It’s easy to understand why some Republicans and pollsters dismissed the idea that the Obama coalition from 2008 would be fired up and ready to go in 2012. Not possible. Not with the unemployment rate at 14.3 percent among blacks, 10 percent among Hispanics, and 11.8 percent among adults under 30.
Yet, fired up or just trudging to the polls, those groups were among President Obama’s principal bulwarks against defeat in decisive states. In some cases they made up a greater share of the national electorate than they did in 2008. The outcome confounded some conservatives and surprised even some pollsters.
African-Americans, for instance, made up 13 percent of the national electorate in the historic 2008 election. This week, after years of a down economy, months of a dispiriting campaign, and long-running rumblings about whether Obama has neglected the black community, distanced himself from it, or taken it for granted, they were still at 13 percent of the electorate.
“Black voters were absolutely not going to let Obama lose if they could help it,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. They proved particularly useful to Obama in swing states. Black voters went from a 12-percent share of the electorate in Michigan in 2008 to 16 percent this week, exit polls showed, and from 11 percent to 15 percent in Ohio. Under-30 voters accounted for 19 percent of the national electorate, up from 18 percent. Hispanics, meanwhile, rose from 9 percent to 10 percent.
Janet Murguia, CEO of the National Council of La Raza, said that Mitt Romney’s lack of detail about his economic plans, along with small signs of economic progress, helped level the playing field on the economy and intensified Hispanic scrutiny on immigration. That was a blow to Romney. His hard-line stands against illegal immigrants and his concept of “self-deportation” were so frightening to many Hispanics that they drove up turnout and contributed to Obama's 71 percent showing with that group.
“We have the polling that shows that Hispanics were absolutely motivated by immigration to go to the polls,” Murguia said. Not love of Obama? “I think that’s fair to say,” she said, though she added that Obama’s decision to defer deportations of some young illegal immigrants rehabilitated him among some voters who considered it a “down payment” on comprehensive reform to come later.
Some Republicans may have privately anticipated the demographic and political tsunami about to drown their White House hopes for the second time in a row, but many behaved as if they did not see it coming. “Why the empty stridency of the last days of Obama’s last campaign? Perhaps he feels an earthquake’s first tremors,” George Will wrote in an eviscerating column on Oct. 31; he predicted Romney would win 321 electoral votes and the presidency.
A day before the election, Republican columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that “I think it’s Romney.... While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency. He’s quietly rising, and he’s been rising for a while.” On Election Day, on Fox Business News, she cited huge Romney crowds as evidence of passion that would translate into votes.
GOP pollster David Winston, asked about his party’s miscalculation, said that there had been more “interest, engagement, enthusiasm” around Romney after he aced the first debate, which established a “new equilibrium” that some people perceived as momentum. “You’re seeing increased activity, so it looks better,” Winston said. “But that activity didn’t represent him leading the race.”
Republican strategist David Carney said enthusiasm is a difficult quality to measure. “I think it’s a mistake to read too much into people cheering at a convention or a rally. So if that’s not the best judge, you depend on polling, and I’m not sure they have actually figured out what is the best way to ask” about that subject, he said.
It wasn’t just partisans who sensed GOP intensity, Carney added. “All of the public pollsters talked about the energy on our side versus their side. Many people misjudged it,” he said. “Maybe not the Obama campaign.”
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, was among those who had expected a lower participation rate this year by black, Hispanic, and young voters. “Last time, those people came out because they were so motivated, because Obama was such an exceptional candidate. This time, they had to have their fire stoked,” he said.
The Obama campaign moved heaven and earth to locate those voters and make sure they turned out. Republicans not only underestimated the depth of Obama’s potential voting pool and the reach of his turnout operation, they disregarded signs of its success. As Kohut summed it up, “They just didn’t want to believe the evidence that the polling was offering along the way.”