American voters have returned President Barack Obama to office in an election far closer than it need have been. Mr Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, was handicapped by the radical, reactionary views that currently dominate that party. Mr Romney was also handicapped by his divisive record as a successful private equity executive, and because of the not unfair impression that he found it impossible to sympathise with – or even understand – the “47 per cent” of America less fortunate than the half to which he himself belonged.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s victory speech, full of soaring rhetoric but lacking in any agenda beyond the most banal, keeping America “the greatest nation on earth”, reflected that both challenger and incumbent ran a campaign focused on the past – Mr Obama’s record, the disasters of recent Republican administrations – rather than the future. There was a great amount of detail about competing deficit reduction plans, but the numbers on both sides looked fishy; and, certainly, no broad new policy programmes, or even vision, seemed on offer.
In some ways, however, the presidential election of 2012 is more of a landmark politically than Mr Obama’s famous victory in 2008. Many formerly in-play – or even solidly Republican – areas and counties in Florida, the American southwest, and Virginia swung firmly behind Mr Obama even in a lacklustre, get-out-the-vote sort of contest. The broad coalition that votes the Democratic Party – young people, non-Cuban Hispanics, recent immigrants and the college-educated – has seen demographic trends and increasing voter registration alter the electoral balance in its favour. The simultaneous legislative elections saw the Democrats pick up Senate seats even in states like Indiana, which went with Mr Romney as president. It is tougher to replace the majority party in the lower House than presidents or senators — their constituencies keep being geographically altered to keep them in power, and challenger name recognition is much lower than in more high-profile races. But the Republicans will recognise the real danger of losing the House of Representatives again unless they somehow alter their party’s orientation and make it more appealing to a broader set of Americans. This harsh truth will bring to an end the long domination over American electoral politics of the “Southern strategy” of former President Richard Nixon, which involved the Republicans developing in the late 1960s a firm base among white voters in the South — who had voted the Democrats till for a century after the Civil War, but had been disappointed with the civil rights agenda of successive Democratic administrations.
In searching for a new winning coalition – or poking holes in the Democrats’ expanding majority – there is little doubt that the Republicans will recognise that the most appealing subgroup is (non-Cuban) Hispanic voters. The Republican Party has traditionally stressed these voters’ cultural distinctiveness from its Southern base, rather than the social or religious values they share — causing it to take solid anti-immigration positions. This obstruction has, in turn, made it impossible to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation. But it is only through comprehensive immigration reform that a bargain will be struck on raising the restrictive cap on guest worker visas, allowing Indian software firms to recover their profitable edge. The disarray in which the Republican Party will find itself will, in addition, decrease the likelihood of dangerous brinkmanship in federal deficit-reduction negotiations. If the US avoids the coming “fiscal cliff”, it is good news for the world economy and, again, for India.