At first sight the 2012 US Elections appear to have changed nothing. We woke up this morning as we went to bed last night with Democrats in charge of the Senate, the Republicans having a majority in the House of Representatives and Barack Obama in the White House. Nor does the political map of America look very different today from the way it did when the race started. Before yesterday’s results were tallied only 9 out of the 50 states of the United States (the District of Columbia also votes), had changed hands in the first three Presidential elections of the new century. This morning that total remains in single digits.
Of the four most populous American states only Florida has switched party allegiance in a Presidential election over the last 20 years. California hasn’t gone Republican since George H W Bush won the White House in 1988, New York last went Republican during Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide re-election & Texas hasn’t voted Democrat since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976.
How then did Obama win and why did Romney lose? In terms of all the millions of dollars - nearly $2 billion - that both sides poured into TV advertising, field offices and early voting initiatives in the battleground states, Obama and Romney were broadly evenly matched. They were however far from equal in terms of the territory they had to cover. Romney needed to win back those Southern Obama states from 2008 - Virginia, North Carolina and Florida - and to make headway in the Midwest. In the end he managed to do neither.
Mitt Romney did better than John McCain both in terms of the number of electoral votes by winning back North Carolina and Indiana and in the popular vote. He was though unable to secure enough of the growing number of Independent voters to win the Presidency. In 2008, Barack Obama won two-thirds of Independent voters when they accounted for one in five of all voters. When the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections of 2010, two-thirds of Independents, who this time made up two in five of all voters voted Republican. In 2012 Romney won the Independent vote by 4%, not a wide enough margin as they settled back to closer to one in three of all voters because both sides’ partisans turned out in greater numbers. For his part, while Obama failed to excite some of the voting groups to the same extent as four years ago he continued to do well enough among them to carry him over the finishing line.
Gender appears to have played an important role in the Presidential race. In 2008 the national exit poll showed Obama carrying women by 14 points, but men by only 2%. In 2012 the exit poll had Romney winning among men by 7% (effectively a 4.5% Obama-Republican candidate swing) but losing among women by 12% (only a 1% swing from Obama to the Republican candidate).
For all that Romney pursued what his handlers called an “etch-a-sketch” strategy - starting afresh in the general election campaign to present more moderate positions to the country than he had adopted to win his Party’s nomination - Romney’s original playing to the Republican base may have hurt him among female swing state voters particularly when reinforced by heavily negative Obama TV advertising. A month before the election Gallup conducted a poll in 12 swing states asking men and women what were the most important issues for them. For men jobs (38%) and the economy (37%) came top; for women abortion (39%) beat jobs (19%) comfortably into second place.
The battle of interpretation has already started over whether the GOP candidate lost again by being forced to be too conservative in the primary campaign, so putting off independent voters; or by not being conservative enough during the general election to enthuse conservatives. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SD) put it:
“If we lose this election there is only one explanation — demographics. … If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I’m going to go nuts. We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”
As for British politics, superficially there’s something for everyone in this result. For David Cameron it shows that an incumbent can win by promising to finish the job of cleaning up the other party’s mess. For its part Labour will point to the result as a rejection of Romney’s austerity message and a vindication of Obama’s more “Plan B”-based approach. Look deeper, though, and the conduct of the campaign in the US throws up questions for both sides over here.
Can Labour rely on a poorly performing economy to deliver them victory? For a long time the Romney campaign clung to high levels of unemployment and a general sense that America had lost its way but as polling day grew nearer the jobs situation improved and over the course of the last 12 months the gap between those who thought the US was on the wrong track and those who believed it to be on the right one fell from more than 50% to only 5% by polling day. The UK and the UK economy may look and feel very different in May 2015 to the way it does today in 2012.
Then there is whether the Conservatives are putting too much emphasis on the “Miliband factor”. The Democrats made much of Romney being wooden and criticised him for adopting extreme positions but didn’t seem to know what to do when he failed to follow the script. Obama’s most uncomfortable moment of the campaign - the first debate - came when he appeared unable to respond to the freshly-minted, more moderate Romney whose performance easily exceeded the low expectations that Democrats had helped to set for him. Only in the final phase of the campaign did Obama - assisted by a sure-footed response to Superstorm Sandy - appear to rediscover his poise and sense of purpose rather than simply coming over as aloof and disengaged.
But the biggest lesson of all lies perhaps in the differences between Obama and Cameron’s respective positions as incumbents. Barack Obama could broadly hold on to what he had and secure his re-election, David Cameron simply does not have that luxury. He has to advance to secure a majority at the next Election winning seats he failed to gain in 2010. It is a difficult task but it becomes an impossible one if like Obama he spends nearly all of his time and money attacking his opponent rather than articulating a purpose of his own.
Obama simply needed to persuade enough people who voted for him in 2008 that he was still better than the Republican alternative in 2012 how ever much he had disappointed them. That he did. Cameron’s task is more challenging: to persuade people who didn’t vote for him in 2010 that the Conservatives are better in 2015 than they were then. In the end David Cameron is no Barack Obama; he has to be better than that.