The writing on the wall

Post-election columns and blogs usually adopt one of two themes: this is a major crisis, or here’s why it’s not so bad.  Let me briefly make the case why it’s not so bad, and then spend a bit more time on reality.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

  • Mitt Romney did considerably better than John McCain in the popular vote, and went a long way to rebuilding the Republican brand so scorched by George W. Bush.
  • Indiana!  And, to a lesser extent, North Carolina.  These were states that McCain lost in 2008 and that Romney won in 2012.
  • Romney was more competitive with women, independents, and midwestern voters than John McCain.
  • The Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives.
  • There are Republican governors in 29 states, and most states have a Republican-dominated legislature; in addition, Republicans may have a long-term advantage given that they were in charge of redistricting in many states after the 2010 Census.

I’d rather not dwell too long on the Kool-Aid.  Let’s get to the actual lessons from this election.

1.  Republican pundits have zero credibility

One of the themes going into the 2012 elections was whether or not the polls were providing us a clear picture of the 2012 election.  I argued that they were likely underestimating Romney’s appeal just a little, but just enough to make the difference in many razor-edge states like Virginia and New Hampshire.  I was wrong.  I don’t mind saying I was less wrong than Dick Morris, Michael Barone, and George Will, who all went on record predicting a Romney victory in the area of 330 electoral votes, scoring also some major upsets (variously Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and/or Nevada).  I highlight these three only because they have had considerable credibility to people on both sides of the political divide.  (Well, credibility and Dick Morris don’t quite belong in the same sentence, but people on both left and right acknowledge that the guy is an accomplished election strategist.)  Barone and Will are particularly noted for their brainpower.

These three were by no means alone.  Hugh Hewitt, Karl Rove, Michael Medved, Jonah Goldberg – any number of right-wing pundits were predicting a Romney win – or at least Romney competitiveness in places like Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  But as Matthew Dowd kept repeating during the ABC election coverage, in state after state and county after county, it was the election models of the left and of the Obama strategists that were playing out as eerily accurate.  It was annoying that Dowd kept saying that – mostly because it was correct.

The right-wing pundits could have been incorrect for two reasons: they were lying or they were wrong.  Either is unforgivable.  I suspect they were wrong.

2.  This is the electorate

One of the ideas sustaining Republican hopes was the idea that Republicans had an advantage in enthusiasm and would turn out more voters than the Democrats.  I certainly believed this.  Turn out is always a key in Presidential elections, but is especially important for Republicans.  There are more than 70 million registered Democrats in the country but only a little over 50 million registered Republicans.  To win, then, some or all of the following things must occur:

  • Republicans get a higher percentage turnout than Democrats
  • Republicans get more Democrats to “cross-over” than Democrats get
  • Voters not registered with either party (“independents”) cast votes more for Republicans than Democrats

Usually one needs all three of these things to happen, and historically, Republicans have had pretty good success with all three happening.  Before 2008, Republicans won the Presidency in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004, and arguably would have won in 1992 but for the unusually strong third-party showing of Ross Perot.  (And had Clinton not won in 1992, who knows what would have happened in 1996.)

But I think the odds of all of these things are now going down considerably.  Turn outs have gotten better every Presidential election year since the 1996 elections.  It may be some time before we know if that trend continued this time out, but it is hard to imagine the turn out was much lower than 2008.  Turn outs are better for a variety of reasons, including advancements in the “ground game” of both parties, particularly the Democrats, and changes in the election process in virtually every state to make voting easier (voting by mail in some states and extended early voting opportunities in many states).  In addition, the saturation of political coverage and the massive amounts of money spent on campaigns makes election day far more salient than it was even a 12 years ago.  The closer we get to 100% turn out, the greater the advantage for Democrats, just based on the numbers.

Another good point that Matthew Dowd emphasized last night was that there are fewer independents these days.  Possibly because of the political nature of cable TV (MSNBC vs. FoxNews), the increasing politicization of movies (2016 vs. Fahrenheit 911), and the availability of political opinion on the internet (BreitbartTV vs. Huffington Post), people are more encouraged than ever to pick a side – and be loyal to that side.  Politics is a team sport now.  (Dowd again: the color of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.  By the way, this applies to Romney as well.  I’m sure there will be columns and blogs blaming him – for not making Libya a bigger issue, for ignoring Pennsylvania for too long, for the auto bailout op-ed – but he was a good candidate playing for a bad team.)  I will not be surprised to learn that the cross-over vote is at an all-time low – and this in a year when it was thought that the Republican might appeal to some Democrats.

And finally, independents.  Independents may be disappearing.  This will be a very slow process, but I think what will happen is that the most political independents, the ones most likely to vote, will choose a side.  What will be left is a group of people that aren’t politically astute.  These independents either won’t vote, or they will vote based on whichever party has the loudest voice.  As long as the media continues to lean left, and as long as Democrats are able to raise more money than Republicans, less-politically astute independents will vote predominantly Democrat.  I say “less-politically astute” not to be pejorative – surely many politically-astute independents will vote Democrat as well – but there will be a pool of less politically-astute independents as well, and I don’t think conditions favor that group voting Republican.

3.  It’s not the economy, stupid

Okay, I admit that’s too simple.  The economy will always be a factor in how people vote.  And as I’ve written before, I think it is really the key issue on which people should vote, along with national security.  Also, we can’t completely presume that because Mitt Romney didn’t win, it must therefore be that voters didn’t vote based on the economy.  Surely some voters – maybe many voters – believe that Barack Obama is better on the economy than Romney.  Maybe they believe we have to tax the rich to close the budget gap, or maybe they believe in this $5 trillion or $7 trillion hogwash about Romney’s tax plan, or maybe they are buoyed by the job creation over the last 2 years, the strong stock market, or the lowering unemployment numbers in key states like Ohio and Wisconsin, or maybe they truly think investing in wind, solar, and teachers is the secret to future prosperity.  (I’m laughing and crying as I type this.)  Romney did have, at one time, a pretty sizable lead when people were asked who is better on the economy; that advantage was reduced as the election approached, but it did not disappear entirely.

But these are the crucial facts.  Economic conditions strongly favored a changing of the guard.  Candidate Romney did a magnificent job laying out the facts:  unemployment higher than when the President took office, anemic GDP growth, swelling ranks of food stamp recipients, people despairing and leaving the job market, college graduates unable to find work, 4 years of trillion dollar deficits, complete lack of an attempt to reduce the deficit or protect entitlement programs, immoral passing on of debt to our children, and the passage of a health care bill with uncertain effects on future job creation and economic growth.

Every state should have looked like Indiana.  When I look at the election results, I can’t help but think that Indiana was the only state that got the message.  The President won Indiana 50-49 in 2008, but lost Indiana 54-44 this time around.  But Indiana was the oddity.  Even if Romney was more competitive everywhere else in the upper Midwest, there’s no certainty that Republicans can build on that momentum in 4 years.  What Republicans wanted to see at a minimum though was North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida roaring back to Republican red in a definitive way.  North Carolina appears to be the only one that came back (Virginia and Florida were both achingly close, as was  Ohio), but where was the Indiana-style recovery in North Carolina?  Obama won the state narrowly in 2008 (by 14,000 votes), and lost the state this time 51-48.  That’s not a margin that says 2008 was the exception, it’s a margin that says North Carolina will be a battleground state for elections to come.  Particularly given the sorry state of North Carolina’s economy.

Democrats had a very strong showing in 2008.  Disenchanted voters chastised the Democrats in the 2010 midterms.  What Republicans needed to see was that pendulum traveling further to the right, which even could have been argued in the case of a Romney loss with an Indiana-style recovery in places like North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, coupled with his reasonably-strong popular vote total.  But what I take from these results is that, no, the pendulum is swinging back from 2010.  That’s not a good sign.

4.  Is it the social issues, stupid?

So if it wasn’t the economy, what was it?  It is becoming increasingly clear that a host of issues other than the economy are swaying voters right now.  An important one is immigration.  As many insiders are beginning to point out, the GOP is faring increasingly poorly with the Hispanic segment of the voting population.  George W. Bush garnered a bit more than 40% of the Latino vote, John McCain a bit more than 30%, and Mitt Romney, if the early estimates are accurate, got about 29%.  Couple that downward trend with the upward trend of the percent of the electorate that is Hispanic and you have a long-term recipe for disaster.

I mention immigration first because it is the issue about which I have long believed Republicans have been unnecessarily pig-headed.  Immigration is great for this country.  The objection about immigrants is that many of them are poor, and may be poor for a generation or two, and while they are poor they demand a greater share of the nation’s resources when they rely on various kinds of government aid, such as food stamps and emergency health care.  The problem with this situation isn’t the immigrants, however, it is the management of the aid programs.  Target the programs, not the people who use them.

The problem Republicans have with welfare programs, besides their cost, is that they do not seem to lift people out of poverty but rather trap them there.  They seem to stratify economic classes, rather than the opposite.  But this is not a problem specific to recent immigrants; indeed, it is likely that recent immigrants are less apt to be trapped in a generational cycle than those native born Americans already accustomed to the generational cycle.  I find it hard to believe – and other voters will to – that immigrants come here looking for hand outs.  I find it easy to believe they come here looking for opportunity, and will happily take on migrant farm work or custodial work or late night taxi cab work or whatever so that their kids can go to school and start a business.  Republicans should be the champions of this kind of hard working spirit.  We are the party, after all, that claims to protect exactly what these people come here to find – a chance to get ahead, a chance that their kids will not be poor, a chance to work for themselves and not for someone else.  The anti-Communist Cubans are not the only Hispanics who will be open to this Republican message – every immigrant is a potential inventor and entrepreneur.  We should be telling these immigrants welcome to the land of opportunity, not telling them oh great, here’s another problem.

There are other social issues as well, but unfortunately, these are issues that will be much harder to deal with – because many Republicans simply cannot compromise on them.  I’m speaking particularly of gay marriage and abortion.  Full disclosure here:  I support gay marriage.  I am against abortion except in cases of rape or where the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

The citizens of Maine just voted to permit gay marriage in the state, and voters in Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota voted in ways that make the prospect of legalized gay marriage more probable in the future.  It will be very interesting to see how conservatives take this news.  I suggest the following lessons:

  • Like it or not, the electorate is shifting on this issue and will soon favor gay marriage by majority
  • Like it or not, gay marriage is earning acceptance the right way in the case of these 4 votes – not through Presidential fiat or court challenges, but rather through the democratic process

In other words, the votes in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington represent our federal system at work – “let the states decide these things” was a repeated assertion of Candidate Romney.  He was speaking about health care legislation, but he might as well have been speaking about gay marriage – or abortion.  Indeed, overturning Roe v. Wade, a stated goal of Candidate Romney and of many conservatives (I include myself), would have the effect of returning abortion-related legislation to the states.  If conservatives really believe in the states rights principle, they should be willing to take all of these battles there.

Though I must admit I fear that the reason Republicans are so powerful now in the states (state houses and legislatures) and so weak now at the federal level, is because social issues have been fought – since the 1960s – at the federal level.  Return them where they belong – to the state level – and we may find Republicans losing there as well.  I say that with no joy.

A wicked fantasy, borne of disappointment

When the commentators were pointing out that, after $3 billion had been spent, a million TV ads run, and 18 months of our lives wrapped up in the 2012 elections, nothing really had changed – Democrats in the White House and Senate, Republicans in the House – I came up with a wicked idea for what the Republican Congress should do.

It doesn’t happen that often, but occasionally in a football game the team that is behind by one or two points takes control in the last three minutes of a game.  Their strategy is usually to burn the clock, taking their time so that they can kick the winning field goal with ten or twenty seconds left, virtually assuring a win.  The team that’s ahead but destined to lose will sometimes try a desperate gambit: just lay down and let them score a touchdown.  This will put them down by 5 or 6 points, instead of only 1 or 2, but it will get them the ball back with enough time (maybe a minute) to control their own destiny.

So in my fantasy, I advise John Boehner to do just that: lay down.  Give the President everything he wants.  Tax the rich.  Cap and trade.  Nix the Keystone pipeline.  Enforce the taxes on the middle class embedded within the Affordable Care Act.

One of two things will happen.  Either the economy will recover, as the Democrats have said all along, in which case wonderful, and I’m happy to close this blog and vote Democrat forever.  Or, the economy will drag, we’ll double-dip and our credit will get downgraded again, in which case the Democrats won’t be able to say the only reason the economy didn’t recover is that the Republicans blocked all of their ideas.  The scoreboard would be quite clear.

But then I think of that line in Airplane II, delivered by Elaine Dickinson:

“I don’t know how to say this, but maybe in this mixed up, topsy-turvy world of ours they should take all the quote sane people off the streets and lock them up and let all the psychopaths out of the asylums to run the world… (pause)… no, I guess on second thought that’s a bad idea.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bad idea.  But it would be a good idea for Republicans to see the 2012 elections as a repudiation of their strategy and understand the pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction.  The writing is on the wall, if we’re of a mind to read it.


  1. I just wrote about this too… how social issues are killing Republicans. Obama was ripe for the pickin’ from center left on gay marriage, wars, and civil liberties. But, Republicans can’t even touch these issues, because they’re so far right on them. And, the numbers are trending toward majorities favoring gay marriage, disapproving of war, and concern about civil liberties (Patriot Act, NDAA, etc).

    Republicans have to be in a position to attack a Democrat from the left on some of these issues… or at least force the D candidate further left to protect his/her base and steal some of the independents who lean right on the economy but left on social issues… I being one of those independents.

    Some serious re-thinking that needs done among the Republican party.

  2. […] The Writing on the Wall ( […]

  3. Nicely written. Well researched and some interesting points. Unfortunately it seems that on certain issues we disagree. Perhaps that points to one of the underlying problems facing the Republican Party.

    1. Indeed. In my heart of hearts, I believe the GOP is the party of prosperity and opportunity and the one most-able to defend what makes this nation great. I would hate to see it become obsolete because of some of these other disagreements.

  4. […] made a comment in my previous post that it was hard to imagine the 2012 turnout was much less than the 2008 turnout.  Votes are still […]

  5. “2. This is the electorate”

    If you’re right on these trends, than I and many of my friends are outliers. This year I changed my registration for the first time, from Republican to Independant. I’m sick and tired of politics as a team sport and want to see something more meaningful than the color of the jersey he’s wearing. I paid more attention to the election campaigns in terms of the debates and speaches and researching the candidates position, but I pay little or no attention to the politicized news.

    I could easily be a minority.

  6. […] The Writing on the Wall ( […]

  7. […] in the Midwest.  If it is true that Republicans are sliding among the Latino population – and I believe this is true, and should be rectified if at all possible – then Republicans would do well to become […]

  8. Moderate Dem · · Reply

    Well, i took your advice to check out some of your other posts, and I’m really enjoying your blog. Being a white Democrat in suburban Dallas, rational discourse with someone who disagrees with me is hard to find.

    A couple of points I’d like to offer:
    It’s a bit oversimplified to suggest that Mitt Romney was forwarding a plan that would grow the economy while not compromising the debt. If the starting point is a $1 trillion deficit, 20% tax rate cuts with undisclosed loophole closures is not a solution to reduce the deficit, unless cataclysmic spending cuts are included. While Reagan’s tax helped the economic recovery, the explosion of federal spending also had a lot to do with it. Aside from Reagan’s 1980’s cuts, the data that suggests tax cuts lead to economic expansion are suspect at best. In addition, there is a substantial difference in opportunity when the top marginal tax rate is 70% than when it is 35%.

    Side note – While I applaud Boehner’s willingness to publicly support compromise, I’m struggling with the concept of “we can’t afford any more trillion dollar deficits” giving way to “let’s extend everything by one year” so easily. Somehow, another $1 trillion seems like it should have been a bigger deal to a party threatening default barely a year ago.

    Second point, the ideologically rigid tea party types are absolutely cancerous to the future of the Republican party and a willingness to adapt a more inclusive platform. Less because of the obvious difference in core beliefs, and more because of the absolute unwillingness to support a candidate that doesn’t fit the exact ideological profile. There is no way that the Republican equivalent of a Bob Casey could ever win a statewide primary in today’s climate. We’re already seeing this impact in the Senate: even a remotely acceptable candidate would have unseated Reid or McCaskill, and Castle and Lugar would have cruised to easy victories. This vocal minority’s absolute unwillingness to find common ground is, short-term, the biggest obstacle to Congressional Republicans.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks again for your insight.

    1. I can’t really respond to your comments about Romney’s plan or the causes of the “Reagan recovery” without writing a really long essay about it. Even then it wouldn’t necessarily convince you, nor do I pretend to be certain about my own analyses of those plans. Economics is a very uncertain science. My own instinct is different from yours, but I think we would both agree that Romney would have been a more attractive candidate had he responded to the criticisms with more specifics. His job was not just to have a plan, but to convince people his plan would work.

      There are early signs that the Democrats may adopt some of Romney’s ideas, interestingly enough.

      I don’t like the way the word “tea party” has come to represent an ideologically rigid, even extreme group, within the Republican party. When it began it was really quite a broad movement of Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians, rallying around the idea that the deficit was too large and that the economy was too encumbered by government interference, especially in health insurance. Supporters of Keynesian-style economics and the Affordable Care Act were unbelieveably effective at demonizing this grass roots political movement, essentially creating the very “cancerous” situation that now exists. I think that’s a tremendous shame, because grass-roots movements like the tea party are really the lifeblood of democracy. It was destroyed as much by the zealots within it as by the demagogues that hated it.

      Having said that, I agree with you completely that these forces cost Republicans Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana. I agree these were terrible candidates. (My next recommendation is that you read my abortion essay. Although I am pro-life, I believe very strongly in the exception in cases of rape, and therefore my stomach really churns at the Todd Akins of the world.)

      1. Yeah, I think it’s funny that “closing loopholes and deductions” is now suddenly a great idea. I do find it hard to understand how the government spending less of our money is somehow “cataclysmic” and bad for me. I know I’d sure feel a lot better if I had more of my money.

        As for the tea party, it is unfortunate… but, as you mentioned, they brought it on themselves a bit. It’s not hard for demagogues to pile on when zealots are giving them all the ammunition they could ever want. I think the Liberty movement is becoming the “new Tea Party” with a little more political savvy.

      2. Moderate Dem · ·

        You touched on one of – in my admittedly limited perspective – the biggest issues with current political economic theory: the concept that every economic situation requires a similar response. I think we can agree definitively that 100 pct is too high a tax rate, and 0 pct is too low a rate, so the conversation is really about where that balance is. Furthermore, it’s not as though there’s a sweet spot that just hasn’t been found yet – what worked for a 1990’s economy may not work in a 2012 economy, and may work perfectly again down the line.

        While I subscribe to the Keynesian theory that demand creates a market for supply, and without demand for a product or service, there is no need for investment, I would also suggest that government involvement should be at the minimum possible level to ensure a thriving economy that provides the broadest possible opportunity. In the 1990’s, Clinton and Congressional Republicans were the beneficiaries of the tech boom and were able to parlay that into a balanced budget and an ability to keep economic regulation at bay. However, the nature of the 90’s economy and the unprecedented need for high income, high skilled workers had much more to do with economic prosperity than changes in government policy.

        In the 2000’s, I would suggest that Bush and Republicans in Congress tried to be everything to everyone: tax cuts and Medicare Part D, wars, and a check cut to every American taxpayer to fund stimulus in 2007. The consistent theme was that tax cuts would grow the economy and ultimately increase federal revenue. The result was an economic framework incapable of handling a recession without massive debt and no “levers to pull” to rein it in.

        Barack Obama, to say the least, has not handled this well. But I would suggest it’s largely a failure of consensus building and communication versus theory. For all of the scare tactics placed against killing job creation in small business, the tax differential is 4.6 percent on net profit, not net revenue. For a business with a 20 pct margin requirement (which is very much on the aggressive side), the impact to the ROI calculation is less than 1 percent. Will that occasionally lead to the rejection of a project that otherwise would have qualified for implementation? Sure. Enough to be more valuable to job creation than the continued funding of government programs that directly or indirectly employ Americans? Seems unlikely.

        But, unlike social policy, economics is a gray area science. So I’m speculating as much as anyone.

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