Presumably the Republicans’ next presidential candidate will have less in common with John Kerry.
Barack Obama took the Republicans’ best shot and won a second term. In an even stronger tribute to his campaign team’s skills and get-out-the-vote operation, the president beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney in every meaningful swing state except North Carolina—and even there he came within 100,000 votes.
Nevertheless, some perspective is in order. Much of the post-election commentary suggests we have witnessed a party realignment on par with the Democrats’ New Deal coalition or the Republican majority after the Civil War. At the very least, you would think Obama won a 49-state landslide like re-elected incumbents Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
In fact, after some rounding up, Obama received 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 48 percent. That’s exactly how George W. Bush did against John Kerry in 2004. Remember all the talk of a permanent Republican majority? The reality was Bush barely squeaked back into office, and those Republican majorities didn’t even survive the next election.
The Obama-Romney contest is similar to the 2004 election in many respects. In both cases, the country was less than enthusiastic about the incumbent president and could have been persuaded to part with him. In both cases, swing voters needed only to be convinced that the opposition party had produced a viable alternative. And in both cases, the incumbent relied heavily on an enthusiastic base driven by social issues and cultural affinity.
Just as Bush did to Kerry, Obama went negative against Romney early to try to preemptively disqualify him in the minds of wavering independents. Polls in purple states found that many battleground voters regarded Obama as a failure. But they also came to view Romney as too out of touch to be president.
Which of those two views they ultimately identified with more was a decent predictor of how they would vote for president. Romney, like Kerry before him, bet that he could improve his standing with a bevy of fall ads once the electorate was paying closer attention. His big win in the first debate—which did more to shake up the dynamics of the race than when Bush faltered during his first encounter with Kerry—at first appeared to vindicate this strategy.
Yet ultimately first impressions reasserted themselves. Like Kerry, Romney didn’t end up winning independents by a large margin, and he underperformed among late deciders. A strong showing among both groups was necessary if he was going to to overcome a slight disadvantage in the polls heading into Election Day.
Obama’s re-election looks as impressive as it does because Bush v. Gore is an outlier: More often than not, the Electoral College makes a narrow popular vote winner look better. (It’s a point in favor of the Framers’ system that liberals are just now rediscovering.) But even here, Obama’s numbers aren’t earth-shattering.
The sitting president of the United States got just 50 percent of the vote in Ohio and Florida. He didn’t win any of the major swing states with more than 52 percent of the vote. He received 52 percent in Pennsylvania—not considered a battleground until late—and 53 percent in Wisconsin. Paul Ryan may represent the latter state in Congress, but he was never a statewide winner.
In the electoral college, it makes no difference whether you win a state by one vote or 1 million. Except for Nebraska and Maine, states’ electors are winner-take-all. That Obama registered in the low 50s in Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and even Minnesota doesn’t much matter for this presidential contest. But it does matter for future races. The Democratic advantage does not look so insurmountable after all, unless one assumes against all available evidence that the Romney campaign represents some kind of high-water mark for Republicans.
Consider that George H.W. Bush carried 40 states for 426 electoral votes in 1988, a better showing than Obama’s this year. But that election was somewhat closer than this tally makes it appear. Bush drew just 53 percent of the popular vote—which, incidentally, was also Obama’s 2008 peak—and his state-by-state margins were generally down from Ronald Reagan’s four years earlier.
In 1992, Bill Clinton targeted the many states where Michael Dukakis won at least 45 percent of the vote. Certainly, much had changed since ’88: the 1990–91 recession, Bush’s incumbency as opposed to Reagan’s, Ross Perot’s independent candidacy, the revitalization of the center in the Democratic Party. But this strategy helped lay the groundwork for a tremendous turnaround, with Clinton carrying 32 states plus the District of Columbia for 370 electoral votes.
It’s also worth noting that most of the post-election bedwetting by the losing parties’ weaker and more opportunistic commentators has recently proved wrong. Clinton moved right on some issues compared to Dukakis (though he was still much closer to Dukakis than Reagan-Bush). George W. Bush was stylistically different from Newt Gingrich in 2000. The Democrats recruited some less liberal candidates in culturally conservative areas in 2006.
But the Democrats didn’t abandon their pro-choice position on abortion or their criticism of the Iraq war, as they were advised to do by even members of their own party after Kerry’s defeat. They won the subsequent elections anyway. If anything, Bush 43 tried to appeal more strongly—if also more subtly—to pro-life evangelicals than his father or Bob Dole. Clinton largely confined his Democratic Leadership Council heresies to the death penalty, welfare, and presidential war powers.
In the coming years, much of the rest of the country will face Wisconsin-like battles between public sector unions and taxpayers. Democrats will be forced to choose higher taxes for the middle class if they truly wish to oppose all entitlement reforms. And the next Democratic presidential candidate may be slightly less popular among blacks and young voters.