Two week ago, the 2012 presidential election ended and Barack Obama stood victorious. It was hardly a huge win. prevailing by three points is not in the same league as the landslide reelections of the 20th century. Then again, expectations were not that high for Obama.
It may be hard to remember now, but in the wake of last year’s debt ceiling standoff, Obama hit the lowest point of his reign. 9% unemployment and the consensus that Obama had proven himself a weak leader left him with an approval rating of under 45% and presidents with that number just don’t get reelected.
But three important things happened. To begin with, the economic picture brightened somewhat this year, although the really good October news came too late to help Obama. Moreover, the Republicans’ decision to play chicken with the U.S. economy left the Republican Party in bad standing with the electorate. Also, opponent Mitt Romney made a lot of mistakes on the campaign trail. These things gave Obama a chance to win.
A reversal of 2004?
There were many, especially on the left, who have suggested that the 2012 presidential election was a copy of 2004 with the partisan players in the opposite roles (Obama as George W. Bush, Romney as John Kerry). I was long-skeptical of this but what I saw in the summer and fall changed my mind.
We all know about how Mitt Romney spent most of 2011 polling second to a revolving door of far-right candidates and that it was only around Christmas that he emerged as the likely nominee.
Kerry had a similar path to front-runner status for the 2004 Democratic nomination. He trailed insurgent Howard Dean in 2003 for a similar reason to the one for Romney’s struggles. Kerry was not trusted by the left because he’d voted for the Iraq war authorization. Just like Romney was not trusted by the right because he created the model for Obamacare. After the Dean meltdown, Kerry had a easy path to victory. Romney found it much harder but he benefited from comical meltdowns as well. Also, both candidates were thought to have the best chance of beating the hated (by the party faithful) President. Perhaps Romney’s difficulty was because as Governor of Massachusetts, he was anything but “severely conservative.” Other than his kind of/not really support for the war, Kerry had a consistently progressive voting record.
Negative campaigning was a big part of both elections, with the incumbents Obama and Bush doing a much better job of it by focusing on the competition’s previous work experience that had actually once been seen as an asset. Their opponents avoided responding, believing the attacks to be a distraction and that the real campaign would likely not be until fall anyway. A mistake. Most elections are won while the kids are out of school. Although it should be noted that Bush didn’t actually think up these attacks, an anti-Kerry group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did. Bush just helped fund them. Obama (and his Super PACs) made the anti-Romney ads, but he still found people hurt by Romney’s kind of vulture capitalism to star in them.
Romney’s primary rivals (until they were accused of “attacking from the left” by right-wing pundits) brought up Bain around the Iowa caucus. I’ve heard that the Swift Boaters started doing their thing in the primaries as well. I’m not sure. But we know that this time around, the primaries were how the Obama/Biden campaign found out about Bain. Just goes to show that attacks that don’t work in primaries can take on new life in the general.
Flip-flops were also a major hurdle for both Romney and Kerry. Kerry because of his vote for the war, Romney because Romneycare looks an awful lot like Obamacare.
Both Obama and Bush built up strong leads after strong party conventions (not to mention that Romney and Kerry did a rather poor job with their conventions). With the ad wars heating up, John Kerry (through Moveon.org’s tremendous online fundraising) and Mitt Romney (thanks to unlimited corporate cash for Super PACs, courtesy of Citizens United) had surprising money advantages over the incumbents. But Obama and Bush had gifts from their challengers.
Romney: “there are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what… who depend on government, who believe they are victims… I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility for their lives.”
Most agreed in both elections: once those remarks registered in the escalated advertising after Labor Day, it was pretty much lights out. I say “most” because of course the challengers had hardcore supporters who refused to accept the truth. “Too many Republicans” (2004) and “too many Democrats (2012)” were very common complaints about the polls. In reality Bush and Obama’s conventions had awakened a slumbering base. Result? The energized opposition actually turned out to have an inferior turnout machine on election day, despite indications to the contrary.
Before that, the out-party both times had a week or two of hope when the President fumbled the ball in the first debate. Both Romney and Kerry instantly surged but were halted after their teams lost the vice presidential debate.s (Biden vs. Ryan and Cheney vs. Edwards). Obama was generally seen as the winner of the two remaining debates and Bush wasn’t, but neither seemed to be bumped back into the comfort zone.
In the end, the result of both elections was the same yet backwords: the reelection of a polarizing president by an unusually narrow margin.
Demographics or turnout?
Let me be clear on something. The rising latino and areligious populations, the latter of which I am among, are not to be ignored. Not to mention the famous gender gap of this election. Nevertheless, I don’t believe them to be the true deciding factor this time. Why? exit polls show the white vote dropping by two percentage points. It’s usually been three per election. Meanwhile, self-identified liberals grew by three points. Like I said, Obama won the turnout war.
That said, the country is certainly becoming less white and religious. That will be of crucial benefit to Democrats in the future. That said, the state of the country has probably not stopped being the most important factor. How do I figure? Bush got 48% of the female vote and 44% of the latino vote despite running, as his great turnout game indicates, to the right of every Republican since Ronald Reagan (although the Tea Party forced Romney far enough right that he was endangering the record until he moved to the center in debates). The teabagged Republicans of 2010 did better than average with latinos and especially women. The latino example is remarkably notable because Arizona’s draconian immigration law was passed that year and supported by most Republican candidates. It goes to show that a lot of independents are not ideological at all. Looking at it from the other angle, the electorate was as old and white in 2006 as most other midterm elections. Despite this demographic disadvantage for Democrats, that remains one of their two best years in a long, long time.
So in the event of some sort of cataclysm, it probably doesn’t matter how white and religious the electorate is. The President’s party will be voted out of office. But is that what the Republicans have been reduced to? Hoping that a proverbial asteroid will hit the U.S.?
If they don’t straighten up, absolutely. How much will they have to compromise to survive? Probably as far as signing onto the Dream Act, birth control, and avoiding religious fanatism, but not necessarily paths to citizenship, abortion rights, and keeping religion and government separate. And they probably have one more presidential election before they can’t afford to test that.
So while there will likely be plenty of Republican presidents in the future, it’s quite conceivable that they’ll be more George H. W. Bush than Ronald Reagan. This blogger can live with that.
House: almost a sigh of relief for Republicans.
Democrats are still not welcome in the House.
Months ago, Democratic commandos boasted that they had no less than seventy-five targets. That would’ve surely made this period of divided government a short one. But as of now, CNN projects that they will gain less than ten seats. Gerrymandering played a part, but the main thing may have been this institution’s incumbency bent (in non-wave elections, over 95% of incumbents win). had Obama gotten the comfy win that seemed likely before the debates, maybe it would’ve turned things around. Then again, maybe not. Dwight Eisenhower failed to sweep away an oppositional Congress as he surfed to reelection in 1956. So did Bill Clinton in 1996 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. Richard Nixon had that experience both times. Lyndon Johnson remains the one incumbent since TV ads got big to win with long coattails.
Additionally, since a party’s second straight series of midterms with a man in the White House usually ends miserably, Democrats are quite likely to be hurt, not helped, in 2014. That means that no matter what demographics and the memory of George W. Bush do for them, they could be the House minority for a very long time.
That said, despite Republican claims that this was a “status quo election,” it wasn’t. The history I showed you suggests that this is what to expect. If they’d won the Senate (whose map was extremely Republican-favored), they could claim to have done more than hung on. This talk about equal mandates from people like Charles Krauthammer is spin, especially since the Democrats won the popular vote in the House races.
But the gold for this kind of annoying damage control has to go to Grover Norquist. The day after the people voted, he did a piece in the Huffington Post (irony) claiming that the Republicans not only have as much of a mandate as the Democrats, he goes so far as to imply there is a mandate for the Path to “Prosperity,” AKA, plan to demolish Medicare, and that the Democrats better get with the program. Is he serious?
An even bigger treat than Grover’s tremendous obliviousness to reality is a little history he unsurprisingly neglects to mention. Ronald Reagan’s early governing coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats was undone in the 1982 midterm elections. When Reagan got another four years two years later, he failed to recreate the coalition and saw his party lose seats in a nominally Republican but ideologically diverse (because of many Yankee Republicans) Senate. Grover was starting to emerge as a major right-wing lobbyist around this time and formed Americans for Tax Reform (supposedly at Reagan’s request), an important part of getting in position to notoriously make politicians promise not to vote for a tax increase. With the people having voted for divided government, did Grover back down and call on Republicans to compromise on House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s proposed scale-backs on Reagan’s program? You probably know where I’m going with this, but just for the record, Grover was doubling down on the Reagan agenda and suggesting more cold warriorism when it came to diplomacy. I realize that comparing 51-48 and 59-41 margins of victory might be out of line, but Obama’s gains in both chambers of Congress compared to Reagan’s loss in one probably balance things out.
Not that I imagine that Grover gives a crap about the Play-Doh he calls standards. Again, it’s just spin.
Senate: a small gain that is really a rout.
A year ago, Charlie Cook declared that while the Democrats having more than twice as much territory to defend as the Republicans meant that the Republicans were likely to win the Senate, it wasn’t a sure thing. He was right to hesitate. Republican candidates Linda McMahon, Scott Brown, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, and Tommy Thompson all flamed out. One way or another. Meanwhile, Democrats ran very strong races to keep their seats in Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida. Result? Democrats unthinkably gained a seat. Two if you count Maine’s Angus King. And with the wind against them, that meant nearly running the table of major races.
Obama’s struggles aren’t over yet.
At this very moment, the “fiscal cliff” negotiations are heating up. and hostilities have broken out in the Middle East that could very well start a war. This, along with the question of the economic recovery leaves Obama with some problems that are definitely not what he is said to have wanted to focus on in his second term.
If Obama’s victory really does call to mind Bush’s in 2004, it’s worth noting that Bush blew up his second term and is still unpopular and generally blamed for our economic problems. In fact, it’s the norm, not the exception, for presidents to experience political heart disease in the second term such as court-packing and an economic freeze-up (Roosevelt), a corrupt Chief of Staff (Eisenhower), Vietnam (JFK/LBJ), Watergate (Nixon/Ford), Iran-Contra (Reagan), Monica Lewinsky (Clinton), and an Iraqi civil war (Bush). Could the hostilities or a double-dip recession end up being Obama’s problem? It’s possible. Much more possible than Benghazi or David Petraeus.
Then again, it may not be that way. If cooler heads prevail in the Middle East and the more optimistic talk about the recent good economic news comes true (the surge in applicants for unemployment benefits was mostly about Hurricane Sandy), Obama stands to see his approval rating rise to levels not seen since the honeymoon.
In any case, the historical book on the Obama presidency will stay open for years. Where presidents’ legacies are concerned, retrospect is everything.
Did you know that Reagan got a 46% favorability rating in 1992?