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Mixed Message: Divided Nation Is Still Divided

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
Exit polling showed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney improved on Sen. John McCain's 2008 showing among many groups, but he made no substantial inroads among blacks or Hispanics.

Tuesday’s results were not unexpected, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t send shock waves through the political establishment.

The president was re-elected at the same time Democrats retained the Senate and Republicans continued to hold the House, but the elections seem to raise more questions about the future for the GOP.

While the president won only a narrow popular vote victory of a little more than 2 points, all of the swing states swung his way, creating a solid electoral vote victory for him. Democrats also won all of the pure tossups in the Senate — including Wisconsin, Montana and Virginia — and most of the House tossups, giving them a better night than they could have hoped.

No, this was not a blowout election for Democrats, but the hardening of the party coalitions and the changing face of the country — and the electorate — pose major problems for the Republican Party.

Let’s be clear what happened on Tuesday: A divided nation showed its fundamental fractures in a way that largely could have been predicted a year ago.

In fact, in June 2011, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed President Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among registered voters. Sixteen months later, in the Oct. 12 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, the president held an almost identical advantage of 49 percent to 44 percent over Romney, which translated to 47 percent for each man among likely voters.

During the next 16 months, Obama’s numbers on the ballot test fluctuated from 51 percent to 46 percent of registered voters, while Romney’s ranged from 43 percent to 47 percent. When Republicans started getting excited about Romney — after the first debate — his likely voters numbers moved up from the mid-40s to the upper 40s, even though his registered-voters numbers didn’t move dramatically.

The race tightened significantly when pollsters changed from reporting registered voters to reporting likely voters. At that point, the race turned into a tossup, well within the margin of error. And at the end of the day, Obama beat Romney
50 percent to 48 percent. 

Exit polling showed Romney improved on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 showing among many groups: white men, white women, independents, 18-29-year-olds, college graduates, self-described moderates and voters 65 and older. But he made no substantial inroads among blacks or Hispanics.

More important, white voters constituted only 72 percent of the electorate this year, compared with 74 percent in 2008, a trend that has been apparent for years and will continue. Hispanics, on the other hand, inched up from 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 10 percent this year, and younger voters, age 18-29, continued their unusually high rate of participation, constituting 19 percent of the electorate this time compared with 18 percent four years ago.

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