President Obama gets all the limelight, but his may have been the least important victory this Election Night.
The pollsters couldn’t have been more wrong (except Nate Silver, of course). Two presidential candidates supposedly neck-and-neck went their separate ways on Election Day, Barack Obama routing challenger Mitt Romney in a surprise electoral landslide. The Tea Party-fueled conservative machine faltered, surrendering gains in Congress while voters approved progressive ballot measures nationwide. Washington may remain divided by partisan gamesmanship, but more than one glass ceiling was shattered this Election Day. Whatever comes next, it was a night to remember.
With 332 electoral votes and 51% of the popular vote, President Obama’s performance may at first seem disappointing. Indeed, those numbers are down 33 electoral votes and 2 percentage points from his upset victory over Sen. John McCain in 2008. But the President increased turnout among Hispanics, Asians, women, and young people, solidifying Democratic constituencies that more than compensated for his losses among white males. The trend suggests a do-or-die moment is on the horizon for a Republican Party long reliant on a shrinking white electorate. If conservatives can’t better make their case to youth and minorities, Obama’s victory may well be a sign of things to come.
Consider the white vote, down two percentage points to 70% of the total since 2008. By contrast, Latinos and Hispanics made up 10% of this year’s electorate, representation expected to eclipse that of African-Americans by the next presidential election in 2016. They voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and other Democrats, possibly in reaction to conservative candidates’ tough anti-immigration rhetoric. Taking some thirty congressional seats this election, Latinos have certainly demonstrated their potential political clout. Expect both parties to push hard for their support over the next four years.
Long considered political outsiders, women will likewise break records when the 113th Congress convenes in January; nearly eighty won election to the House of Representatives while twenty head to the Senate, a fifth of its membership. In the night’s most dramatic example, New Hampshire elected an all-female congressional delegation and its second female governor. In Massachusetts, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren rallied women to unseat incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in a tense race that turned decisively on women’s issues in its final weeks. When she takes her seat early next year, Warren will be the Bay State’s first female senator.
All that said, Tuesday’s biggest stories were in the states. Following a year of favorable court decisions against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), gay rights activists scored perhaps their most important victory yet. Voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State approved ballot measures to legalize same-sex marriage, marking its first passage by way of popular vote. Six other states had previous legalized the practice through judicial or legislative action, leading many Republican states to enact constitutional bans. Minnesotans rejected such a ban this year, the four states together shattering conservative arguments that same-sex marriage couldn’t win at the ballot box.
It’s not just marriage, either. At least six openly LGBT Democrats won election to the House of Representatives, including bisexual atheist Krysten Simena—a supposedly toxic combination in deeply conservative Arizona. In Wisconsin, seven-term congresswoman Tammy Baldwin defeated former Governor Tommy Thompson to become the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. It was a banner night for the gay community, topped by the reelection of the first sitting president to publicly endorse same-sex marriage. The phrase “watershed moment” certainly comes to mind.
More controversial were the ballot questions concerning medical and recreational marijuana in the United States. Voters made Massachusetts the eighteenth state to allow its use as a medicinal, backing the proposal by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Further west, Colorado and Washington made history as the first states to legalize marijuana for non-medical, recreational purposes, subjecting it to tax and regulation like alcohol and tobacco. The measures are consistent with a recent surge in public opinion favoring general legalization, but they may come with a cost.
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 prohibited substance under federal law, already pitting medical marijuana states against the national government. It’s relatively easy to raid state-managed dispensaries, though. Colorado and Washington present a logistical nightmare for regulators, and that may well have been the point. Keeping marijuana out of general circulation is nearly impossible as is. It’s unlikely federal officials will be able to stop its use in either of the newly-legalized states, threatening prohibitionist efforts nationwide. Where marijuana stands a decade from now may hinge on the next few months’ response.
Not everyone feels these were changes for the better. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly bemoaned a “white establishment” outnumbered by borderline-socialist minority groups. “The demographic are changing,” he says, and the ascendant demographics “want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it.” Similar comments dominated a conservative media certain Americans would reject “Democratic socialism” for “Republican liberty.” But it didn’t happen; it wasn’t even close.
No one could have predicted such outcomes two years ago, when the Tea Party propelled conservatives to power across America. Nonetheless, women, minorities, and progressives did the impossible this November to score sweeping victories. The races for high office may steal the spotlight, but the larger social trends revealed every four years are equally if not more telling. So what did we learn this time around? The country’s shifted decidedly leftward, but the battle for America’s heart and soul is still anyone’s game.