The 2012 National Elections: What Just Happened

President Obama speaks to the faithful after a formal announcement that he had won a 2nd term. He ascribed the results of the 2012 Elections to a changed electorate and reaffirmed his party’s principles. Associated Press Photo by Carolyn K.

They liked to compare him to Jimmy Carter.  The 39th President of the United States, after all, was elected as a fresh face and an honest alternative to all the corrupt politicians (in particular the 2 recent Republican Administrations) who would change the way things were done in Washington.  By all accounts he turned-out to be an ineffectual President, and following a near-decade of economic malaise and the international embarrassments of Carter’s 1 term in office, the former California Governor Ronald Reagan was elected in an undeniable wave election, with a mandate (as such things go) to reform the Federal Government from a Conservative policy perspective.  As this narrative frame went, President Barack Obama was a similarly-failed President, a well-meaning but clueless party man who could not lead and didn’t understand the ordinary needs of business, his muddled pragmatism only leading us deeper into public debt and further economic collapse at home, and strategic irrelevance abroad.  As the more-elaborate conjurers of this analogy would have it, President Obama’s chief legacy would be in policy failure so total that the electorate would call-out for a Conservative deliverer, voting by a wide margin for a Conservative restoration, leaving Liberalism and, perhaps more-importantly, George W. Bush’s ideologically-hybrid “Compassionate Conservatism” on the dust-heap of history.

This vague analogy required no empirical updating or reappraisal from those who liked it.  It was completely-divorced from reality–as were almost all Republican expectations for last Tuesday.  The 2012 Elections were indeed a blowout–for the Democratic Party, which successfully defended the Obama Presidency, padded its majority in the Senate and made inroads (such as were strategically-possible) in the heavily-gerrymandered House of Representatives, as well as making major advances against Republicans in State Legislatures in 6 States.

Consider the Republicans projecting a massive nationwide win for Mitt Romney: Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Michael Barone, George Will…All of these men are partisans, but all of them are also known for some intellectual heft and have (or in some cases had) reputations as canny political handicappers.  Meanwhile, most serious Democratic prognosticators and most non-partisan handicappers (yours truly included, I’ll cockily add) were in agreement that President Obama was on his way to a pretty-solid re-election–indeed, the results Tuesday night were in-line with their more-optimistic projections.  Quantitative political analyst Nate Silver regarded calls of this election for Governor Romney with eloquent derision.  But Republican pollsters and prognosticators, all on their own, apparently decided that the political success of their message of market-based national renewal was all but fated.  Some pretty-serious traditional political analysts also indicated that Republicans had no reason to believe this, but their preferred prognosticators consistently told them that Governor Romney would defeat President Obama with over 300 electoral votes when this thing was finally called.

Ho, ho.  Truth is stranger than fiction–especially if you ignore it for several months.

“…If the state polls are right, then Mr. Obama will win the Electoral College. If you can’t acknowledge that after a day when Mr. Obama leads 19 out of 20 swing-state polls, then you should abandon the pretense that your goal is to inform rather than entertain the public.” –Nate Silver on November 2, 2012. Silver had the most rigorously-quantitative, and the most-accurate, election calls of any handicapper this year–as he did in 2008. Photo by JD Lasica,

In stark contrast to Republican expectations, Barack Obama is the 1st Democratic President to win an outright majority of the popular vote for President twice in a row since Franklin Roosevelt.  The official count currently stands at 62,252,809 votes–50.6%–for President Obama, the 2nd-largest popular vote total in an American election in history; Governor Romney by current count has 58,885,041 votes–47.8%.  (Then-Senator Obama came in 1st with 69,498,215 votes–52.9%–in 2008, and George W. Bush has the current 3rd place with 62,040,606 votes–50.7%–in 2004.)

What does all of this  mean?  I’m very-attracted to Nate Silver’s analysis of early-September: Barack Obama’s base is larger than Mitt Romney’s and growing; Romney’s, essentially while males and married white females, is shrinking steadily.  Far from proving the effective “Etch-a-Sketch” of right-wing policy promises his campaign notoriously assured us he could be, by appealing to the Conservative base of his party during the general election campaign Governor Romney hitched his wagon to an aging animal.

I mean it.  This is the important story of the 2012 Elections: The Republicans ran on a message that was too narrow-minded or offensive to the voters the party needed to command the kind of support President Obama could count on for re-election just by inspiring his base.

I’d be surprised if mine is the 1st analysis you’re reading that has offered this argument.  But for much of this year I’ve had the growing suspicion that the Republican Party had failed to pivot prudently from a message that had worked in 1 election to a message that would work in another.  It’s true Republicans had a very good year in 2010, with 700 seats in State Legislatures, a net of 5 Governors’ offices, 63 US House seats and starting with a special election in January 7 US Senate seats.   For a Midterm, turnout was legitimately-encouraging for Republicans as well–about 41% of registered voters–but still below the roughly 63% turnout of the 2008 Presidential Election.  Republicans in the midst of their skepticism towards the pollsters had argued that turnout patterns would be very-different from 2008 this year, and so they could afford to run on their Conservative message.  This hopeful assumption of their turned out to be wrong, of course, but more to the point Republicans never seemed to confront the fact that the national electorate would be about 50% larger in 2012 than it was in 2008.  Even if they were right about depressed Democratic turnout and energized Republican turnout (both party bases were energized…and there are more Democrats than Republicans in this country), the simple fact that turnout in this election would be much higher than in 2010 in any case should have given Republican strategists pause; yet they failed to recognize such a simple cause for concern.  What were they trying to accomplish, crafting all of their appeal for the benefit of the plurality who turned out for their party in the down-ballot elections 2 years earlier?

The New York Times has excellent Election data in their online politics section.

President of the United States

Electoral Vote: Obama 332–Romney 206

Popular Vote: Obama 62,281,602 (50.6%)–Romney 59,900,448 (47.8%)

There was wide acknowledgment that Governor Romney’s concession to President Obama was exceptionally graceful, even touching when he lamented that his wife wouldn’t become First Lady. The mood from the Republican crowd in Boston was predictably somber, with the audience split between applauding Romney’s well-wishing and respectful words for the President and booing the President. Photo by Getty Images.

There are many fascinating observations one could make about this election.  Here’s 1 of my favorite: In which Presidential Election did an incumbent President beleaguered by the controversy surrounding his biggest policy commitment face an impersonable Massachusetts politician who sought to run on his personal history rather than his policy record, in which case the incumbent President decided to run an early attack campaign, aided by privately-funded outside organizations seeking to disqualify the challenger’s personal history, then take an advantage in the polls going into September as the challenger’s Convention failed to give him a bounce and his own Convention featured a prominent cross-party endorsement, only to lose that wide polling lead during the 1st Presidential Debate which the challenger was widely-expected to be eager to engage, then to regain some of his standing in the polls when his older and controversial Vice President walked all over the challenger’s nice-guy running mate during the Vice Presidential Debate, followed by flailing attacks by the challenger that went nowhere in the Town Hall Presidential Debate and finally a 3rd Presidential Debate in which the challenger seemed to have nothing to contribute, only to go to a general election that the challenger’s party seemed confident it could win due to very-misleading swing State polls by a favorite pollster with a narrow methodology, resulting in the incumbent winning re-election with over 62 million votes and a popular vote margin of just over 50.6%?

The answer is, “The 2012 Presidential Election, and the 2004 Presidential Election.”  While I am partial to the narrative that says President Obama won this election because his base is simply larger and growing faster than the Republicans’, meaning they will have to embrace a few Progressive policies to win at Presidential politics in the future, there is also a less-favorable narrative implying greater agency.  Then-President George W. Bush won his re-election bid in part benefiting by default from the attacks of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” against Senator John Kerry, who ran on his distinguished Vietnam war record when he should have run on his plan for Iraq.  The same can be said for Governor Romney, who liked to run on his business experience but seemed strangely-circumspect about explaining aspects of his tax, spending and regulatory proposals that he was clearly smart-enough and articulate-enough to communicate to the public.  Though President Obama was slow to offer a substantive defense and expansion of his policies, like President W. Bush he became more-confident in the way he discussed his record and his reasoning as the race went on, in both cases particularly after his poor performance in the 1st Presidential Debate.  Finally, both incumbents won a shallow but broad victory–and both would see their party command exactly 55 seats in the Senate at the start of their 2nd terms.

So, the case could be made that the 2012 Presidential Election is simply the story of the power of incumbency.  I do think an incumbent President has certain advantages that comment him for re-election, but I think this narrative is irrelevant this time.  President Obama’s first 2 years as President, alongside the 111th Congress, implicated him in many controversial policy choices.  He gradually won the public over on many of those policies since the 2010 Midterm Elections which were so disastrous for his party, but the Affordable Care Act will probably have to wait until full implementation before the public makes final peace with it.  Michael Gerson, a Conservative columnist for the Washington Post, took a sober look at the scope of President Obama’s support for re-election and reached a conclusion:

“The 2012 election was a substantial victory not only for President Obama but also for liberalism. Obama built his campaign on abortion rights and higher taxes for the wealthy. He was rewarded by an electorate that was younger, more pro-choice and more racially diverse than in 2008. The Obama coalition is not a fluke; it is a force.”

Gerson didn’t mean to say that all was lost for Republicans, but he did observe that President Obama’s Democratic base is larger than the Republican base–large-enough, in fact, to win elections by explicit appeal.  This year both parties ran principally on what their bases wanted to hear from them, and the Democratc came out on top.  It seems we’ve seen a little too much authenticity from the Republicans…

The United States Senate: 55 Democrats (+2 D)–45 Republicans (-2R)

Todd Akin, outgoing Republican Congressman and failed US Senate candidate from Missouri in 2012, set in motion the utter collapse of Republican ambitions to take the Senate this year when he insisted that a woman who was a victim of a “legitimate rape” couldn’t get pregnant from it, thus exceptions to his party’s stance against abortion rights were not necessary. Rather than provoke a proactive effort at message-control from the Republican Party, Akin was just the 1st of several Republican House and Senate candidates–Steve King (R-IA), Richard Mourdock (R-IN), and Joe Walsh (R-IL) among them–to come-out as thoughtless, despicable men in the following weeks. Associated Press photo.

Let’s consider some of the Republicans’ downballot disappointments.  It might be more-revealing here to address these developments tersely rather than at length.  1st there are the Democrats’ pickups of Republican Senate seats: Maine, Massachusetts, and Indiana.  Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her retirement earlier this year, citing Washington’s charged partisan atmosphere as a prime reason she was no longer able to do her job in a way she found satisfying.  In Massachusetts Scott Brown, a personally well-liked moderate Republican (such as are to be found in the Senate these days) lost his re-election bid to a well-known skeptic of corporate power, in a Liberal but corporation-friendly Commonwealth.  In Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite, defeated longtime Senator Richard Lugar (a knowledgeable staple of the Senate who everyone agreed could have coasted to re-election) in the US Senate primary shortly-thereafter–and then went on to say that women who became pregnant following a rape should be grateful for their “gift from God” and lose a key election in a very-Republican State.  Then there are the Democrats whom it was thought wouldn’t be able to defend their Senate seats–incumbent John Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp as Kent Conrad’s prospective replacement in North Dakota, and incumbent Claire McKaskill in Montana.  Heitkamp in particular had against her that she was running for her seat for the 1st time, while President Obama was under attack from Republicans for holding up an oil shale pipeline proposed to run from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico.  (This suspension of the plan was only temporary, waiting for a study, supported by Nebraska Republicans, for a way to protect the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.)  Democratic Senator McKaskill was very-unpopular in very-Conservative and very-Christian Missouri, but ended up winning her Senate re-election bid by about 55%-39% after her opponent, a Tea Party challenger named Todd Akin, insisted in an interview that a “legitimate rape” will not lead to pregnancy, thus making exceptions to laws against abortion for cases of rape and incest unnecessary in principle.  That all of these candidates were able to defend Democratic seats in States with strong underlying Republican fundamentals in a time of low split-ticket voting tells us that there is pronounced skepticism towards Republicans right now.  Finally, there is the failure of Republicans to make any inroads in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida against swing-State incumbents previously thought to at least be vulnerable, and in Virginia, Wisconsin or Connecticut against successors to retiring Democrats or Democratic-leaning independent Senators.  In Virginia Republican and Democratic former Governors squared-off.  The latter was a former Chairman of the Democratic Party, and running in a traditionally-Conservative Commonwealth he was able to beat Allen.  Then there’s swing State Wisconsin, where 1 of the most left-wing Democrats in the House of Representatives was able to defeat Tommy Thompson, a moderate Republican former Governor.  That result–again, telling for a swing State–can hardly be interpreted as anything more than an effort by politically-unaffiliated segments of the electorate to keep the Republicans from gaining more power in Congress.

The House of Representatives: 234 Republicans (-8R)–201 Democrats (+8D)

Speaker of the House John Boehner at a press conference in Washington, DC on Friday, November 9th, 3 days after the Election. While his House Republican Conference is projected to shrink by 8 seats when the 113th Congress meets in January, he is nonetheless a prime beneficiary of this election. Some wayward Republican Representatives lost their re-election bids, and his warnings to his Conference that hard-charging policy declaratives and brinkmanship wouldn’t be effective proved prescient. Why have a larger House Conference if it’s harder to lead? Photo by REUTERS.

In the House of Representatives, votes are still being recounted in the 8 closest races but a clearer picture is emerging now: The Republicans have fallen from 242 seats in the 112th House to 234 in the 113th, and the Democrats have risen from 193 to 201.

This isn’t exactly a repudiation of the Conservative politics of House Republicans.  The House Republican Conference lost 31 seats in the 2006 Midterms and 21 seats during the 2008 Presidential Election, and at the time their party had already gerrymandered many States’ Congressional Districts to have underlying Republican proclivities.  Having made out very badly in 2 elections in a row, the Republicans then more than made-up for all their losses in the House, gaining 63 seats during the 2010 Midterms.  All 3 of those elections were wave elections, as was 1994 in which Republicans picked up 54 seats and ended a Democratic House majority that had been stable for 40 years.  Compared to those blowouts, a loss of 8 seats is hardly a message of displeasure.  In a recent column Ezra Klein neatly exploded that idea that Republicans’ surviving House majority constitutes “a mandate…not to raise taxes,” as Speaker of the House John Boehner put it, but he also implied that, were it not for “the power of redistricting,” Republicans would have lost their majority outright.  I have doubts that this is true.  It does look like House Democrats took a majority of the popular vote for the House, but however you draw the bluest Congressional Districts in the country, it is unlikely that Republicans would contest some of them, or at least field a viable candidate for them.  In those cases people still turn-out to vote, either to support their Congressman or for the up-ballot and down-ballot races.  So, you have a number of Democratic Congressmen in uncontested races contributing substantially to House Democrats’ popular vote lead; this doesn’t mean House Democrats have the geographical breadth of popular support they would need to take the House of Representatives.  While it is very-probably true, at least since the last round of redistricting for 2002 and 2004, that Republican State governments have manipulated the terrain in their favor, this has probably simply padded their majority or protected individual Republican Congressmen moreso than it has subverted the popular will to elect a Republican majority to the House of Representatives.  Let’s not forget that the Democratic Party currently has partisan gerrymanders in place in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and Illinois.  True, Republican gerrymanders are more-numerous and extensive, but on an individual basis they have not proved more-aggressive; in some States like Georgia and Florida they are now fairly-restrained, either by constitutional change or by demonstration of past campaign promises.  The non-partisan redistricting commission in Arizona hobbled Republican ambitions greatly, converting a 5R-3D House delegation to a 5D-4R House delegation.

House Republicans very probably should take a hint, however.  The silent story in this aggregate focus is that many States–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas all experienced Republican rewrites of Congressional District maps in which Republicans either tried to shift a few House seats their way, or to consolidate their somewhat-inflated gains from the Republican-tiled 2010 Midterm Elections.  In these States Republicans did whatever the law would allow to reshape the Congressional balance in their favor.  (Again, the Democrats made similarly-dogged efforts in Maryland and Illinois, but those were essentially the only States in which they were in a position to carry-out partisan redistricting to pick up more seats.)

So, in spite of Republicans’ best efforts at consolidation of their recent pickups, they fell back by 8 seats.  This result is hardly shocking and still leaves them with a comfortable (by their own historic standards) House majority.  But a loss of 5 House seats in the 1998 Midterms following the Monica Lewinsky investigation and impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton was seen as enough of an embarrassment that Republicans felt compelled to eject their partisan House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, in favor of more-restrained leadership.  As in the 112th Congress it has generally been House Speaker John Boehner who has been trying to tone-down Tea Party and Conservative enthusiasm within the House Republican Conference in order to pursue deals with President Obama, the current Republican setback has already given the Speaker the opportunity to tell stunned House Conservatives that it is time to sit down and shut up.

In Sum…

Republican intransigence in Congress for the better part of the last 2 years has been motivated in large part by the sense that a thwarted Obama Administration would give way all the more-easily to the election  of a Republican President, who would then work with a large House Republican Conference and at least a narrow Republican Senate majority to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, eliminate many of President Obama’s new Federal regulations, cut Federal programs they view as wasteful, permanently lower tax rates and aggressively restore Defense spending.  In practice Congressional Republicans haven’t even been particularly effective at thwarting President Obama, once you consider that all legislation has to come out of Congress and Republicans have a lock on the House of Representatives.  As they are now stuck with President Obama for the next 4 years and Democrats have made gains against both of their Congressional Conferences against initially long odds, Congressional Republicans will simply have to have a reasonably-good working relationship with the President if they are to have any policy accomplishments to point to at all.  The alternative is a status quo that leaves the President’s signature policy achievements intact, gives the President the power to veto every single bill Congressional Republicans pass (assuming any of them even make it through the Senate), and prompts the President to legislate by executive order and administrative fiat or through favorable appointments to the Federal bureaucracy wherever possible.  Simply-put, Republicans could widen 2 years in which they have nothing to show for themselves and the President does end-runs around them into years in which they have nothing to show for themselves and the President does end-runs around them–if they don’t learn some humility and work with him.

What face should Congressional Republicans present to the public in light of all this?  Well, that’s too weighty of a subject to tackle here, and will have to wait for another time.  In the meantime, this election reveals that we have reached an era in which a Democratic Presidential candidate can win an election on his party base while a Republican cannot, as well as one in which America will probably elect a Republican House of Representatives by default–even if it has nothing to show for itself.


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