Barack Obama has made history. The next question is whether his victory has sparked a lasting electoral realignment.
In truth, we won't know the answer to that for at least four years — perhaps longer. But the odds are that, as decisive as Obama's victory was, it won't result in a permanent realignment of the Electoral College map, unless our current economic situation drastically worsens.
It generally takes a gut-wrenching crisis to trigger a radical shift in our politics. Outside events set off wide-ranging swings in voter loyalties; good candidates (such as Franklin Roosevelt) merely take advantage of the crises. But in the past 150 years, only three such tipping points have produced that kind of earthquake — the Civil War, which gave birth to GOP dominance in the mid-19th century; the Great Depression, which led to an era of Democratic supremacy; and the considerable fallout from the civil-rights revolution and the Vietnam experience, which initiated the Republican era that began in 1968 and was solidified by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Historically, recessions are bad for incumbent parties — as this one was for the Republicans and John McCain. But even serious economic woes don't cause permanent shifts in the electorate unless they are so severe that they define the life experiences of a whole generation.
In fact, the demographics of the Electoral College confirm that while the Democrats right now have a built-in lead, it's not necessarily enduring.
Yes, Obama carried Virginia for the Democrats for the first time since 1964, and Colorado for only the third time since 1952, as well as North Carolina and Indiana. The Southwest also leaned more toward the left than it has in the recent past, turning those states into toss-ups in future elections.
Obama's victory in some formerly red states is the culmination of long-standing demographic shifts that have seen more liberal voters move into traditionally conservative territory, such as northern Virginia and parts of North Carolina. So the Democrats seemingly have begun to secure footholds in these regions.
The problem for the Dems is that the 2010 census and the re-drawing of the political map that follows are likely to nullify some of these gains. It's estimated that Texas is likely to pick up three electoral votes in the next census; Florida could increase its total by two, and Arizona, Georgia, California, Nevada, and Utah may each gain one. The loser states are likely to be New York and Ohio, dropping two each, and Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Pennsylvania each losing one.
That translates into roughly a 10-vote gain for the Republicans. That might not seem like much, but in a close election it could tip the balance.
Nevertheless, all this suggests a 2012 electoral map that gives the advantage to the Democrats for the first time since the 1960s. As a starting point, we see enough states leaning their way to give them roughly 255 electoral votes (out of the required 270 to win), compared with the Republicans' roughly 165. That would leave 118 in the toss-up areas that the Republicans must now virtually sweep to win. The GOP still holds the South, except for Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. But the growing Southwest is now up for grabs, so whereas before there were only a few battleground states (Ohio, Florida, and Missouri), that number has now roughly doubled, and even includes Indiana (see below). Still, the only states that appear to have moved comfortably all the way into the Democratic fold over the past few years are Iowa and New Hampshire.