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.