Of all the surprising and revealing results from Tuesday night, there is one relatively small bit of exit polling data that I think is the key to understanding the entire evening.
You've probably heard by now that Mitt Romney won white voters by a sizable margin, while Barack Obama ran up huge margins among African-Americans and Latinos.
In fact, he won Latinos by 71% to 27%, an even wider margin than in 2008 when he won them 67% to 31%. But almost no one has noticed what to me is the most shocking result, and that's how the two candidates did with Asian-American voters.
Now, Asian-Americans made up a very small sliver of the electorate, just 3%, so a presidential candidate's performance within that group doesn't necessarily carry with it massive electoral consequences.
But Asian-Americans are also, according to the latest census, the fastest growing racial sub category in America. In fact, the census projects that by mid-century they will make up 9% of the country. And as it happens, Asian-Americans are also the nation's highest earning ethnicity, with median incomes even higher than those of whites.
So you might have predicted that Mitt Romney would do well with them, since he won among voters making more than $100,000 a year.
But he did not. He got creamed, losing Asian-American voters 73% to 26%. This is a shocking result not only because just 20 years ago George HW Bush carried Asian-Americans comfortably, or because the margin is so wide,but because the entire category of Asian-American is so obviously a construction there's little reason to suspect members of the group would vote with each other in any discernible pattern.
Think about it for a moment: What exactly do a Filipino nurse in Hartford, Connecticut, a Pakistani geologist in the oil fields of Texas and a 5th-generation Chinese-American cop have in common? The same could be said for Latinos, of course, and even African-Americans, heck, even—gasp—white people. That's because race is a social construction, not something out there in the world, but something we as a society create the rules, rhetoric and identities for. And in the political process nothing more assuredly creates firm political group identities than the experience of prejudice, contempt, marginalization and condescension. That is: In American history, the racial identity of those not classified as white tends to be forged in the furnace of contempt by the majority.
That is the grand irony of this election and more broadly the predicament of the Republican party. Conservatives are creating their own electoral enemies. The beating heart of modern conservatism is its visceral appeal to anxieties and fears of white Christians. This is a different statement than saying the beating heart of modern conservatism is white racism or white supremacy. It's not, or not principally. It is simply white “identity” politics, with all of the pathos and ugliness that implies. And if you don't believe that, go read some conservative comment threads, or click over to the Drudge Report or Fox News, two outlets with a preternatural sense of the deepest anxieties of the modern conservative base.
Look at the ceaseless coverage of the New Black panthers, and voter fraud and immigrants living high on the hog off government welfare, and the absolute frenzy the right whipped up over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
Once you understand this then you can see that the Republican party's problems are deeper than, say, Republican opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, or even the far less controversial DREAM Act. That policy opposition is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The deeper issue is that for conservative politicians and networks and websites there is simply too much to be gained by feeding the sense of persecution and siege that many white Christians feel down to their toes. I'm not sure what is going to shift those incentives, because that insecurity, as an emotional fact is real and isn't going away.
This does not mean demography is destiny, since the construction of political identities that correlate to our racial categories is a dynamic process and not a fixed fact about humans, and it does not mean that Democrats are ensured some permanent majority in perpetuity because their ability to make the electorate look like the country -- that is their ability to turn out their voters -- may wax and wane depending on the candidate and the election.
But it does mean that only way our politics avoids the increasingly ugly spectacle of a revanchist party attempting desperately to strengthen its appeal to a shrinking pool of white voters, is if the movement's leaders show some genuine leadership and stop cultivating their base's worst instincts.