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The Difference Between Elections and Governing The Difference Between Elections and Governing

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Common Sense / Common Sense

The Difference Between Elections and Governing

photo of Matthew  Dowd
November 11, 2012

Is there a difference between putting together a coalition to win an election and creating a coalition to lead a nation?

President Obama and his campaign were able to find and target enough groups this year to attract just more than 50 percent of the vote and win the Electoral College convincingly. This coalition won blacks, Latinos and Asian voters overwhelmingly; liberals by huge margins; and Democrats, moderates, single women, younger voters, urban voters, voters on the coasts, and folks with either little religious affiliation or who attend church occasionally. 

The President lost among conservatives, Republicans, independents, older voters, white voters, many folks in the heartland, rural and small town voters, and people who attend church regularly. In addition, in this year’s exit polls, unlike in 2008, a majority of the voters said they believe the federal government is doing too many things and should do less. 


The demographics of the country have moved inexorably to favor Democrats, and they are doing increasingly well among voting blocs on the rise. Meanwhile, the Republican brand is more and more out of step with these fast-growing blocs of the American electorate – they are a Mad Men party in a Modern Family world.

The electoral coalition that President Obama put together is almost the mirror image of the winning strategy that President Bush cobbled together in 2004. Yet President Bush and the White House made the mistake of thinking the coalition that helped win a very close election in 2004 gave them a mandate and was enough to lead the country and govern. They didn't reach across to the blocs they lost on Election Day and bring folks together. And, as we know, that turned out badly for the Bush administration and the country. 

I hope President Obama understands that the only way to govern this country is to bridge the divides that have become so apparent.  A winning effort on Election Day doesn't automatically translate into a governing coalition that will enable leaders to move this country forward. 

President Obama so far seems to be very aware of this in his statements on Election Night and in the days afterward. His desire to solve the fiscal crisis facing the country through a balanced approach of shared sacrifice and compromise seems sincere. Let’s all pray and encourage all sides to make this to happen. 

The re-elections of President Bush in 2004 and President Obama this year highlighted deep divisions in our country and showed that we are, more and more, a tribal society in how we view politics and values. And as we have become a more diverse and heterogeneous country (which is a good thing), many of the participants on the left and right have become less tolerant of each other (a not-so-good thing). 

President Obama and the Republican leaders in Congress have a chance to create a governing coalition. I hope each side in this partisan country gives them the path and support needed to get this done. The very best leaders realize that, though they “won” on Day One,  the rest of the days of the year require a sense of perspective, humility and compassion in order to move ahead.

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