According to political prognosticators, the presidential race is once again a toss-up, settling into a familiar pattern after weeks in which President Obama seemed to be gaining a modest lead. The pundits are wrong to suggest a new dynamic: The race has always been too close to call.
That’s always been the contour of this campaign — periodic gaffes and brilliant debate performances aside. Republican strategists have long expected a close election; they prepared for it years ago. How did they do it? With Machiavellian strokes, GOP leaders around the country passed laws designed to block the ballot for a small number of voting blocs that tend to support Democrats.
It’s no secret — and no surprise — that the strict voter ID laws in vogue in Republican circles target poorer voters, especially those who are black and brown. Black and Latino Americans tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
No matter how much the right yells “voter fraud,” its spokesmen cannot conceal an ugly and old-fashioned strategy: Suppress the vote. Keep poor people of color from casting a ballot. Deny to certain citizens a fundamental democratic right. There is virtually no in-person voter fraud at the polls, and that’s the sort of chicanery that voter identification laws ostensibly prevent.
Instead, voter ID laws are intended to help Republicans win elections. Because the GOP brain trust is excellent at executing a long-term strategy, its demographers saw the party’s weakness years ago and began to plan for it. As the nation’s ethnic minorities, especially Latinos, grow in number, the Republican Party would have to become more inclusive or face extinction.
President George W. Bush tried to make the GOP more inclusive, but he couldn’t persuade the nativists in his party to back comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, the Republican base became more exclusionary, more jingoistic, more suspicious of diversity.
That’s why voter ID laws became so important to the party’s future. In a deeply polarized country, important races are increasingly decided by very narrow margins. In 2000, the popular vote was essentially tied. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by about 2.5 percentage points over John Kerry. In such tight contests, Republicans need not disenfranchise large numbers of voters — just a few.