The 2012 campaign was supposed to be a nail-biter. Republicans were convinced they had an incumbent in the White House who was vulnerable, both because of the weak economy and because of deep-seated divisions among the electorate. The strategy was an old one for Republicans: find some kind of wedge to break the electorate in two and hope you come away with the biggest piece. In 2012, that wedge was Barack Obama, but the GOP ultimately failed to come away with the larger chunk. What caused this? What made Republicans and Democrats each so confident that they would ultimately come away with the largest constituency? It becomes important, then, to examine the fault lines in the electorate and explain how each campaign sought to use them to its own advantage.
The divisions in the country are clearly evident from exit polling which show that President Obama carried 93 percent of the African-American vote. The President also captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent in addition to his 11 percentage point advantage among women. In fact, the only demographic group, constituting a major share of the electorate, which Governor Romney managed to carry, was older white men. In previous election cycles this would have been cause enough for concern from the GOP, but has been particularly so as it became more and more apparent that white voters overall have consistently made up smaller and smaller portions of the electorate. In fact, though they still constitute a majority of the votes cast, white voters made up the smallest portion of the electorate since 1976 whereas nonwhite voters made up a record 21 percent of all ballots cast, up from just 10 percent as recently as 1996. Anyone watching MSNBC on election night was treated to Democratic strategists all but salivating over the opportunities increased minority turnout could open up for them, even in the reddest of red states. Speaking in July of this year Obama suggested that even the state of Texas might soon be a battleground state. Obama’s advantage among women also buoyed him in swing states like Colorado on top of the recent growth in minority populations there. Perhaps most surprisingly, in 2012 Obama was able to surpass his record setting turnout of people under 30 from 2008 thanks in no small part to a massive organizing campaign and Get Out The Vote effort on campuses across the country. Even here at Concordia about 73% of students living on campus turned out to vote, a truly astounding figure when one considers that voters under 30 are notoriously unreliable in showing up at the polls.
As mentioned earlier, the strategy of divide and conquer is not a new one in Republican campaigns. The strategy was perfected by Karl Rove in 2000 and 2004, who used state ballot initiatives on same sex marriage and abortion to turn out huge numbers of (predominantly white) religious conservatives to vote for the ballot initiatives and, more importantly for Rove, for George W. “Family Values” Bush. The question then remains, if the strategy worked so well just two election cycles ago, why did it fail this time?
The answer to this question is tricky and has two parts. Firstly, the strategy of divide and conquer did work in one respect, just not to the Republican’s advantage. In the state of Minnesota for instance, the amendment on the ballot banning same sex marriage failed to turn out Christian conservative voters but instead turned out huge numbers of young people, and other Democratic constituencies to vote against the amendment. Here in Moorhead, that probably provided a much-needed boost to local DFL (Democratic Farmer-Labor Party) candidates who had been locked in tough races with heavily financed Republican opponents. Minnesota actually became the first state ever to vote down a ban on same sex marriage. In each of the 32 times the question had been on a state ballot it had been decided against marriage equality. This is indicative of just how rapidly public opinion is shifting on the not only this issue, but on the issue of marijuana, which was just legalized for recreational use in Colorado and Washington and for medicinal use in Massachusetts. Secondly, when pitting one half of the electorate against the other, using Barack Obama as a wedge, Republicans must have known that it would cost them with African-Americans and other minority voters. The growth of minority populations in America, and particularly in swing states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico has been apparent for years. What Republicans didn’t count on, however, was that they would turn out in such high numbers. This is a testament to the strength of the Obama field campaign in contacting and moving huge numbers of voters to the polls. On just the Sunday before Election Day, the Obama campaign knocked on 376,000 doors in Ohio alone, a full 5 times more than their Republican counterparts who had already been bragging on Twitter about their 75,000 door knocks. The Obama campaign also held a significant advantage in new voter registrations in almost all of the 2012 swing states. The election that was supposed to be a nail biter actually turned into something of a rout. Obama won with a small but comfortable margin of 2% of the popular vote (which comes out to around 2 million votes) and a sizeable margin of nearly 130 electoral votes (assuming he wins Florida which still hasn’t been called but where the President leads by 60,000 votes with more than 99% percent of the votes having already been counted). What is clear, both for Democrats and Republicans is that 2012 will serve as a model for future elections. It may be that the electoral trouncing the Republicans received will be a blessing in disguise. It’s hard to believe that the Republican party will continue to ignore constituencies like Hispanics, African-Americans, women, and young voters if they wish to remain a viable national party.