The aftermath of the 2012 presidential election has generated a moment of myth creation about what happened on Nov. 6 — why President Obama won, why Mitt Romney lost, and what roles real human beings played in the result. These myths are not only being repeated and set in stone by the media and pundits, but also by the campaigns themselves. Democrats and the Obama campaign as well as Republicans and the Romney campaign are repeating the same myths to explain the outcome.
I have often talked about how myths arise in politics in the aftermath of the election, and how these myths move from fiction to nonfiction. And it is because folks buy into the myths that mistakes are made in future campaigns, and wrong lessons are learned along the way. The winning campaign operatives and consultants usually disseminate the myths to justify their work, but in this election both the winners and losers are creating the same mythic narrative.
Though it is early in the analysis of the election results, and we have some returns in some states still to be counted, we can begin to get a clear picture of what happened on Election Day and then understand better what myths are out there.
Myth No. 1. This election was ultimately about a choice, and not primarily a referendum on President Obama. In the late spring and early summer, it was building into a choice election, but as the fall approached, it became a referendum on the president. That was to his benefit. As I attempted to repeat all along, the most important number to pay attention to was the president’s job-approval rating. Every president with job approval at 45 percent or below going into Election Day lost, and every president with a job approval at 50 percent or higher has won.
Six months ago, President Obama’s job approval was at a precarious 47 percent, and his campaign knew that to win they had to make this a choice election. But as spring moved into summer and summer to fall, the dynamics of the country changed and so did the president’s approval rating. The net right direction/wrong track number for the country improved in ABC News polling from minus-31 points to minus-14 points over this time – a net 17-point positive rise as Americans began to feel more optimistic about the economy and their lives. And this caused the president’s job-approval rating to rise from 47 percent to 51 percent by Election Day. Presidents running for reelection consistently get a popular-vote percentage that is within a point of their approval rating — and that is exactly what Obama got.
Myth No. 2. The target-state onslaught of advertising changed the dynamics of Mitt Romney’s image and President Obama’s image. I have written before about the insignificant role all of this advertising plays in the actual results on Election Day in presidential contests, and this year that dynamic was revealed again. There was no difference in the perceptions of the Obama and Romney images in the target states versus the 40-plus other jurisdictions which saw little to no advertising. Further, the election results saw no significant difference between Obama’s winning margins in the target states versus his winning margin in all the nontarget states. In addition, the fall-off from the president’s election result in 2008 was the same in the country as a whole versus the target states. President Obama did not overperform in target states. The results in target states and nontarget states, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of ads, were the exact same in terms of both image and vote margins.
Myth No. 3. The advanced, technologically driven ground game the Obama campaign organized made the difference in the election by changing the shape of the American electorate and surprising everyone on Election Day by turning out unexpected voters. The results nationally and in the target states nearly perfectly matched projections made by reliable polls. ABC and Pew had Obama winning nationally by 3 points, and that was the result. The results in nearly every target state matched within a point the reliable polls before Election Day. Again, when compared with the country as a whole, President Obama did not overperform in states where his team conducted significant turnout operations.
The nature of the American electorate has been moving in the direction of the 2012 outcome for many years, and this is a troubling sign for Republicans. This is not a problem of turnout operations or bad campaigns or bad candidates. The Republican Party increasingly doesn’t reflect the American demographic. For example, the Latino share of the vote has risen from 2 percent in 1984 to 10 percent in 2012 — a very steady increase of about 1 percent every presidential election, which is consistent with population growth.
Further, the number of voters who choose 'none' for religious status has also risen consistently and steadily. In 1984, the share was 4 percent and today it is 12 percent — a rise of about a point every four years. Also, the number of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 on Election Day has stayed within a very consistent range in the last 30 years, from a high of 24 percent in 1984 to a low of 17 percent in three elections to a midrange of 19 percent this year.
The interesting thing about this election was that conservatives and white evangelicals were either exactly the same share as 2004, when President Bush won reelection, or slightly up this year, and Romney’s share of those groups equaled President Bush's. The problem, though, for Republicans is that the share liberals represent of the country has grown from 17 percent in 1984 to 24 percent this year — a very steady and consistent increase in each election.
All of this raises the question of whether campaigns and tactics matter. They do, but only in a very limited way, and they are insignificant compared with the overall political environment and the grand movements of the world and our country. The most successful people in life and in politics learn to recognize the big waves happening in the world and then surf them as best they can. President Obama, despite many flaws and vulnerabilities, had the traits and attributes that made him more able to surf the movements than Romney or the Republican Party.
And if the GOP thinks this election was about bad polling, or Mitt Romney, or outdated tactics, then it will find it very difficult to win national elections again. The party needs to find leaders and candidates of a new generation and have a brand that is more in tune with the ocean of politics in the 21st century. And in my view, going to their roots as the Teddy Roosevelt party might be a good start. He was a Republican populist fighting against both oppressive government and corporations and big business — a Republican who believed in the vigor of the individual, the power of a community, and the value of shared sacrifice at all levels.