Five Thoughts About the Recent US Elections

November 8, 2012
July 1, 2016
US Politics

It was a National Wave ..

As of this moment, Barack Obama has defeated Mitt Romney by a popular vote margin of over three million votes, 50.7% to 47.9%, a slightly greater margin than George Bush defeated John Kerry by in 2004. That margin should continue to grow as provisional ballots are counted across the country, and the more than 3 million votes remaining in California are counted.

More impressive for Obama, and ominous for Republicans, is the electoral college numbers, and Mitt Romney’s failure to make any real headway. In 2004, despite a popular margin of 2.4%, Bush was dependent on a 118,000 vote margin in Ohio, 2.1%, to eke out a 286-252 victory in the electoral college.

This year, Ohio scarcely mattered. Despite the focus on Ohio, an obsession that lasted well-into election-night, even a Romney victory in Ohio would not have mattered. Obama had already won the electoral college, and done so by more than his national margin in Wisconsin(6.7 points), Nevada(6.6 points), Iowa(5.6 points) Colorado(4.7 points),  Virginia(3 points).  Those states alone would provided Obama with a 291-247 lead in the electoral college. Even the loss of Virginia would still have resulted in a narrow Obama victory, 278-260. Romney would have needed to somehow have won Colorado, which he lost 51.2-46.5, in order to win the election.

In fact all of this was moot. In the end, the only state’s Mitt Romney gained were Indiana, which had been conceded at the beginning of the year, and North Carolina which despite repeated claims that it was “baked”, was decided by a 2% margin.

In the Senate, it was almost equally a clean sweep. Republican hopes for gains evaporated. Linda McMahon, who had led for most of the summer, lost by 12 points in Connecticut, while other Republican challengers, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Connie Mack in Florida, and Josh Mandel in Ohio also fell short.  Even in deep red North Dakota, nearly written off at the beginning of the year as an automatic Republican pickup , Republican Congressman Rick Berg fell short. The only competitive Senate races won by Republicans were in Nevada, where an exceptionally weak Democratic candidate dogged by corruption allegations lost to Republican incumbent Dean Heller by a single percentage point, and in Arizona, where late-counting should bring Richard Carmona within less than three points.

But Gerrymandering Held…..

There seems to be a tendency among commentators, while simultaneously focusing on the demographics behind Barak Obama’s victory and the difficulties they pose for the GOP going forward, to claim that the election was nevertheless a split decision. After all, the Republicans maintained control of the US House of Representatives, despite some of the lowest approval ratings in history.

To accept this analysis is to miss what happened Tuesday night. Not only did Barack Obama win a commanding majority in the Electoral College, but Democratic senate candidates swept almost every competitive race, winning 25 out of 33 seats up for grabs, and only narrowly hold Arizona and Nevada. Five of these victories occurred in states Mitt Romney won, two of them in states where his margin of victory was over 20 points.

What saved the Republican House Majority was not any sort of split decision on the part of voters, but rather their good fortune to have had their best year since 1920 in 2010, allowing them to redraw congressional maps nationwide. In North Carolina, Democrats carried a majority of the congressional vote, 2.22 million to 2.14 million, but Republicans won 9 seats to the Democrats 3, with one Democratically-held seat going to a recount. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Republicans appear to have lost the popular vote as well, but won majorities of 9-5 and 13-5 respectively in those delegations. Republicans won the popular vote in Ohio 53-47, but only because no votes were included from an 83% Obama seat where the incumbent went unopposed. They won 12 out of 16 seats in the congressional delegation. In total, without winning the popular vote, Republicans managed a 41-17.

Gerrymandering is of course not just a Republican sport. Democratic maps in Maryland and Illinois resulted in 7-1 and 12-6 splits respectively, with latter involving a gain of four seats for Democrats and a loss of five for the Republicans. And Democrats had a good night in California where a non-partisan map replaced a bipartisan gerrymander. But the Republicans controlled far more legislatures and in the end the House was not close. Nor, in fact, were many of the legislatures were lines were drawn. Republicans increased their legislative majorities in Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, and held on to lopsided margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

The House is Secure for the Decade, but that is a mixed blessing for the Republican Party

As noted earlier, the Republican Party’s triumph in its efforts to maintain control of the US House of Representatives had more to do with favorable maps than the intent of the voters. With most of the vote in, Democrats and Republicans are almost tied in votes cast,  55,962,439 for Democrats to 55,786,017 for the Republicans. Nonetheless, Republicans are likely to control 54% of the seats.

The Republican victory is if anything more complete, as their majority was never in particular doubt. If the Republicans had lost every race where they took less than 52% of the vote, they would still control the House by a 224-211 margin. By contrast if the Democrats lost every race where they took less than 52%, the result would be a 248-187 Republican majority. In effect Democrats have maxed out their number of likely targets outside of a major wave.

The very security of the Republican majority is not an unmitigated benefit. While securing Republicans a seat at the table of the federal government for the next decade, the very fact that Republicans can likely expect to hold the US House without majority support means that House Republicans have very little incentive to attempt to reach out beyond the 47% or so of the vote they need to maintain a majority. Whereas the Republican party as a whole is focused on winning over young voters and Hispanics, the very concentration of these demographics in urban areas means they play little role in the outcome of house elections even within the few swing districts that are left. Far more important are the rapidly reddening Appalachian districts where Obama underperformed his 2008 performance which was already an underperformance of Kerry’s 2004 results.

As a consequence, House Republicans do not face the same need to reach out beyond the party’s core constituencies that their Senate colleagues face, much less whoever is nominated for the Presidency in 2016. At the same time, given their position in the majority, they will be the branch of the party that will take the lead on policy for the next two years at the very least.

On a state level, a similar situation prevails. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock could not have damaged Mitt Romney and the party as a whole quite so thoroughly had their run-ins with the abortion issue not occurred in the context of efforts by Republican state legislatures to aggressively target access to abortion, including an intrusive ultra-sound requirement passed by the Virginia state legislature. Yet while both the party’s presidential nominee and its senate candidates arguably suffered as a result of these laws, the results for Republican legislators tended to vary based on their control of redistricting. In states where they were unable to draw the lines, New England, the West Coast, Colorado, and Iowa, they suffered either wipeouts or heavy losses. Yet of the states where they drew the lines, only in New Hampshire and New York did they suffer losses. In Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and most of the West and South they increased their majorities. In Pennsylvania and Michigan they suffered only minor losses despite Obama winning both states comfortably.

As Republicans at both the state and federal level become less dependent on swing or democratic voters, they will in turn become more dependent on their own, and the challenges posed by primaries. This will incentivize a drive to the Right, and undermine efforts to moderate, especially if Republicans have a good year in 2014.

Voter ID Laws and Restrictions on Early Voting Backfired on the GOP

In the lead-up to the 2012 election, the battle over how votes would be cast was as brutal in many states as the battle for votes. Having badly lost the early voting battle in 2008, many Republican legislatures moved to curtail early voting availability in 2012, including eliminating weekend voting in Florida and Ohio. Many African American Churches ran “Souls to the Polls” get-out-the-vote drives in 2008 after Sunday services, and such efforts were perceived in many quarters as an effort to disrupt Democratic GOTV efforts in 2012. Many states paired these laws with additional requirements for photo ids to be presented in order to vote and aggressive purges of non-voters from the voting rolls.

Democrats reacted with outrage, with anger particularly concentrated among African American leaders who claimed that such policies were a deliberate effort to disenfranchise minority voters. MSNBC ran extensive coverage of “Republican Voter-Suppression” efforts that the term entered the lexicon of the election, and Al Sharpton devoted an hour a day to ranting on Republican efforts to return to Jim Crow.  They declared that Voter ID laws and the purges of non-voters were efforts to prevent Hispanic and African American voters from voting.

These charges are unfair. While restricting Early Voting on Sundays probably had as a motivation disrupting Democratic campaign efforts, the main reason for these laws was less that Republican leaders wanted them than that Republican voters demanded them and their leaders obliged. Regardless of whether widespread fraud was ever a problem, the fact is that a large number of Republican voters believed that it existed, and Republican leaders learned in 2010 what happened to Republican elected officials who ignored their constituents.

In the end the both the charges and the immediate consequences of the laws were minimal. Because fraud was generally not a problem, voter purges in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio had little to no impact on the election because the dead voters removed from the rolls tended to be non-voters in any case. The best example of this occurred in Cuyahoga County in Ohio. An aggressive purge of the voter rolls by the state reduced them from 1.1 million to just over 900,000, but overall turnout remained largely the same. Voter id laws, where implemented, had little effect. African American turnout in Georgia had increased in every year since they were implemented in 2006, and this trend continued in 2012.

Yet if the laws themselves had little consequence, the battle over them was a different matter. Just as perception was more important than reality among Republican voters, the same was true among Hispanic and African American voters, who viewed the laws as an attack on their voting rights. These views seemed confirmed when efforts to get around shortened early voting hours, and the elimination of Sunday voting, resulted in massive lines. In Florida, media coverage for the final week before the election was dominated by lines that averaged more than 3 hours in south Florida, and on Saturday reached 7 hours in Miami-Dade county. Democrats turned the lines into impromptu rallies, summoning speakers, distributing water bottles, and playing movies. In effect, the lines became a mobilizing tool for bringing minority voters to the polls.

Lines and energy are infectious. Had there been no efforts to purge illegal aliens from the voter rolls in Florida, or efforts to restrict early voting, there would still have been lines, but those lines would not have immediately been blamed on a nefarious Republican plot. In the end, the Republican Party probably lost at least ten voters for every fraudulent vote eliminated or voter discouraged from the polls.

Republican Outreach is unlikely to be successful until the party becomes tolerant of Dissent

In the aftermath of the election Republicans are already discussing ways of reaching out to Hispanics and young voters. Most of these suggestions focus on policies that the party can adopt, whether involving some form of support for immigration reform, or abandoning opposition to same-sex marriage.

The problem with these suggestions is that they imply a misunderstanding of the problem the Republican party faces. The problem the party has is not based on hostility to either Hispanic, gay or young individuals per se, but rather on hostility to anyone not within the party. During my years with the College Republicans I never once encountered a lack of individual tolerance for diversity of backgrounds. In fact, few organizations at the University level in the United States are so quick to welcome racial minorities.  What the organization however lacked was any sort of tolerance for political dissent. A substantial level of internal tolerance was paired with hostility towards Democrats and Democratic voters to such an extent that often the leadership attempted to force members to choose between friends within and without the organization, with social interaction with those outside of it often viewed with suspicion and implications of disloyalty.

Because the party is in its current form an ideological entity, Republicans view themselves as correct, and people who disagree as either stupid or malevolent. This does not present a challenge when recruiting white voters, since many can function largely within Republican social groups or exist sufficiently at the fringe of political involvement to avoid the drawbacks. When recruiting minorities however it does.

The simple fact is that even with substantial outreach efforts, Republicans are highly unlikely to win a majority of Hispanics, African Americans, Gays, or young voters in the near future. As a consequence, Republican voting members of these groups will have a majority of acquaintances, friends, and relatives voting for Democratic candidates, and odds are that a vast majority of those they interact with on a daily basis will vote for Democrats. Demonizing Democratic voters, means demonizing these friends, family members, and acquaintances,  and therefore will continue to serve to alienate these groups from the party, reducing its minority support to those willing to cut themselves off from their own communities. After all, who are voters likely to listen to? Distant and abstract political figures spouting rhetoric, or those they know?

As a consequence, Republican rhetorical criticism of the African American community for its bloc voting for Democrats, suggestions that that Hispanics and African Americans are welfare cheats, and opposition to gay rights tends to undermine Republican support among members of those subgroups who are not any of the above categories and in fact are likely to agree with Republicans on political issues. Any Republican breakthrough with minority voters is therefore likely to be dependent on making it socially acceptable within those communities for individuals to vote Republican.


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