How key changes shaped the 2012 election and Obama's triumph

Romney's team did what it needed to do in a previous America. But this is 2012. Plus, does this result tell us much about the future of U.S. politics?
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Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate, as seen during a viewing at a San Francisco theater.

Romney's team did what it needed to do in a previous America. But this is 2012. Plus, does this result tell us much about the future of U.S. politics?

A decent interval having passed since Election Day, here are some rearview-mirror thoughts about the state of our national politics. I found myself surprised by some developments and, as always, hopeful if uncertain about the future.

The headlines:

  • Fewer of us voted than expected.
  • Demographics have changed the electorate.
  • Social norms and trends were important.
  • Campaigning itself changed from the past.
  • Present trends do not necessarily project into the future.

Fewer Americans voted: The United States has been in several-year economic distress. National and state-level candidates, party-affiliated groups, and independent committees poured unprecedented monies into the campaigns. Voter turnout activities reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Partisan fevers ran high. Yet, in the end, a lower percentage of eligible voters nationally cast ballots than in either 2004 or 2008.

Some 126 million voted in the election, about 57.5 percent of eligible voters. That compared to 62.3 percent who voted in 2008 and 60.4 percent in 2004. President Obama's vote total was substantially lower than in 2008. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's vote was lower than Sen. John McCain's four years ago, although the falloff was not so great as for Obama.

Only Iowa and Louisiana, among the 50 states, had higher turnout rates than four years ago. States with the highest turnout rates were either "battleground states" — where media expenditures and campaign activity were strongest — or had high-visibility races below the presidential level. This was the case, for instance, in Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in a tightly contested U.S. Senate race. The lowest turnout rate nationally was in Obama's home state of Hawaii. where only 43.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Will this lowered participation rate continue? We'll have to examine the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential-election data to know. But I, for one, was surprised to find the rate falling as it did this year. I'd have bet strongly otherwise before Election Day.

Voting patterns reflected changing demographics: The groups carried by Romney would have been more than sufficient in earlier years to bring him a one-sided victory. He carried the following constituencies: white voters, male voters, voters older than 45, married voters, college graduates, those with incomes above $50,000, independents, conservatives, Republicans, suburbanites, small-town and rural voters, Protestants, and regular churchgoers. But Obama won majorities among women voters, voters younger than 45, black, Asian, Latino, Catholic and Jewish voters, gay voters, unmarried voters, working mothers and parents of children under 18, high-school-educated-or-less voters, the postgraduate-educated, those with incomes below $50,000, Democrats, liberals, moderates, and urban voters. There, of course, are overlaps among all these voting groups.

Latino voters were big difference-makers for Obama. He won 71 percent of the growing Latino vote. This, in part, could be laid to Romney's and Republicans' identification with tough immigration-law enforcement (as well as intense Democratic media and other campaigning in the constituency). I was surprised by Obama's percentages among Asian voters (73 percent) Jewish voters (69 percent) and, to a lesser degree, Catholics (50 percent). Asian and Catholic voters, as Latinos, are traditionally more family-oriented and associated with traditional values than the general electorate. The Catholic electorate has changed — with fewer regular, observant members — but the heavy number of Latinos among Catholics no doubt brought Obama his small margin there. Many Jewish voters had been concerned with the administration's tensions with the present Israeli government but, in the end, traditional party loyalty and liberal social values seem to have carried for Obama.

Social norms have changed: Democrats ran effective, targeted appeals to young, unmarried women in particular. Obama carried 62 percent of unmarried women voters and even stronger percentages among the youngest in this group. Abortion and contraception got high public visibility as issues impacting these voters but less attention was paid to the degree to which government support benefits flow to this group -- especially to those with children. Marked changes have taken place in this constituency. In 1960, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5 percent of live births were to an unmarried mother. In 2011 the number was 41 percent and, among African Americans, 72 percent. Unmarried mothers voted 70 percent for Obama this year. The poverty rate is high for single mothers with children. Their lifelines, in many cases, are government-funded programs associated with Democrats.

Republicans' appeals for individual initiative and self reliance did not resonate with these voters. Younger voters cast ballots in fewer numbers for Obama than in 2008 but still gave him, in the 29-and-below group, 60 percent.

Presidential elections involving an incumbent normally are a referendum on the incumbency, with first emphasis on economic issues. By that measure, Romney had an advantage going in. But Obama became the only president other than Franklin Roosevelt to be re-elected with an unemployent rate above 7.8 percent. It was in part, I think, not only because the electorate is changing demographically but because many voters, in the groups cited above, put feelings of social and cultural affinity above traditional bread-and-butter concerns.

Campaign mechanics: Overall turnout had to have been disappointing to both national campaigns. But the Obama team clearly did a better job than Romney's in identifying, appealing to, and turning out its vote. The Obama campaign picked up the never-ending campaign, all-politics-all-the-time doctrine of the Clinton presidency but also broke new ground by keeping in place its 2008 operation without closing it down between elections. Voters who supported or gave money to Obama received non-stop email, regular mail, Twitter, and other communications from the White House, president and First Lady, campaign committees, and other partisan groups on a nearly daily basis from 2009 until Election Day 2012. The Romney national campaign, by contrast, only focused on the general election after a grueling, sometimes-bruising campaign to win the Republican nomination over strong conservative opposition.

The Obama campaign also did an excellent job of defining the opposition candidate for the electorate before he could fully define himself. This was an imperative for an incumbency facing an uphill task in defending itself in tough economic times. Post-Labor Day survey data showed that the Obama campaign had been quite successful in painting Romney as a heartless, Bain Capital plutocrat unconcerned with ordinary people. Romney, unaccountably, did not launch his own media campaign — in battleground states, in particular — trying to erase this picture. He began to do so only in his first nationally televised debate with Obama.

Whereas the Obama campaign defined its target voters (as above) and directed tailored measures toward them, the Romney campaign ran an old-style, general-message-to-everyone campaign on the assumption that all Americans were deriving their information from traditional mass-media sources and/or, for that matter, from the presidential debates. Obama appeared on numerous entertainment TV and some radio talk shows, especially at the local level in key markets, while Romney struck a more traditional, above-the-fray posture and appeared at traditional campaign events.

Much has been made of the fact that the Eastern-seaboard hurricane, during the final week before the election, broke Romney's momentum in the campaign and allowed Obama an opportunity to reboot. Reliable Gallup polling data, indeed, showed Romney slowly opening a more-than-3-points national lead on Obama just before the hurricane. He'd had three strong debate performances against Obama, was drawing big campaign crowds, and had the central bread-and-butter issue running in his favor.

The hurricane did, in my judgment, give Obama a chance to reboot. But I am not so sure that he would not have done so, hurricane or not. Late-breaking, undecided voters — contrary to the usual pattern — went for the incumbent rather than the challenger. The Obama campaign, below the surface, was doing a superior job in generating its vote. The outcome, I suspect, was only marginally affected by the big blow.

Finally, it should be noted that official campaign committees, other partisan committees, and independent-expenditure groups gave more money to the Obama campaign than to the Romney campaign. Democratic Senate campaigns also outspent their Republican counterparts. House Republican candidates, by contrast, outspent House Democratic candidates. As it turned out, the winners all had more money than the losers, tending to validate once more the application of the Golden Rule in politics: Those with the gold rule.

The present and the future: Talking heads and analysts tend to see present trends and extrapolate them into the future. But it can be a mistake to do so.

In the Roaring '20s, during the administrations of presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, it seemed Republicans would hold the White House forever. Democrats were seen as a mixture of Southen court-house racists and Northen big-citymachine politicians. Then, after the 1929 crash, everything changed. Franklin Roosevelt won re-election four times and built a New Deal coalition, based on economic common interest, including not only socially conservative Southerners, labor-union members, and big-city Northern machines but also black voters who had been loyal to the party of Lincoln from Reconstruction through the 1920s. No one saw it coming.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson won a thunderous, one-sided victory over GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater; Democrats won huge majorities in both houses of Congress. Historic civil-rights and Great Society legislation followed. Yet, only four years later, beset by Vietnam, LBJ declined to run for re-election and Richard Nixon, a political semi-outcast, was elected for the first of two terms.

In 1976, an obscure former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, defeated a crowd of liberals for the Democratic presidential nomination and brought un unexpected and generally undefined populism to the White House. In four years he was defeated and gone, succeeded by Ronald Reagan, the intellectual heir to the Goldwaterites who had lost so one-sidedly 16 years before but gradually strengthened their hold on the GOP. Again, almost no one saw it coming.

Obama is riding high at the moment, as he should be. But, in coming weeks, he is likely to encounter the same troubles that earlier presidents have met in their second terms. Presidential second terms are notorious for their gridlock and sparse substantive production. This one begins at a time when the American economy and financial system are quite vulnerable and, to a degree, hostage to events, in the European Union in particular, which will be beyond its control. The scheduled 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan may prove more difficult than anyone foresaw and the period until then filled with chaos on the ground there.

What will happen when and if Iran actually achieves a nuclear-weapons capability, despite our best efforts to forestall it, and moves against Israel? What if one or more countries touched by the so-called "Arab Spring" is taken over by Islamic fundamentalists? What if, here at home, partisan polarization overcomes any effort to restrain our huge and ever-growing long-term federal debt burden? What if Republicans should rally behind moderate, partial-amnesty immigration legislation? Would socially conservative Latinos abandon Democrats? Will GOP calls for balance-sheet austerity overcome present demands for an expanding welfare state?

Which candidates will emerge — and they will do so, quite early — to contend for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations in 2016? Will they divert attention from governance before then? The point is this: About the future, you can guess and predict but never can tell. Transforming events will take place, ones which we do not presently foresee.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of