The 73.5 percent of eligible voters—153.1 million—who registered for the 2008 general election represented the highest registration level since women’s suffrage in 1920. Much of that was driven by a desire to rebuke Bush, but also by a desire to be part of the historic campaigns waged on the Democratic side by Obama and Hillary Clinton.
A lot of independents and moderate Republicans who would have helped Obama’s numbers among Republicans are simply not in the party anymore and are, in fact, pushing up his Democratic numbers.
So call it what you want, but what “polarization” represents today is actually “consensus,” a growing consensus that Democrats and Barack Obama represent the party of the future and that Republicans have failed.
The New York Times in January noted that the Republicans may be on the verge of losing a whole generation of new voters: “Americans identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber those who say they are Republicans by 10 percentage points, the largest gap in party identification in 24 years.”
Polarization suggests forces that are equal as much as they are opposite. But the shrinking Republican Party exerts much less influence on our politics as it once did, and that spells long-range trouble for them. They are almost entirely dependent on white voters and cannot win without the support of moderate white, swing voters. That pool is shrinking and with it goes GOP opportunities.
When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, white voters who described themselves as moderates made up 45 percent of the electorate; the next time a Democrat won, Bill Clinton in 1992, that number was down to 41 percent. After eight years of George W. Bush, the exit polls from the 2008 election put the percentage of moderate white voters at 32 percent. Meanwhile, the overall number of voters who identified as Democrats was at 41 percent in 2008, up from 30 percent in 1992 and 25 percent in 1976.
Obama is not polarizing. He just won really, really big and, so far, people are happy with their choice, even some who didn’t vote for him.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.