Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2012 - Final Thoughts and Lessons

Just a short update as the holidays are upon us...

In no particular order, here are some lessons and conclusions from the 2012 race...

Defining your opponent and early attack ads work!
The Obama campaign made a strategic decision early on to attack and define Romney as a corporate raider who did not care about ordinary folks and who would stand up for greedy venture capitalists.  This worked insofar as it really put a cap on the support that Romney could win from traditional working class voters in the Midwest.  It also served to build a narrative that Romney was never really able to shake.

Fail to respond to attacks at one's own peril.
See point above. Romney made a critical error in not immediately responding to the negative ad barrage over the summer. He choose to spend campaign dollars later in the cycle.  Traditionally this would be the prudent thing to do, but things have changed immensely in the past few years.  The rise and dominance to the new media means that strategic attacks will be remembered as it is far easier to distribute these campaigns than it was in the past.  By the time Romney tried to craft a positive image, the overall poor public perception of him had formed and become entrenched. Those who fight the last campaign usually lose.  Also, Romney underutilized media sources outside of traditional ones to reach younger voters.

Organization and ground war wins elections.
The Obama campaign had the luxury of having four years to prepare for reelection and wasted no time in developing the most formidable GOTV and voter ID effort ever undertaken.  Romney relied more on mass media blitzes late in the campaign and was generally out-hustled on the ground.  This was instrumental in allowing Obama to get many more young voters to the polls than the Romney campaign ever anticipated.

Debates do not matter as much as we (or Republicans) thought.
Yes, the first debate did help Romney, but he failed to keep the momentum.  Had he done poorly in the first debate he would have lost by a greater margin, but the evidence shows that the President led throughout the campaign.  There was a window for Romney, but he decided to play it safe and failed to seize the initiative when the Obama campaign was back on it's heels.  A good 90-minute performance simply cannot right a campaign that was losing almost every news cycle.

Polling IS accurate!
If anything the national polling showed a slight Republican bias much to the chagrin of GOP boosters who complained about biased polls.  A pollster who biases or otherwise does not conduct a good survey won't be in business for very long.  The turnout model did in fact look more like 2008 than 2004.  Pay attention to reputable polls, they really are very predictive!

George W. Bush continues to own the economy.
Usually, high wrong track numbers, high unemployment, and a sputtering economy will doom a sitting president, however...

Exit polling showed a good amount of economic dissatisfaction, but Obama did not get the bulk of the blame. Instead his President Bush still is perceived as responsible for the continuing economic struggles.  If anything, people credited Obama with the recovery albeit a slow one.  Bill Clinton is owed a lot for standing up with the president over the economic situation and reinforcing the notion that the conditions were inherited and would take more than four years to fix.  Additionally the perception is that economic conditions are improving.  The national unemployment rate dropping under 8% in October was vital in this narrative.

This also allowed Obama to tie Romney to Bush and this was a problem that dogged Romney throughout the campaign.  This made it nearly impossible for Romney to disassociate himself from the previous administration.

Hurricane Sandy was important.
The storm allowed Obama to look and act presidential and also took Romney effectively off the campaign trail in the critical final week.  Voter turnout in the affected areas was down, but Obama over-performed in the states of NJ and CT and it is likely the storm response boosted his numbers.  Curiously, a sizable number of those exit polled cited Sandy as a major decision factor - undecided voters appeared to break to Obama as well in the last few days.  A reasonable case can be made that wavering voters (not that there were many left) decided to stick with the President based on the very favorable media coverage of the storm response.

The Gender Gap widens.
Females (53% of voters in 2012) were one of the keys to Obama's victory, even more so than in 2008.   Obama won women by an impressive 55%-44% margin.  Romney did win men solidly, but not by enough to offset this. The gender gap was a major factor for the Democrats gaining US House and Senate seats as well.

Female voters generally were put off by the uncompromising GOP stance on abortion which not only sunk Romney, but several Republican Senate candidates as well.  Exit polling shows that this issue is pivotal for female suburban swing voters.  The GOP would be well advised to rethink the uncompromising language in 2016.

Demographics are changing.
Only 72% of the electorate was white this year.  This number has been falling at an ever increasing rate since the 1980s.  While Romney won white voters by 20 points, he got beaten very badly among minority voters including the fast growing Hispanic population.  Romney also lost badly among Asian Americans another rapidly growing group.

Younger voters were also Obama supporters much like in 2008.  If this continues, the very large Millennial Generation will become habitual Democrats. Unless the GOP can successfully appeal to minorities and younger voters they will have a very hard time winning the presidency anytime soon.  There simply are not enough white voters anymore.  Republican strategy failed to see the changing face of American voters.  Additionally, many younger and minority voters are not reachable via traditional polling methods which also accounted for some of the polls being slightly biased in Romney's favor.

The GOP is losing the "culture wars".
Aided by unforced errors by Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, the GOP cultivated the appearance of a hard-right and intolerant party.  By failing to recognize changing national perceptions and demographics this is recipe for disaster unless some of the hard edged perspectives are at least softened.  Younger voters are simply more likely to vote on social issues such as women's issues and minority rights and are more liberal than generations past.  President Obama recognized this and moved to the left on social issues, especially same-sex marriage. It helped him tremendously with these voters.

The 47% remark.
This was the gift that kept on giving for the Obama campaign.  It fit the Obama narrative very well and helped define Romney as and out of touch and uncaring child of privilege.

Economic populism works!
Economic fairness or class warfare depending on your ideology is an appealing message.  The evidence suggests that the public has moved slightly to the left on economics and Romney's embrace of limited government and free market principals was not appealing in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown.  The GOP's refusal to entertain even minor tax increases on the wealthy likely added to the perception that they were out of touch with the middle class.

Lastly... the national vote margin looks to be around 3.1%.  Not a landslide, but certainly enough as it demonstrates the Democrats continuing dominance of presidential elections since the 1990s.  It is important to remember that since 1992 the Republicans only captured a plurality of votes in only one election (2004) and that the Democrats have won pluralities in every other election (2000 excepted, sorry Al Gore).

The 2012 election demonstrates continuing deep divisions in the nation on both economic and social issues. The exit polls confirm that the older and whiter one is, the more likely to support Republican and Conservative messaging while young people and minority groups are generally more receptive to liberal perspectives on the issues of the day.

The nation is also split geographically with cities and inner suburbs being solid blue while exurbs and rural areas are colored red.  There are counties in North Texas that voted over 90% for Romney and inner-city Philadelphia precincts that had 100% turnout for Obama.

In the coming weeks I will write a postmortem on the Brown-Warren race in Massachusetts, provide some unsolicited advice for each political party going forward, look at the 2014 Governor's race in the Bay State, and of course begin handicapping for the 2016 contest.  After all, it is only 1,448 days until November 8, 2016...


The Prof

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