Amid the ruins of the 2012 presidential election, Republicans are finally awakening to the fact that the coalition that propelled Ronald Reagan to two decisive electoral wins is no more.
While Republicans. from presidential candidates down to school board members, continue to invoke the Gipper as often as they can, the fact remains that even the youngest voters who could have punched the ticket for Reagan back in 1984 are now at least 50.
In hindsight, Reagan did not create the coalition that led to resounding victories in 1980 and 1984 and helped George H.W. Bush beat Mike Dukakis in 1988. Reagan was following Richard Nixons playbook that led to a healthy win in the 1968 presidential election and an overwhelming one in 1972.
When Reagan crushed Walter Mondale in 1984, Republicans and conservatives took heart that it was morning in America. In fact, the Republican coalition that led to big wins for Nixon and Reagan was almost entering its twilight.
There have been five major eras in the history of American presidential elections. The party founded by Thomas Jefferson and continued by Madison, Monroe and Andrew Jackson won 13 of the 15 presidential elections between 1800 and 1856. With his victory over divided opposition in 1860, Abraham Lincoln ushered in the Republican era.
While they often won close contests, the Republicans prevailed in 14 of the 18 elections between 1860 and 1928. After the stock market crash, Franklin Roosevelt led the New Deal Coalition, which won seven of the nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964.
Uniting Southern whites, blue-collar Northerners and California and other parts of the West, Nixons New Majority triumphed in five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. The only Republican to lose a presidential election in this period was Gerald Ford, who almost beat Jimmy Carter even though he was burdened by the shadow of Nixon and Watergate.
But things changed in 1992 when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush. Clinton set the stage for an era in which Democrats had the upper hand in presidential elections. Since Clintons win in 1992, Democrats have beaten the Republicans in four of six presidential elections. While George W. Bush prevailed twice, in the 2000 election he lost the popular vote to Al Gore and, in 2004, Republicans were riding high in the aftermath of 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war.
Looking back from 20 years later: Clinton fundamentally altered the political landscape. Women voters went for Reagan over Carter and George H.W. Bush over Dukakis by slim majorities. But they rallied behind Clinton and have stayed in the Democratic fold ever since. The closest that Republicans have come with women voters in presidential elections was back in 2004 when George W. Bush took 48 percent while John Kerry won 51 percent of them.
In the most recent presidential elections, the Democratic candidate can count on beating the Republican by a much larger margin. Clinton topped Bush by 8 percent with female voters in 1992. Clinton thumped Bob Dole among women, beating him by 16 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama coasted with female voters. Despite adding Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain trailed Obama by 13 percent among women voters. And now look: Obama beat Romney by an even larger margin among women voters -- 18 percent.
Clinton did more than expand Democratic margins with female voters or with Hispanics and African-Americans. Clinton shook up the electoral map and states that had been reliably Republican were now the bedrock of his coalition.
Clinton won over states that had been cornerstones of the Nixon and Reagan coalitions. California, home state of both Nixon and Reagan, is a prime example. The largest prize on the electoral map, California went for Republicans in nine out of the 10 presidential elections held between 1952 and 1988. Clinton won the state handily in 1992 and its been reliably Democratic ever since.
On the other side of the map, Connecticut is another example of a state that Clinton locked down for the Democrats. Connecticut, the state that gave birth to the Bush family dynasty, was generally Republican for most of the second half of the 20th century, backing Republicans in eight of the 11 presidential elections between 1948 and 1988. But, following Clintons win in 1992, the state has always backed the Democrats.
Nor is it the only Northeast state that Clinton locked down for the Democrats. New Jersey backed Republicans in nine of the 11 presidential elections between 1948 and 1988. Its been solidly Democrat in the elections since then. As the recent campaign closed, Romney tried to win back Pennsylvania, which had not gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988. Clinton changed the political tilt of Pennsylvania, which had gone Republican in seven of the 11 presidential elections held between 1948 and 1988.
While the Great Lakes states have produced some Republican officeholders, for the most part Clinton nailed them down for the Democrats in presidential elections. Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were reliable states for the Republicans when Nixon and Reagan won presidential elections. After Clintons win in 1992, they've gone Democratic -- though Illinois has been a much darker shade of blue than Wisconsin or Michigan.
As the 2012 election came in for a landing, Romney focused on states that Clinton pried out of the Nixon-Reagan coalition. He had no luck and Obama held on to win. While Obama presided over some of the roughest economic times the country has seen in decades, the coalition that Bill Clinton built remained sturdy and helped the Democrats prevail.
Clinton could hardly have foreseen that Obama, who beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, would be the man who inherited his coalition. But the men Nixon favored to be president -- John Connally, Ford, Al Haig, Bob Dole, Pete Wilson -- did not benefit from his coalition, while Reagan did. If she runs again in 2016, Hillary Clinton might benefit from the structure her husband built almost a quarter of a century before.
With so many Republican pundits like Dick Morris, Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, Roger Kimball and George Will predicting that their candidate would pull off a win, Obamas victory came as a shock to many Republicans and conservatives. As they pick up the pieces, Republicans are starting to realize that the coalition that led Nixon and Reagan to overwhelming victories is no more. Its been dead for 20 years at the hands of Bill Clinton.
Freelance political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.