Lessons for Both Parties From the 2012 Elections
The 2012 U.S. elections, though they weren’t seminal, revealed much about the nature of the body politic and the direction of American politics.
Divided Government May Be Ingrained: At the presidential level, Democrats start with a decided advantage. Changing demographics -- more Hispanics and other minorities solidly behind the party; women and young voters moving that way and forming hard-to-break voting habits -- cut the Democrats’ way.
Look at the electoral map that decides presidential contests. It tilts Democratic. President Barack Obama won the national popular vote by 3.7 percent, and carried the electoral map -- the number of electors from each state is based chiefly on population -- by 332 to 206. If you took 1.9 percent from Obama and added it to Mitt Romney’s tally, the Republican would have won by more than 125,000 votes. Yet if that formula then were applied to every state, the only ones that would change would be Florida and Ohio. Obama, losing the popular vote, still would have won the Electoral College, and the presidency, 285 to 253.
This is why some states that are reliably Democratic at the presidential level and where Republicans now control the statehouse are trying to change the Electoral College system. Each state controls its own rules; only two smaller ones, Maine and Nebraska, award electors by congressional district; everywhere else, it’s winner-take-all.
Republicans are pondering a shift to the Maine and Nebraska approach. They see a possible test case in Pennsylvania, where Obama won the popular vote by more than five points, rolling up huge margins in Philadelphia and its suburbs and in Pittsburgh. Romney, however, carried 13 of the 18 congressional districts. If this new system were in effect, the Republicans would have gotten 13 of the state’s 20 electoral votes while getting trounced in the popular vote. If this occurred in mainly blue states, it would erase the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage.
In House elections, Republicans already have a structural advantage. Democratic voters, especially minorities, tend to be bunched in a relatively small number of districts.
“The high density Democratic population makes it more difficult for Democrats to create more competitive districts,” says Nathan Gonzales, congressional analyst for the Rothenberg Report.
It’s this bunching, more than any redistricting edge, that enabled Republicans to retain a 234 to 201 lead in the House this year even though Democrats received a million more votes overall in House races. There is little to suggest this advantage will lessen in the years ahead.
It didn’t work out that way. The conventions mattered more. Romney and the Republicans blew a chance at the convention in Tampa, Florida, to reset his candidacy. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Democrats stepped up to the challenge, especially with former President Bill Clinton’s powerful speech that set the predicate for more positive public attitudes about the economy.
Obama’s disastrous performance in the first debate with Romney certainly mattered, though the duration of the Republican nominee’s bounce was exaggerated. Before that debate, the president was about four points ahead nationally; that was his final margin.
Moving to the Center Is Tough in the Media Age: Richard Nixon advised Republicans to run to the right in the primaries and quickly move to the center in the general election. This formula worked as recently as 1980 for Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, it’s run to the left in the primaries and move to the center in the general.
This is much harder to do today with an omnipresent media tracking and assembling every public pronouncement. Romney tried to pivot in the general; there is little evidence that it worked well. He couldn’t escape earlier assertions that alienated Hispanics (calling for undocumented workers to self-deport) or women (boasting that he would kill any funds for Planned Parenthood).
There Are Polls and Polls: Polls done on the cheap, automatic phone calls, some online surveys and partisan polls all missed the mark. More professional polls, with telephone interviews, conducted for media and other sources, were accurate in most instances.
Campaigns Matter: Improving attitudes about the economy and, to a slight degree, the president’s response to Hurricane Sandy, moved the needle in the closing weeks. Obama indisputably was a better political candidate.
The contrasting campaigns widened the margin. Post-election forums at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and the instant campaign e-book, “The End of the Line,” by Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush, illustrated the Obama campaign’s supremacy on tactics: polling, the use of digital and social media, advertising, identifying and turning out voters.
The biggest advantage was overarching, strategic. “We knew who our guy was and where the country was,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager. “They didn’t seem to have a sense of either.”
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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