Before we get all carried away with the surprising results of our presidential election, let’s take a deep breath and acknowledge the central truth of President Obama’s reelection victory: Not much happened. For all the public’s economic discontent, for all the disappointment with Obama’s first term and the grand passions for and against abortion rights and gay marriage, the map of red and blue states remains almost unchanged. Exactly two states, Indiana and North Carolina, switched from Obama in 2008 to Romney this year. (Florida remains a tossup as I write.) The whole rest of the map stayed the same.
As for the popular vote, it shifted about 3% away from the Democrat. That was enough to tighten the race but not to change the result. The electorate became slightly less white and slightly more Hispanic. Women and young people voted very slightly less Democratic. These changes represent fierce political battles won and lost, but statistically, they’re a blip. In broad terms, we remain a 50-50 nation.
Here’s where things did shift this year: Whites voted 3% more Republican and Hispanics about 6% more Democratic. The dramatic Hispanic shift toward Obama couldn’t fully offset the white shift away because Hispanic voters are a much smaller share of the electorate than whites — roughly 10% versus 73%.
Over time, as politicians and pundits tirelessly remind us, the general population is becoming less white and more Hispanic, and the Republicans haven’t fully absorbed that fact. But the change is glacially slow. Minority births now outnumber white births, but the population remains two-thirds white. Whites are approaching minority status, but it’s a long way away.
The essential fact to know in all this, if you’re paying attention, is that Americans vote by tribe. The 60% of white votes that went Republican this year (up from 57% in 2008) is not much different from the 58% that went for George W. Bush in 2004, or the 60% that voted for the elder George Bush in 1998.
But that, too, is only part of the truth. An equally essential fact is that whites vote quite differently in blue and red states. In the blue states, Obama won about 55% of the white vote in 2008, ranging from a low of 52% in California and New York to 60% in Oregon and 68% in Vermont. In the red states, by contrast, Obama’s share of the white vote never rose above 42%.