CHICAGO – The first Wednesday of November, the day after Election Day, is always Recrimination Day, and this year was no exception.
Republicans, many of them shocked that Mitt Romney managed to lose to a Democrat presiding over an economy with an unemployment rate of nearly 8 percent, looked inward and did not like what they saw: a largely white, aging party with a tendency to nominate a disproportionate share of bad candidates.
Yet for Democrats, Wednesday wasn’t exactly Gloating Day. Privately and publicly, Democrats did what they always do. They worried – about a fragile electoral coalition held together by a charismatic president who will never again appear on a national ballot, and an equally fragile economy that, politically, they own.
Based on conversations with Republican and Democratic insiders and academics, here’s a look at each of the two parties’ big worries in wake of a closely fought election that revealed, once again, a deeply divided electorate.
Demographic time bomb
Nothing scares Republicans more than the demographic data underlying President Obama’s narrow win.
Romney won handily among white voters, but that’s little consolation in a nation that has seen the white share of the vote shrink from 77 percent eight years ago to 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent Tuesday.
Meanwhile, exit polls show that Romney lost among women voters by 11 points. He lost young voters by 24 points. He lost the Latino vote by more than 40 points.
Academics and Republican leaders know that if numbers like that continue election after election, their rough parity with Democrats will erode and the GOP will become the minority party.
“The Republicans are obviously in considerable trouble because of America’s new diversity,” said Larry J. Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
You could see that diversity in the faces at Obama’s victory celebration in Chicago – but not in the sea of white faces at Romney headquarters in Boston.
But this is not just a problem of appearances. Privately, Republicans worry that their candidates’ emphasis on issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood are turning off women voters, especially younger ones. Some say the party’s opposition to gay marriage is turning into a problem, too, in a country where four states backed gay marriage and another, Wisconsin, elected the nation’s first lesbian senator Tuesday.
Above all, they worry about the shrinking white vote – and the growing Latino vote.
“We have to do something to attract Latinos,” one Washington-based Republican insider said. “We can’t lose them by these margins and win elections.”
The GOP’s hard-line stance on immigration appeals to the party’s base, but at the same time it pushes Latino voters away. Which is why some Republican elected officials think the party has to change its ways on this hot-button topic.
“We’re going to have to deal with immigration and support immigration reform,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who said the message should be: “Everybody is welcome here – you just have to do it legally.”
Tea Party problems
The Tea Party powered the GOP to control of the House in 2010, but it increasingly looks like it ought to be called the Tainted Kool-Aid Party.
Consider the facts. In 2010, Democrats won Senate seats they were expected to lose after the GOP nominated a Tea Party favorite in Nevada who said Dearborn, Mich., had been taken over by “Sharia law,” and another in Delaware who had to take to the airwaves to say she was not a witch.
And this year, Democrats unexpectedly won Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana after the Tea Party-backed GOP nominees offered widely divergent, but equally noxious, views on rape and its consequences. The Missouri nominee, Todd Akin, said pregnancy did not often result from “legitimate rape,” while the Indiana nominee, Richard Mourdock, said a pregnancy induced by rape was “something that God intended to happen.”
It’s all enough to flabbergast James E. Campbell, a Republican who is chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo.
“Somehow the Republicans have to harness the enthusiasm of the Tea Party people and restrain their amateurism when it comes to picking candidates,” Campbell said.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, noted that GOP candidates from all corners of the party lost Tuesday.
But he added: “It’s clear that with our losses in the presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party.”
End of the Obama era
Then again, a period of reflection and recalibration is due for the Democrats, for one reason: Barack Obama just waged his last campaign.
Privately, Democrats acknowledged that Obama’s two winning campaigns owe much to a secret sauce that no other candidate is likely to replicate any time soon.
They say Obama is an exceptionally charismatic candidate whose campaign was part cult of personality and part ingenious political engineering. With a huge cadre of eager volunteers devoted to the president, the Obama campaign devised an extraordinary ground game that pulled unusually large numbers of young voters, Latinos and blacks to the polls.
Will the next generation of Democratic candidates be able to copy that complicated strategy?
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York, doesn’t think so.
“Generally, no political machines are transferable,” he said. “Political operations tend to be unique to the person that created them.”
Sabato, of the University of Virginia, agreed that the Democrats will face a problem in future elections.
“Their challenge is to keep people energized,” he said.
And Democrats only have to look back two years to see what a lack of energy means for them. With more younger voters and minorities sitting out Election Day, Democrats lost control of the House.
It’s the economy — still
Obama’s coming fade from the political scene is the least of the Democrats’ worries.
More troublesome is an economy that’s not adding jobs quickly enough to send the unemployment rate down to what Americans are used to – and an economy that could grow substantially worse unless Democrats and Republicans step away from an approaching “fiscal cliff.”
Thanks to the inability of Congress and Obama to strike a real budget-balancing deal last year, $1.2 trillion in automatic, 10-year spending cuts are set to take effect Jan. 1 – just as a host of tax breaks, dating back to the George W. Bush era, are set to expire.
Economists call it a recipe for another recession. Obama, of course, wants to strike a deal with Congress to avert it all – as well he should, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
If nothing gets done, “who, probably, gets the blame?” Higgins asked. “The president.”
And a second recession in one Democratic presidency could pose a dire threat to the party, Sabato said.
“People may give you a pass on the economy for one election,” he said. “But for two? I don’t know.”