since 2010.

How did they vote?

The return of the Obama coalition—indeed, its expansion in terms of numbers—explains a good deal of what happened in 2012. But the other part of the story is how various groups within the Obama coalition actually voted in 2012. If Obama had not been able to hold most of his support within these groups, he would not have prevailed, despite the growth in size of these groups.

Race. President Obama lost the white vote in 2012 by a wider margin than he did in 2008—20 points (59 percent-39 percent), compared to 12 points (55 percent-43 percent), respectively. This is very similar to the performance of Michael Dukakis against George H.W. Bush in 1988. But while the first President Bush was able to build a comfortable 7-point victory from such a large advantage among white voters, Gov. Mitt Romney lost this year’s election with basically the same advantage. That is a mark of how much the country has changed in the intervening 24 years, as the minority population has surged.

Overall, Obama received 80 percent support from people of color in 2012, just as he did in 2008. His support among African-Americans was almost as overwhelming this year (93 percent-6 percent) as it was in 2008 (95 percent-4 percent). And his support among Hispanics (71 percent-27 percent) improved substantially over its 2008 level (67 percent-31 percent). Furthermore, it is possible his support among Latinos was even higher, since exit polls tend to undersample Latinos who are Spanish dominant, poorer, and live in less assimilated communities. A Latino Decisions election eve poll, which corrects for these sampling problems, found Latino support for Obama at 75 percent nationally and also found his Latino support substantially higher in various swing states, like in Colorado, where the Latino Decisions poll found 87 percent supporting the president, compared to 75 percent listed in the corresponding state exit poll.

In addition, Obama achieved historic levels of support among Asian-Americans,carrying them 73-26, compared to 62-35 in 2008.

Age. Young people aged 18-29 years old supported Democrats by a 23-point margin in the 2012 election, 60 percent to 37 percent. This is strong support, by far Obama’s best performance among any age group, just as was the case in 2008, when Obama performed even more strongly among these voters (66 percent-32 percent). It is also worth noting that Obama did about as well among 18–24 year olds (60 percent-36 percent) as he did among 25–29 year olds (60 percent-38 percent), indicating that younger members of the Millennial generation, who are just entering the electorate, have the same political leanings as their older counterparts.

Gender. Obama carried women by 55 percent to 44 percent, while losing men by 52-45. This is a larger gender gap than in 2008 when Obama carried women by only slightly more (56 percent-43 percent) while doing quite a bit better among men (actually carrying them, 49 percent-48). Obama did particularly well among single women, carrying them by 67 percent-31 percent, not far off his 70 percent-29 percent margin in 2008.

Ideology. Obama received less support in 2012 from all ideology groups, though the drop-offs were not particularly sharp in any group. He received 86 percent support from liberals (89 percent in 2008), 56 percent from moderates (60 percent in 2008), and 17 percent from conservatives (20 percent in 2008).

The 2012 election in historical context

The 2012 election marks the culmination of a decades-long project to build an electorally viable and ideologically coherent progressive coalition in national politics. Progressives have envisioned such a coalition emerging since the presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. Although still unfolding, the undeniable demographic shifts in the United States, coupled with the Obama elections of both 2008 and 2012, prove this process a success and demonstrate the coalition’s long-term sustainability. Unlike the current GOP electoral coalition—which is primarily older, white, and ideologically unbending—the Obama coalition clearly represents the emerging face of the United States and offers room for people across racial, ethnic, class, and ideological lines to find a home and a set of policies that advance their core values and beliefs about the country.

How did this come together? For years, President Obama and progressives worked to organize communities of color, young people, women, professionals, and white working-class voters behind a vision that is inclusive and embraces a positive role for government in advancing human freedom, individual opportunity, and national prosperity. The successful progressive philosophical vision, now validated in two historic elections, is grounded on the notion that both private enterprise and government are essential for opportunity and growth; that our economy should work for everyone, not just the wealthy few; that economic and social inequalities should be reduced; and that America must work cooperatively with others to solve global problems.

President Obama and progressives put this basic vision in place through a series of critical policy choices made by during the president’s first term. These choices helped put the country back on track for economic and social success, extended health coverage to all Americans, expanded civil rights, protected the nation from external threats while ending one war and winding down another, and repaired our standing in the global community. This progressive vision was tested—and ultimately validated—in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and in the face of unyielding opposition from conservatives.

Much more remains to be done in terms of economic recovery and strengthening of the middle class by progressives. And conservatives will likely try to shift ground somewhat to accommodate the new demographic and economic reality. But with the results of the 2012 election, it is clear that the age of Reagan and extreme conservatism has given way to the age of Obama and pragmatic progressivism.

Given the deep divisions in the country and the ongoing skepticism of government, the long-term prospects of this progressive coalition and vision will ultimately depend upon the delivery of greater economic opportunity and security for a majority of American families. Should President Obama and progressives successfully preside over the creation of a stronger American economy and society, the likelihood for more sustainable majorities will only grow with each future presidential cycle.

Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin are Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow

John Halpin

Former Senior Fellow; Co-Director, Politics and Elections