A guest post by Kiwi in America:
Tags: 2012 US Presidential election
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%.