Guest Post: Kiwi in America on the US elections results

A guest post by Kiwi in America:

As someone who helped run political campaigns at a national level in a previous life in New Zealand, I view the mechanics of political campaigns through the lens of some who once lived and breathed the nuts and bolts of getting your man elected daily. Because some on the centre right were shocked by the election result on Tuesday, here are some of my thoughts about what happened. Before I do so we need to be clear how VERY CLOSE this election was. Comparisons the 2004 election are most instructive:

  • Popular vote margin: Obama won by 2.4% and 3 million votes in 2012 – Bush won by an almost identical margin in 2004
  • Electoral College votes: Obama won the EC in 2012 by 126 votes versus Bush’s 34 EC votes in 2004 – this is because Obama spread his victory very thinly where it counted. Compare the 2012 winning margins in the 4 key swing states of OH, FL, VA and CO: Obama won these states by only 406,000 votes – it took Bush DOUBLE that margin to win the same key swing states in 2004 (by 861,000 votes). Had Romney won OH, FL, VA and CO he would’ve won EC vote 285 to 253!

Obama’s winning margin of  406,000 votes comprised less than 2% of votes cast in 4 states and 0.03% of all votes cast nationwide. Such is the electoral system that the Presidency hinges on such a tiny number of voters.

 Incumbents rarely lose

It’s true and so Romney had a much steeper hill to climb regardless of how favourable he thought the adverse economic conditions were to his candidacy. Since 1896 no incumbent President fighting in a normal two party race, under normal circumstance and not facing a primary challenger from his own party has lost. There have been 4 incumbents in that period who lost but each faced unique factors that Obama never faced. Hoover was in office when the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began. He had also been the Commerce Secretary of the previous Coolidge Administration so he was not new to the Executive branch like Obama. Ford was not an incumbent in the usual sense – he had not been elected and only assumed the Presidency after Nixon’s pre-impeachment resignation – Ford’s pardoning of Nixon also tarred him with the Watergate scandal. Carter faced a bruising Primary with Ted Kennedy (for a sitting President a rare event) and one that ate into his campaign costs and split the Democrat party. The unresolved Iranian hostage crisis was a weeping sore at the end of his presidency that cost Carter dearly. GHW Bush (41) had been Vice President for 8 years prior to his election as President AND faced a substantial third party candidate in Ross Perot who siphoned off a large number of right leaning votes. The US electorate usually gives an incumbent President 2 terms. Obama is in fact the first sitting President to NOT INCREASE his share of the vote in his second term.

 2012 was more like 2008 than 2010

Much has been written about the dueling views on polls – on the left was Nate Silver (whose baseball modeling skills he brought to political polling) whose model essentially aggregated and then weighted most of the public opinion polls – on the right was the view that most polls (except Rasmussen and Gallup) were too heavily weighting in favor of Democrats and if you realigned those polls to what they thought was a more realistic level, Romney was level pegging or ahead. Democrats were +7 of the overall national vote in 2008 and this swung dramatically to R +2 in the 2010 mid-terms. For a point of reference the split was D + 3 in 2004. The left claimed that Obama’s presence on the ticket in 2012 would see a result close to 2008 and thus it was – polls that had around D+6 were pretty accurate on the day or in other words a drop of only 1% since 2008. Republicans took solace in the massive turnaround in voter sentiment in 2010 that saw the largest reversal in an incumbent party’s House of Representative hold in 74 years. That, combined with a historic sweep of State legislatures and governorships, gave the right good reason to think that 2008 represented a high tide mark in voter support for the Democrats and that 2012, whilst nowhere near as dramatic as the 2010 mid-terms, would see a reasonable retreat from what they saw as a record turnout for Obama. Thus a turnout model close to 2004 (D+3) was seen by many on the right to be a more accurate assessment of the partisan split.

 The truth was that Obama’s winning coalition comprised a combination of groups that historically have had relatively low voter turnout – blacks, the young and Hispanics. Blacks have a higher representation amongst lower socio-economic groups who tend to lack the traditions and engagement with the electoral system. Young voters are fickle, easily distracted, feel they have little impact on politics and are so transient that they are hard to keep track of. Hispanics share some of the same turnout issues as blacks. Black turnout over the 3 elections prior to 2008 averaged 9% of the electorate – in 2008 it was 11% and Obama got 93% of that vote. He managed to get the exact same percentage turnout in 2012 AND he got the same percentage of blacks to vote for him. In the two crucial swing state of VA and OH he actually INCREASED the numbers of blacks voting as a percentage of voters and of course got the same very high percentage of them to vote for him. Ditto for the under 30 vote – historically the under 30 vote is usually 15% of the electorate but in 2008 Obama pushed this up to 18% and he managed to win 68% of that vote. In 2012 Obama stunningly managed to replicate this turnout amongst the young even managing to slightly increase the percentage of young voters to 19% and again scoring a huge margin over Romney – 60/27. But he saved the best for the Hispanic vote. It had been creeping up from 9% of the electorate in 2004 to 10% in 2008 and then 11% in 2012. In 2008 Obama won Hispanics by 67% (Bush has been the most successful Republican ever winning 44% in 2004) but in 2012 Obama managed to INCREASE his share of the Hispanic vote to 71%.

 

In the end most of the pollsters DID pick these trends figuring that having Obama at the top of the ticket mattered. It is very significant that Romney’s own pollsters fell into the same assumption trap (that of a likely 2004 type partisan split) and so the candidate and his entire campaign calibrated their actions (e.g. going into cruise mode for the 2nd and 3rd debates, not pressing the President hard on the Benghazi scandal in the final debate and the candidate’s wasted forays into places like MN and PA) on the assumption that they were further ahead than what they were. It lead to complacency in the Romney campaign that then fed to the conservative bloggers and thence into the mainstream conservative media like Fox News and let the more extreme outlier commentators like Dick Morris to talk in terms of a Romney landslide. Even the more cautious on the right assumed a narrow Romney victory. The polls mostly had it right so Nate Silver was bang on and the Obama campaign’s own polling, being more accurate, was able to more carefully calibrate their campaign on the basis that what their own internal polls told them was pretty close to what was happening on the ground. Romney made a whole series of tactical decisions on the assumption that he was doing better than he actually was. In such a close election, it proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.

 

To win you need a world class GOTV effort

The Obama campaign knew that a significant portion of their base comprised groups that are notoriously difficult to turn out – blacks, the youth vote and Hispanics. The Democrats could consistently rely on single women, college educated liberals and their west and east coast left leaning heartland to turnout – they had to maximize the hard to get groups in all the battleground states to win. They decided to spend very big on systems to identify, track, target and then get to the polls each of these groups. This meant opening a large network of field offices in swing states and using the unions as the baseline foot soldiers to help with these tasks and to recruit local amateurs to assist. The 2008 campaign heavily used texting, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to not only target these key demographics but to turn supporters into street level advocates. It meant a constant broad-based organic effort to enroll new voters and to find ways to keep in touch with these key groups. The campaign employed a veritable army of demographers, statisticians and behavioral scientists to examine a series of very specific hot button issues for each of these key groups. The campaign used a variety of ways to target these groups beginning with carefully crafted email messages as the database was broken down into a myriad of sub groups. Fundraising messages were also carefully shaped by focus group work to pander to each micro targeted set in the database. The campaign kept on its payroll a large number of people whose job it was to track this large group of new voters to keep them engaged with the President. It made it easier to turn them out to vote in 2012 because they were less likely to be lost to the system.

 

Part and parcel of the 2008 winning effort, replicated in 2012, was a heavy reliance on early voting. The Obama campaign deployed vast on-the-ground resources and personnel to use all means possible to get as many voters to request and return postal ballots or vote early (depending on each state’s peculiar voting laws) on the premise that the Republicans always got a better turnout on the day of the election. The winning margins in the swing states were banked early in the campaign to build up sufficiently large leads to withstand the GOP election day turnout. Whilst the lead the Democrats garnered from early voting in 2012 was down on 2008 (partly due to a better performance by the GOP in this area) it was still wide enough to again not be swamped on election day.

 

In 2012, anticipating a stronger and better funded GOP election day ground game (McCain’s was weak and poorly funded), the Obama campaign took the election day GOTV to the next level. In all the swing states in every single polling station they had well trained and resourced volunteers with effective voter tracking tools and these were augmented by ample voter ride assist to squeeze out the last few voters on the day. The GOP did indeed invest heavily in a proprietary election day GOTV system called ORCA designed to allow its much larger (than 2008) army of volunteers to track who had voted. It was a web based/cell phone linked voter strike off list that was downloaded to an assigned volunteer and its polling station. This huge and expensive system was not extensively beta tested prior to election day and on the day it crashed and faulted not allowing 10,000’s of volunteers to enter in voter information as they voted leaving their national campaign headquarters in the dark as to who had voted in many of the key swing states greatly hampering Romney’s GOTV effort on election day.

 

The mismatch of early voter GOTV and the deep, broad, well trained and tested election day ground effort by the Obama campaign easily outran the less sophisticated and technologically inferior (and poorly tested) Romney machine. The step up of the Obama campaign saw slight increases in election day turnout of blacks in key states like Ohio and Virginia, even above that of the superb effort in 2008.

 

Pandering to your base works

Close elections are base elections and Obama did whatever it took to turn out his base. Dovetailing hand in glove with the world beating GOTV effort, the Obama team knew that it was easier to get out their base to vote if the base was reminded why voting for Obama was important. President Obama made sure that his Administration used the power of incumbency, the bully pulpit and the regulatory power of the Executive to push policies designed to excite and motivate its core constituencies AND to scare any wavering voters in these groups tempted to punish Obama for the poor economy.

  • Under 30’s: Two policy changes were made to pander to this key demographic – Obama’s rather deliberate reversal of his at least publicly stated views on gay marriage, an issue more in tune with young voters was followed by the legislative push on Capitol Hill to extend the low interest rates on student loans in the midst of Romney and Ryan’s push for fiscal austerity. Obama relentlessly worked the media outlets most readily consumed by the youth – he appeared frequently with all the cool late night talk show hosts (Letterman, Conan, Stewart, Leno), he was a frequent brief visitor on random youth oriented radio stations. He concentrated many of his campaign visits on college campuses in the swing states. After each rally his campaign enrolled and/or pushed for early votes from thousands of hard to reach students.
  • African Americans: Obama knew he needed to not just match but actually exceed his record vote amongst blacks to counteract the large numbers of whites and independents he know he would lose. He managed to harness black fears of the racist past (where even the act of voting in the south was illegal or difficult) by accusing the Republicans of indulging in a campaign to suppress the black vote because so many newly GOP controlled legislatures enacted voter ID laws to protect against the comparative ease of committing voter fraud. Media obsession over black racism was fueled by the Trebon Martin case – a case that Obama surrogates made knowing precisely what they were doing – ginning up black voters.
  • Hispanics: This demographic as emerged as Obama’s second most important demographic firewall. Aside from a more aggressive Hispanic outreach that began early on and extended deep and wide into the Hispanic community, Obama’s comparatively hostile reception he got when interviewed on Telemundo underscored Hispanic disappointment that in his first term, Obama was unable to enact any immigration reform or pass the DREAM Act (the granting of in state college tuition fees to deserving illegal immigrant high school graduates). Obama used his executive power to create via regulation some of that which he knew Congress would never pass – an Executive order waiving ICE’s deportation orders for certain key categories of illegals. This controversial gesture, likely illegal in that it has circumvented the intention of Congress, was well received in the Hispanic community and was taken as a sign to them that Obama was on their side. Obama was handed a gift by the Romney campaign who, early in the Republican primary season, in an attempt to head off the challenge by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, lurched to a more hardline brittle anti-immigration stance, harder than he needed to and hard enough for the Obama campaign to portray Romney to the Hispanic community as an enemy to their aspirations. The result was that Obama actually INCREASED his share of the Latino vote AND managed to get a higher percentage of Latinos to the polls. This was key to his narrow victory in Florida and in the end relatively easy victories in Nevada and Colorado – states with growing Hispanic populations.
  • Women (particularly single women): Rush Limbaugh inadvertently handed this issue on a plate to the Obama campaign and around all the brouhaha surrounding his intemperate comments about Sandra Fluck (the college graduate pushing for free contraception) was woven what came to be known as the Republican war on women. Any thoughtful commentator knew it was a bogus charge but they missed the wider purpose – to keep women, particularly single women (who form a key part of Obama’s base), engaged and motivated to vote for Obama. The campaign did things that seemed silly to conservatives – like the tasteless “first time” ad and the President appearing on The View (a show with a huge following amongst women) rather than meet world leaders at the UN – both were deliberate tactics to pander to women to turn out their vote.

 

Demonizing your opponent works

Obama carefully followed the Karl Rove playbook used against John Kerry in 2004. The Swift boat Vets campaign was devastating – it negated the whole ‘war hero’ theme that Kerry used in his campaign and Kerry never really recovered. The Obama campaign defined Romney through the summer as a heartless plutocrat by playing on class envy themes against his wealth and cherry picking the worse aspects of Romney’s time at Bain. Some of the ads were actually blatantly untruthful (alleging Bain had caused the death of a steel company worker’s wife after Bain closed the company) but the damage was done. Romney had many good stories to tell about his time in business but he seemed reluctant to even go there – and lacked a sufficient war chest at the time to fight due to the vagaries of the campaign finance laws that prevented Romney from spending any General Election fundraising until after the GOP convention. I believe Romney miscalculated his total spending needs for the primary as he had to fight longer and harder due to the resurgent Santorum campaign. Had Romney fought back hard and aggressively in the swing states in the summer with his own campaign’s aggressive rebuttals that still stressed the growth and jobs theme rather than relying on the GOP friendly super PACs to attack Obama in these states, Romney would’ve likely been polling close to Obama going into the conventions and the final straight.

 

Media bias was important in 5 key areas in assisting Obama

Republican candidates run knowing the main stream media is largely on the side of their opponents. In the 2012 campaign, Obama’s historic candidacy and victory resulted in a larger number of reporters feeling such an affinity to the President as to extend the bias further than is usual. This manifested itself in a number of crucial issues:

  • The economy – reporting of the very slow and elongated recovery was almost always done in terms favorable to the President. Contrast the endless media reporting of Bush’s jobless recovery post 9/11 when all economic indicators were significantly better than those that prevailed for all of Obama’s first term. The post 2007-2009 recession period has seen the slowest recovery of any recession since the Depression. Obama’s message that it was Bush’s fault and that he needed more time to fix the economy and this claim was reported with few dissenters. Small dips in the unemployment rate and an occasional good jobs report led to a chorus of recovery stories that rarely put the recovery in any kind of historical context. The exit polls in 2012 proved that whilst the economy was of concern, there were just enough people who thought that the recovery was good enough.
  • Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: the media under Bush were very quick to publish any and all bad news to do with these wars – endless body counts and the breathless reporting of the antics of the mother of an Iraq vet Cindy Sheehan. Sheehan demanded a new audience with Bush despite being present at a small private gathering of the parents of soldiers killed in Iraq including some one on one time. Her crusade and her subsequent involvement with radical anti-war group Code Pink and various other anti-war groups received constant and favourable media coverage at Bush’s expense. When the father of the former Navy SEAL killed trying to defend the US Consulate in Benghazi wanted to tell his history of his son’s heroism and the tone deafness of the President and Mrs. Clinton at his funeral, only Fox News would cover it. The anti-war left became more muted under Obama and were rarely reported on. Bush’s surge had laid the foundation for eventual success in Iraq but the media were far more anxious to credit Obama with him succeeding in ending the war even though the troop withdrawals were negotiated by Bush. Similarly as conditions deteriorated in Afghanistan, Obama was spared the intense scrutiny and endless stories of on-the-ground failure; rather Obama became the beneficiary of the decision to withdraw from there as well. Finally, Obama’s triumphalism over the killing of Osama bin Laden has never been questioned whereas had the Bush team got bid Laden and ‘spiked the football’ as frequently and incessantly as Obama has, the media would have called him out on it. Obama has been able to milk the OBL killing for as long and often as he wanted. 
  • Fast and Furious: Under Bush the media could make a minor event become major scandal – the Valarie Plame affair consumed Washington and eventually claimed the scalp of Scooter Libby, Dick Chaney’s Chief of Staff – all over an alleged leak as to this woman’s status as a spy when it was eventually revealed that the leaker was a senior State Department official. Contrast the reporting of the Fast and Furious scandal where the media reversed itself to make the major seem minor. The story of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deliberately allowing automatic weapons to pass to the hands of the Mexican drug cartels as a misguided attempt to trace the drug lords that backfired resulting in 2000 weapons falling into the hands of the cartels without being traced, the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in Mexico and a US Border Patrol Agent was explosive. A scandal this serious under a Republican President would quickly have risen to Watergate like intensity in the breadth and depth of reporting. The US MSM largely stayed away from this scandal preferring to believe Attorney General Eric Holder’s obfuscations that he ever knew and they have shown an indifference to the reporting of the refusal by the DOJ to co-operate with House subpoenas for internal communications that seem likely to link this botched operation all the way to the White House.
  • Libyan Consulate affair: The loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and 4 security staff was a scandal that brewed right before the election and had the potential to derail Obama’s re-election…if the voters knew about it. With each passing week a new and damning piece of evidence would be revealed that pointed to an Administration trying hard to deflect attention from its core message, repeated endlessly at the DNC in Charlotte, that OBL was dead and al Qaida was on the run. Evidence that requests for better security were ignored, that the Administration knew all along it was a terrorist attack and not some spontaneous demonstration arising from an obscure You Tube clip from an anti-Muslim nut job in California and that requests for military intervention to rescue the staff were turned down was ignored by all but a few in the MSM. Had a situation like this erupted in the final month in the campaign for the re-election of Bush, the media would’ve swarmed all over every detail of this scandal pressing the President incessantly and forcing his campaign onto the back foot. That never happened to Obama.

 

Hurricane Sandy’s impact

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the east coast of NY and NJ, Romney had been enjoying rising poll ratings since the 1st debate and these had held up (although their upward trajectory had slowed) despite Obama’s strong comeback in the 2nd two debates. Obama was also facing a slow drip feed of negative media reports on the Libyan consulate fiasco. Whilst it was never a breakthrough, headline grabbing issue for the mainstream media, it was starting to gain traction and the Administration’s stonewalling on the key unanswered questions was starting to be noticed. Sandy wiped all of that off the news headlines thus killing any momentum Romney had prior to Sandy. Furthermore the storm gave Obama a chance to look Presidential and in charge. Much of the grunt work with natural disasters is done at the state and local level and any shortcomings with FEMA (like Bush with Katrina) would take days even weeks to become apparent and that would take Obama well past the election. Obama’s chemistry with NJ Governor Chris Christie (a vocal opponent of the President) and the bi partisan way they seem to attack the unfolding disaster at hand gave Obama priceless media footage that the Romney campaign was powerless to counter. The CBS exit polls show that a remarkable 44% of late deciding voters (about 4% of the electorate) said that the President’s handling of the storm played a very important part in their decision to vote for him. It appeared that a larger number of voters than normal waited until the day of the election before deciding who to vote for and of that group, Obama was overwhelmingly favoured due to his perceived handling of the hurricane. Historically the late deciders usually break for the challenger the exception being the Bush DUI revelations in 2000 that caused a number of evangelicals to stay at home. The truth is we’ll never know what the election outcome would’ve been without a hurricane but we do know that if it favoured anyone, it definitely favoured Obama.

 

The cumulative weight of all these factors ensured a narrow Obama victory.”

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