The annual Bipartisan Policy Summit at Tulane University drew its largest crowd ever last Thursday (Nov. 15). The summit, presided over by James Carville and Mary Matalin, brings together the nation's best political minds from both parties after Election Day to discuss whether America's elected leaders can get past partisan bickering and get to work on America's problems. It remains an open question.
The gathering began with an analysis of how President Barack Obama won re-election. Republican pollster Whit Ayres and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg agreed generally with the notion that demographics is destiny. This is not good news for the GOP, the party led mostly by old white men.
Ayers didn't sugarcoat his party's loss. Democrats, he said, had "a far superior ground game" — identifying and turning out their voters. Other factors that helped Obama, Ayers said, were the "slowly improving economy that was improving just enough to get Obama's approval rating up high enough to win." The president's approval rating just before Election Day was 51 percent — exactly his share of the vote.
Ayers also noted "some amazingly bad comments by some Republican candidates" that hurt the party's cause nationwide. In particular, comments from GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana helped solidify Obama's lead among women voters.
All of those factors contributed to the president's win, Greenberg agreed, but he added that Democrats also won because they recognized the diversity and character of the American electorate — and because of the "brand position" of the two parties.
"We represent the rising American electorate," Greenberg said of Democrats. "This isn't just targeting groups that get something from government. We're in a country in which the majority of households are not married. The majority of births are non-white. The white working class also is attending church less. ... All of these are long-term trends that will have enormous impacts on politics, and all of these groups voted 2-to-1 for Obama."
Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate. Greenberg said that every month almost 50,000 Hispanic youth become eligible to vote. Asian voters are less numerous, but they too are growing rapidly as a percentage of the American electorate. Obama carried Hispanic and Asian voters by huge margins on Nov. 6, but those two groups also represent the GOP's best prospects for expanding the party's appeal beyond white voters.
As for the GOP's "brand" problem, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Republican, was blunt: "When I heard that Mitt Romney had a Swiss bank account, I said, 'This is a problem in Ohio.' The issue was not economic, but cultural. ...
"What the electorate wants more than anything else from a candidate is the feeling that the candidate understands them. They never got the feeling that Romney understands them."
Does all this mean the GOP is doomed because of demographics? Carville, a staunch Democrat, doesn't necessarily think so. "Sometimes the best way to win the next election is to lose the last one," he said.
Consider the Democrats' post-election hangover of just two years ago.
Looking ahead, what do the election results portend for a bipartisan approach to governing?
Most of the summit's panelists agreed that the looming "fiscal cliff" will force both parties to the table in the short run, but the long-term prospects for bipartisanship are not bright.
One poll result framed the problem perfectly: American voters overall, by a margin of almost 2-to-1, want Republicans to work with Obama — but Republican voters want them to continue fighting the President ... by the same 2-to-1 margin.
Good luck, America.