It’s interesting to see Republicans offer different interpretations of this year’s elections. As in most things, where you stand depends on where you sit. Chuck Todd and his terrific political team at NBC News pointed out in their Nov. 27 First Read newsletter that 117 House Republicans won with 60 percent of the vote or more, meaning that two-thirds of the GOP Conference is made up of people who won easily, with margins considerably higher than President Obama was able to achieve. Many of them were effectively reelected the day the ink dried on redistricting maps in their states. (Keep in mind that Democrats edged Republicans in the national popular vote for the House.) For these members, their main worry is not that a Democrat in a general election will unseat them but that they will lose to a conservative challenger in a GOP primary.
Most of the smart Republican political pros I talk to are spending a lot of time sifting through the election returns and exit polls for signs of what went wrong. Republican pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies pointed out some of this election’s paradoxes in a Nov. 26 post on his firm’s blog. Bolger asked “whether the GOP should view this as a message problem, a messenger problem, or a math problem.” Focusing more on Republicans’ math challenge, Bolger noted that “there are considerably more Democrats than Republicans, [yet Mitt] Romney was the first national candidate in exit-polling history to decisively win independents (by 5 points) and lose the election.” Bolger observed that John Kerry won independents in 2004, but by just 1 point.
Bolger points out that when the exit polls asked voters which was the most important candidate quality, 29 percent chose “vision for the future,” 27 percent picked “shares my values,” 21 percent selected “cares about people like me,” and 18 percent chose “strong leader.” Romney bested Obama when it came to three of the four qualities. “Vision” voters opted for Romney, 54 percent to 45 percent; “shared value” voters chose Romney, 55 percent to 42 percent; while “strong leadership” voters favored Romney, 61 percent to 38 percent. Only the “cares about people like me” voters picked Obama over Romney, by 81 percent to 18 percent. Leadership, vision, and values lost out to empathy.
When given a choice of four issues, 59 percent said that the most important issue was the economy; Bolger said that Romney won those voters 51 percent to 47 percent. He concluded that Romney “won the most important issue but still lost the election.”
It should be mentioned that Bolger’s company, Public Opinion Strategies—although not him personally—served as the Romney campaign’s polling firm. I don’t see Bolger’s arguments as making excuses so much as stating wonderment that under such circumstances, campaigns usually don’t lose. Something big is obviously taking place here.
One reason Republicans were so hopeful in the campaign’s closing weeks was that polls were showing Romney ahead among independents. The fact that Romney won independents by 5 points, bettering George W. Bush’s 2004 performance among that group by 6 points, is not something that one might normally expect.
Bolger also pointed to other interesting factoids: “Mitt Romney won middle-income voters ($50-100k) by 6 points. George W. Bush won them by 12 points in 2004, but there were far fewer voters earning more than $100k in the 2004 election (18 percent) than in 2012 (28 percent).”
Bolger found that “Mitt Romney won white women by 56 percent-42 percent,” and argued that “the ‘war on women’ was overstated; Romney got crushed with minority women, but a 14-point win is not exactly a decisive defeat with white women. George W. Bush won white women by 11 points in 2004, a net 3 points weaker than Romney.”
In terms of race, Bolger noted that Romney won white voters by 59 percent to 39 percent, “which is better than George W. Bush in 2004 by 3 net points.” As for the age demographic, Bolger pointed out that “Romney won voters age 40+ by 5 points. There is no direct comparison to Bush in 2004, but Bush did win voters 45+ by 5 points.”
According to Bolger, “Romney won many of the groups that are generally considered to be the ones to decide elections—independents, white women (by double digits), middle income, and voters age 40+. Mitt Romney put together a coalition that just eight years ago would have won the presidential election (hence the data comparisons to George W. Bush). However, instead of whites being 77 percent of the electorate, they were 72 percent of the electorate. Instead of Republicans and Democrats being equal, Democrats far outnumbered Republicans, and washed out Romney’s advantage among independents. Bush kept it close with younger voters (under age 40), while Obama won them decisively.”
Bolger concludes his piece by saying, “So, if you win the swing groups but lose the election, that means the Democrats have a clear home-field advantage. There are more Democrats. That underscores that we have to do better as a party with Hispanics. It will be hard to push white voter support for Democrats lower than 39 percent (which is all Obama got). Thus, to have a chance, Republicans have to appeal to Hispanics.
“It’s simple math, but it’s hard to do.”
This is advice that even those easily reelected Republicans should listen to if they want to win outside of carefully drawn congressional districts.
This article appeared in print as "Sifting Rubble."
This article appears in the Dec. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal.