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The Almanac of American Politics: Breaking Down the 2012 Election

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 2012 election indicates that the fault lines in American politics are the same as they have been since the mid 1990s, but surprises may be in store for the future.

The Almanac of American Politics first appeared in 1972 with Michael Barone, Grant Ujifusa, and Douglas Matthews as editors. The 22nd edition of the Almanac is now available for pre-order on Amazon. For the new 2014 edition, editors Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon are joined by Sean Trende and Josh Kraushaar.

- The Editors

The reelection of President Barack Obama in 2012 was only the second time in American history that three consecutive presidents have been reelected to second terms. The first time was 192 years before, when President James Monroe was reelected to a second term in 1820. Monroe was a member of the same party and a political ally of his two predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The third successive reelection of a member of this “Virginia dynasty” came at a time historians have dubbed “The Era of Good Feelings,” although an acquaintance with the political history of the time reveals considerable controversy and discord.

Things were different in 2012. Obama was reelected against strenuous competition between his Democratic colleagues and the opposition Republican party, which had been competing in presidential elections for 156 years, during which Republicans won 23 times (but in two cases did not win the popular vote) and Democrats 17. Obama won by the seemingly comfortable margin of 332 to 206 in the Electoral College, carrying 26 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, but he carried Florida by only 1 percent of the vote, Ohio by 3 percent, and Virginia by 4 percent. Without those electoral votes, his margin in the Electoral College would have been only 272 to 266, virtually the same as George W. Bush’s in 2000 when he lost the popular vote.

And Obama won at a time which no future historian is likely to characterize as an era of good feelings. During the 2012 campaign cycle, large majorities of Americans believed the nation was seriously off on the wrong track. For most of that time, most polls showed Obama’s job approval around 50 percent. He won a majority of the popular vote for a second time — a feat achieved among his fellow Democrats by only Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt (and among Republicans by Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan). But he was the first president to be reelected with a lower share of the popular and the electoral vote than he had won four years before. Obama was also the first to win the popular vote for a second term by a smaller percentage margin than four years before. An unambiguous victory, yes. But not a triumph like the reelections of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan.

Obama was also the first to win the popular vote for a second term by a smaller percentage margin than four years before. An unambiguous victory, yes. But not a triumph like the reelections of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan.

In many ways, the 2012 election resembles the election of 2004. In both elections, the incumbent president was reelected with 51 percent of the vote; his opponent was a rich man from Massachusetts who won either 48 percent of the vote (John Kerry) or 47 percent (Mitt Romney); and there was a clear list of target states acknowledged by both campaigns and widely understood by the press. In each election, the winning campaign was generally conceded to have been the more adept at using technology.

But there was one enormous difference between 2004 and 2012: turnout. In 2004, total turnout rose from 105 million to 122 million, a 16 percent increase. Turnout increased again in 2008, but by only 7 percent, from 122 million to 131 million. In 2012, total turnout declined to just 129 million and Barack Obama won 3.5 million fewer votes than he had when he was the junior senator from Illinois. The Obama campaign’s superb micro-targeting campaign and the brilliant way in which it used volunteers to make personal contact with like-minded supporters did not succeed in reproducing his 2008 numbers. Missing from the Obama campaign — and from the Romney campaign as well — was the level of enthusiasm and energy that produced the vast turnout increases of 2004.

What the Future May Hold

The Democratic coalition that reelected Obama and the Republican coalition that opposed him were very similar to their counterparts in 2008, with the Obama coalition somewhat smaller and the Republican coalition just a bit larger. One way to look at them is to divide the electorate along the racial and religious categories used in exit polls. These data have implications for the future for each party. Please note that the following data are estimates based on the known total turnout and the percentages for each group in the 2012 and 2008 exit polls. The official Census survey paints a slightly different picture, but it is subject to error since every year a larger share of respondents say they voted than the percentage of the population that actually did vote.

  • Turnout among black Americans was lower in 2012 than in 2008, despite the great effort the Obama campaign devoted to maximizing it and despite the spontaneous enthusiasm many black Americans feel toward the first black president. Blacks are not growing as a percentage of the population, and it is unlikely that other Democratic nominees can inspire the high turnout proportionate to other groups and the high percentages Barack Obama won in these two elections. The Democratic margin among blacks amounted to 12 percent of the total vote in 2008. It is unlikely to ever be that large again.
  • Turnout among Hispanics did increase from 9 to 10 percent and, contrary to all the other groups here, it increased in absolute numbers as well. It is bound to increase more in future elections inasmuch as about 23 percent of U.S. residents under age 18 are classified as Hispanic — though perhaps not as much as suggested by straight-line extrapolations, since starting in 2007, net immigration from Mexico declined to zero and immigration from other parts of Latin America declined. Obama’s margin among Hispanics increased by 1.5 million votes. Future Republican candidates will almost certainly have to do better among this group in order to win.
  • Missing from the Obama campaign — and from the Romney campaign as well — was the level of enthusiasm and energy that produced the vast turnout increases of 2004.
  • The Asian and Other categories fluctuate in size in the exit polls, so it is hard to draw conclusions from the results, except that they are no longer closely divided, as they were in 1992 and 1996. Most states with significant percentages of Asian voters have recently been heavily Democratic, with the exception of Virginia.
  • Whites were 72 percent of the 2012 electorate and 74 percent in 2008; in the off-year election of 2010, in which Republicans did far better, they were 77 percent. This percentage is likely to decline in the future. But they still are a very large share of the electorate and they voted 59-39 percent for Romney, close to the historic high for a Republican nominee. Romney got 1.4 million more votes from whites than McCain, while Obama got 5.5 million fewer than he did in 2008. In 2008, Obama carried blacks by 3.8 million more votes than McCain carried whites; in 2012, Romney carried whites by 1.8 million more votes than Obama carried blacks.
  • White evangelical Protestants are not a declining segment of the electorate; they were 26 percent of voters in 2012 and 2008 and 23 percent in 2004. Even as more Americans openly identify as secular, agnostic, and atheist, religions that make serious demands in belief and behavior continue to attract new members, as they have throughout American history. McCain carried this group by 17.1 million votes, Romney by 19.1 million.
  • White Catholics voted 59-40 percent for Mitt Romney — more than for any other Republican nominee in history except possibly Warren G. Harding. White Catholic turnout was down compared to 2008, but the loss was all on the Democratic side. Romney carried this group by 4.4 million votes, almost quadruple McCain’s margin.

Overall, although much of the issue focus was on the economy in 2012 and on the economy and Iraq in 2008, the electorate is divided as it has been since at least the middle 1990s along lines of race and religion. The balance favored Republicans in 2004 and Democrats in 2008, at both the presidential and congressional level. It favored Democrats in 2012 at the presidential level, but less and less so as one goes down the ballot.   

Republicans did lose a net two seats in the Senate, but in races for the House of Representatives they were able to hold onto virtually all the seats they had won in 2010, when the inrush into politics of hundreds of thousands of citizens (symbolized by but not limited to the Tea Party movement) helped them capture 63 seats and the largest number of seats, 242, controlled by the GOP in the House since 1946. Republicans inveighed against the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 health care legislation that never commanded majority support in polls. The results seemed to represent a repudiation of the Obama Democrats’ assumption that in times of economic distress, Americans would be more supportive of big government policies. Can the Republicans’ success in maintaining a House majority of 234 to 201, even as a Democratic president was winning reelection, be taken as a continuing endorsement of that proposition?

In the negative atmosphere of 2012, a polarized and closely divided national electorate retained a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. Americans decrying gridlock and discord voted for more of the same/

Two objections to that are made. The first is that the Republicans lost the popular vote for the House by a 49-48 percent margin — in contrast to 1998 and 2000, when they won smaller majorities in the House but won the popular vote. However, most of that margin came from California, which for the first time used a nonpartisan blanket primary, in which the top two candidates, regardless of party, competed in the general election. As a result, California had nine House races with no Republican candidate and only three races with no Democratic candidate. In those 12 races, Democrats won 900,000 more votes than Republicans — nearly two-thirds of their national popular vote plurality. Without those votes, the Democratic popular vote plurality was only 0.4 percent of the total popular vote for the House. Neither party can count on winning a majority of seats with such a small plurality.

The second objection is that Republicans owed their majority to partisan redistricting. Republicans’ 2010 victories came at an auspicious point in the redistricting cycle. They controlled the redistricting process in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, where they were able to protect incumbents elected in 2010, and in North Carolina, where they were able to reverse a Democratic advantage in the redistricting cycle after the 2000 Census. But Democrats had offsetting advantages in Illinois and Maryland, where they had direct control of the process, and in California and Arizona, where they appear to have gamed the system to get supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions to draw plans that aided Democrats. So the Republican advantage in large states with 111 seats was partially offset by the Democratic advantage in large states with 88 seats. Eric McGhee on the political science website themonkeycage.org tried to calculate how many seats Republicans and Democrats would have won if the 2012 vote had been conducted using the 2008 House seats. He concluded that Democrats still would have fallen short of a House majority, suggesting that the Republican redistricting advantage was real, but it was marginal.

Clustering and Straight Ticket Voting

A demographic phenomenon known as clustering explains the 2012 results better. Put simply, Democratic voters, especially Democratic core constituencies like blacks, Hispanics, and gentry liberals, tend to be clustered in central cities and a few suburbs near very large metropolitan areas. The large Democratic majorities they produce help to make many large and medium-sized states safely Democratic in the Electoral College. In 2012, Barack Obama carried 13 states and the District of Columbia with 56 percent of the vote or more; these states were worth 179 electoral votes, meaning he needed only 91 more from the battleground states to win. In contrast, Mitt Romney won 56 percent or more in 15 states, but they had only 125 electoral votes; he needed to win 145 more to get the 270-vote majority. This helps to explain why Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections.

But clustering works against Democrats and for Republicans in equally sized congressional or legislative seats, and its effect is amplified by the prevailing interpretation of the Voting Rights Act that requires maximizing the number of (usually heavily Democratic) black- and Hispanic-majority districts. Outside heavily Democratic clusters, Republican voters are spread around pretty evenly. Political scientists Jowei Chan and Jonathan Rodden used the close Florida vote in the 2000 presidential race and had a computer create dozens of contiguous and relatively compact equal-population districts, with the number of districts rising from 2 to 150 (the size of the Florida House). They found that the computer never generated a plan in which Al Gore won in a majority of districts and generated plans in which he won half the districts only when the number of the districts was two. The same phenomenon can be seen when the presidential vote is counted by congressional districts. In 2012, Barack Obama won 51 percent of the popular vote overall but led the popular vote in only 209 congressional districts while Mitt Romney led the popular vote in 226.

The effect of clustering is apparent in the number of districts carried by candidates with 80 percent margins or more. In 2012, Obama won by that or more in 27 congressional districts, while Mitt Romney won by that percentage in only one (in west Texas, not Utah, as many might assume). Political scientist Matthew Green has shown that before 1994, Democrats’ percentage of House seats was typically higher than their percentage of the popular vote and that starting in 1994 their percentage of House seats has trailed their popular vote percentages. The largest discrepancies were in presidential reelection years (1996, 2004, and 2012) and in the Republican year of 2010. This helps to explain why Republicans have won majorities in the House in eight out of ten elections since 1994.

Not very many pundits in December 2004 predicted the election of President Barack Obama four years later. American politics — and America — may well have some surprises in store.

Another phenomenon starting in the mid 1990s was increased straight ticket voting. Starting in 2000, each party’s percentage for president and percentage of the House popular vote differed by no more than 2 percent, and that only in 2012 when Obama won 51 percent and House Democrats 49 percent. So in the House elected in 2012, only 16 Republicans represent districts carried by Barack Obama and only 9 Democrats represent districts carried by Mitt Romney. And there are fewer swing districts than in the past. Starting in the 1998 election cycle, National Journal’s Charlie Cook assigned a partisan voting index to each district based on election results and identified 164 districts where the index was 5 or less. That number declined to 99 in 2012, leaving 190 districts leaning Republican and 146 districts leaning Democratic.

In the negative atmosphere of 2012, a polarized and closely divided national electorate retained a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. Americans decrying gridlock and discord voted for more of the same. But within most states, national polarization has led to one-party dominance. After the 2012 elections, there were 24 states with Republican governors and state legislatures, and they were not necessarily small states: they had 52 percent of the nation’s population. Democrats hold the governorships and state legislative majorities in 13 states with 30 percent of the population, all but one of which (West Virginia) voted for Obama. Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that states are laboratories of democracy, and the one-party control of so many states provides Americans with an opportunity to compare the results of Republican and Democratic policies.

After the 2004 election there was speculation that America was headed to a permanent Republican majority, and after the 2008 election there was speculation that America was headed to a permanent Democratic majority. The results of the 2006 and 2010 elections ended such thinking. The results of the 2012 election show an electorate that is closely divided, as it was during the years from 1995 to 2005, and increasingly polarized, demographically and geographically. The era of good feelings that allegedly prevailed in 1820, the last time a third consecutive president was reelected, was followed by an election in 1824 in which four candidates received electoral votes and by a politics of fierce competition between two new political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs.

No such political transformation seems likely after this reelection of a third consecutive president. The 2014 election will provide another opportunity for Republicans to win a majority in the Senate and for Democrats to capture control of the House. As for 2016, that is too far ahead for predictions. Not very many pundits in December 2004 predicted the election of President Barack Obama four years later. American politics — and America — may well have some surprises in store.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone also writes “States Aren’t Red and Blue Forever,” “From McGovern to Obama,” and “Obama’s Numbers Went Down, But Romney Never Inspired Voters to Vote.” Karlyn Bowman looks at “Election Results from A to Z,” and joins Andrew Rugg to ask about “A GOP Civil War?” Jonah Goldberg writes “The GOP – Not a Club for Christians” while James Pethokoukis blogs “Is America About to Undergo a Libertarian Shift? Not Among Hispanics and Young Voters” and Ramesh Ponnuru asks “Will Republicans Blow It Again in 2014?

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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