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.
That’s not to say that the Republicans should see no signs of worry in the results of this election. Demographic changes have made it possible for George McGovern’s 1972 coalition—young people, minorities, and feminists—to form a majority, however narrowly, with only minimal support from working-class whites. As recently as 2008, when Hillary Clinton adviser Paul Begala warned that Democrats couldn’t win with just “eggheads and African Americans,” that was thought to be impossible.
It is also broadly true, if exaggerated, that the Democrats’ base vote comes from groups that are growing, while those that provide the Republicans’ base vote are shrinking. Romney’s raw vote totals were less than Bush’s in 2004 and barely higher than McCain’s in 2008, despite a corresponding (and even larger) drop in Obama’s numbers. Republicans have no idea how to increase their share of the minority vote among any bloc: blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. They won this last group at the presidential level as recently as 1992, by a 55 percent to 29 percent margin.
Romney’s nearly 50-point loss among Hispanic voters has garnered the most attention. Prominent Republicans, from politicians like House Speaker John Boehner to commentators ranging from Sean Hannity to Charles Krauthammer, have already suggested that some kind of immigration amnesty should be part of the solution.
Maybe the House Republicans’ 2006 rejection of amnesty, or the party’s embrace of figures like Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, has systematically repelled Hispanics the way the 1964 presidential nomination of anti–Civil Rights Act Barry Goldwater did blacks. Republicans had better hope not—the GOP saw its share of the black vote implode from 32 percent in 1960 to 6 percent in 1964, and it never recovered, even in 1996 when the party’s ticket consisted of a candidate who had voted for the major 1960s civil-rights legislation and a major booster of minority outreach.
But this seems to assume Hispanics only hold Republican positions on immigration against them. The 1986 amnesty was not only signed into law by Reagan but was a genuinely bipartisan piece of legislation. Republicans received no benefit from this among Hispanics generally or from the post-amnesty cohort in particular. The GOP saw a major uptick in Hispanic votes under Bush (while still losing that bloc by double digits), but saw that support begin to collapse again with pro-amnesty McCain.
There is considerable evidence that the broader Republican economic message—which Bush softened with “compassionate conservatism”—is at least as much to blame for the party’s inability to win over Hispanics. The GOP has been struggling for years to communicate how its economic policies would benefit people who don’t own small businesses or have income subject to the top marginal tax rate. At the national convention in Tampa, it barely tried.
Republicans have been paying for these struggles at the ballot box since at least the 1990s, except when Democratic missteps or the war on terror bailed them out. Meanwhile, Democrats have promoted the fantasy that they are middle-class tax-cutters and that GOP candidates like Romney and McCain want to raise ordinary Americans’ taxes. Republicans respond by worrying about offshore profits or tax hikes on hedge fund managers.
Romney was in many respects an ill-suited candidate for this election—a wealthy supporter of the Wall Street bailout whose business career featured high-profile layoffs, a blue-state flip-flopper, an architect of a state-level health care plan substantially like Obamacare, an excessively risk-averse challenger. But he outperformed many Republican Senate candidates, including not just losers like Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Tommy Thompson, but also winners like Jeff Flake, Deb Fischer, and Ted Cruz.
The Republican Party is too often divided between an establishment that is unprincipled and unwilling to take political risks to improve the country’s fortunes, and a set of insurgents who are uninterested in governing and incompetent at campaigning. The GOP will not move forward with either Mike Castle or Christine O’Donnell.
By the numbers, Obama’s re-election looks every bit as contingent as Bush’s in 2004 or Jimmy Carter’s initial election in 1976. But do the Republicans have what it takes to shift the 51–48 split in this country back in their favor? That, as much as the Obama administration’s unchecked second-term radicalism, will be the story that unfolds over the next four years.
Photo by Ardfern