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Election Post-Mortem

November 9, 2012

I promised a Presidential election post-mortem though I could only bring myself to start writing it last night. After a very depressing past couple of days, I now vow to be upbeat and  optimistic, and continue to do my part (however insignificant) in pushing for fiscal and monetary sanity in this country.

But first the post-mortem. The President and particularly his organization deserves a great deal of credit for their ability to get out the vote, particularly for younger voters and those in the inner cities. There was an overwhelming advantage in on-the-ground workers and volunteers and it led to many voters being literally transported to the polls (my wife helped in this regard during the early voting period in Ohio).  I saw nothing approaching this level of on-the-ground organization among the Romney camp.

The President managed to win an election despite a very high unemployment rate and a 30 year low labor force participation rate, a low rate of job and economic growth, and actual declines in average family incomes during his four years in office. Notably NO sitting incumbent President since FDR some 75 years ago has ever won reelection with such negative economic numbers and George Bush Sr., Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford ALL lost with negative numbers not nearly as bad as the President’s.

So what happened? How did the President manage to win re-election? Herewith, my top seven reasons in no particular order:

  1. Losing “Social” Platform–When the votes are all finally counted and analyzed, I believe it will show that the President won a large majority of women voters. Though it wasn’t usually mentioned as a critical issue in the campaign, it is fairly clear that the majority of the electorate supports a women’s right to abortion and contraceptive freedom. And for women voters, there is even more overwhelming support for “freedom to choose”. Fairly or unfairly, the Republican party and Mitt Romney were tagged as the party that would overturn Roe vs. Wade thru new conservative Supreme Court Justice appointees and limit or even eliminate such rights. (and of course, Todd Akin didn’t help matters). This was a political “third rail” for the Republicans and certainly was an important determinant in the vote of my wife and two daughters.
  2. It’s the Economy Stupid??–The old adage is that incumbent candidates win or lose elections based on the economic numbers. On the surface, this appears to have been the case with three Presidents with bad first term numbers such as George Bush, Sr. , Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford all examples of those failing to win another term in office. However, digging deeper, in all three cases, the reasons for their failure to win a second term has far more to do with other factors than the economy. In Bush’s and Carter’s cases, both faced strong third-party opposition in Ross Perot and John Anderson respectively which siphoned enough votes away from the candidates to ensure their defeat. Carter also had visibly failed in foreign policy with a 400+ day Iranian hostage crisis which literally left him spending most of his last year in the Rose Garden rather than out campaigning. In Gerald Ford’s case,  Watergate still loomed large with Nixon’s resignation only two years earlier and his defeat certainly had as much to do with that as anything else. In fact, examining Presidencies back to the beginning of the 20th century, ONLY  Herbert Hoover lost a second term because of the economy and that was the “Great Depression”. In other words, had unemployment been well over 10% instead of near 8% and had GDP been contracting rather than growing  (albeit very slowly), the economy would have mattered more and probably would  have swung the election. However, in Mr. Obama’s case, the economy was just good enough that many voters were willing to give him a pass on the issue and four more years to improve things.
  3. The Power of Incumbency– There is little question that any challenger to an incumbent President faces an uphill battle. President’s that have won second terms outnumber those that have lost more than 2-1. Starting with FDR, we have had seven Presidents win second terms (FDR, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and G.W. Bush) and only three lose (Ford, Carter, and Bush Sr.). Being an incumbent allows the President to look “Presidential” without campaigning and not having to do anything extraordinary or risky. Consider the aftermath of  Hurricane Sandy. President Obama did what any President would do. He talked of eliminating red tape, getting all necessary aid to the victims and toured New Jersey with Gov. Christie. There was nothing unusual in this response (and some citizens still in the dark ,without necessary supplies and gasoline might be arguing he and FEMA didn’t and aren’t doing enough). Yet, 40% of those voting for Obama cited it as an important reason that they voted for the President.
  4. “In the Long Run, We’re All Dead” –Typically, voters don’t care much about the long-term. But as I have argued many times in this blog, we face multiple LONG TERM economic issues in the US which could easily result in very high inflation and interest rates, a stock market crash and a Major Economic Depression starting sometime in the next 2-5 years. The two factors under the federal government’s control –a Very High Federal Debt and Massive Money Printing–received some attention in the campaign–but not nearly as much as the shorter term problems of inadequate job and income growth. This isn’t surprising because few vote for the candidate that will help fix long-term economic problems which many voters don’t even understand let alone connect with.   
  5. You Say Yes, I Say No” –Pres. Obama was the “Yes” President and Romney was the “No” candidate and it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out who most voters like more. Let’s not forget that between early 2009 and 2012 federal government spending exploded like no time in US history other than World War II. In virtually every case, the President opted to bail out industries and unions (e.g. the auto/UAW bailout), expand and increase government assistance (e.g. unemployment benefits, Food Stamps, welfare eligibility etc.), provide direct housing assistance and even auto buying assistance (e.g. Cash for Clunkers)  and expand and increase subsidies to emerging but clearly uneconomic businesses (e.g. “Clean” Energy etc.). In fact, the only group  that the President said “No” too was the “wealthy few” who needed to pay their “fair share”of taxes. (even though this would do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit and harm small business).  In contrast, Romney was the consummate “No” candidate saying he would cut spending substantially (even “Big Bird”!). He failed to connect with many voters as how dire our long-term problems and their own lives would be  if we didn’t take action soon in reducing government spending.  He also failed to connect on the critical issue of tax reform and how important this would be in helping reduce the long-term deficit.
  6. “A Working Class Hero is Something to Be”–Mitt Romney is a very rich man who happens to have been a very smart and successful top executive. When it comes to the economy I have little doubt that he would have been the better President.  In the current political environment, however, these two facts, being  “rich” and a “top executive”, don’t score well with many voters. The Obama campaign exploited this inherent advantage to the utmost. Here in Ohio, we had a barrage of negative ads in the early months of the campaign regarding  Bain Capital which made Mitt Romney look worse than the worst of the 19th century industrial “robber barons”. Though ultimately these ads were shown to be largely false, the damage was done early and was difficult to recover from. In the end, the label that Romney only cared about the rich and Obama was the man of the people no doubt resonated with a number of voters.
  7. Cool and Charismatic–When it comes to politics, charisma is an important X-factor. There is no doubt that in part John Kennedy was able beat Richard Nixon in 1960 because he was MUCH more charismatic.  Bill Clinton exuded charisma which no doubt help him easily outdistance Bob Dole in 1996. When it comes to charisma and being “cool”, there is no question that Barack Obama easily wins over Mitt Romney. Consider during the last days of the campaign, Barack was playing pickup basketball with former Chicago Bull star Scottie Pippen and then giving a free concert in downtown Columbus with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. On the very same day of Obama’s downtown free concert, Mitt Romney was out at the Columbus airport with none other than the Marshall Tucker Band. I rest my case!

I hope that the next four years are different from the last four and Obama and Congress can actually agree on a deficit reduction package that precipitously cuts government spending to  pre-2009 levels or lower and truly reforms the tax code so that we can increase tax revenues without substantially hurting the economy. For now, I will be optimistic. After all the sun is shining in Columbus in November, which suggests that anything can happen.

From → Public Policy

5 Comments
  1. georgia kilkenny permalink

    You live with 3 THREE women… do I say more why Mitt lost. I lived with 2 TWO mexican families (harder working than any white family I’ve ever met and they are American Citizens who can vote too!) I didn’t care who sang for whom… Just dont mess with Big Bird! Politics 101 , dont F with the bird!

    • Molly Holt permalink

      I agree with the Yes vs No analysis – there was nothing to attract me in the Romney message or the McConnell agenda of “prevent the success of the Preseident.” Very hard to vote “for.” I am glad the sun is shining in Columbus – better than the weather in New Jersey and facing climate change dead on.
      And it is too too true – in the end, we are all dead, especially the demographic cohorts nearest to ours.
      Glad your sense of humor is intact. I had a similar list of reasons in the event Obama lost.

  2. Richard Stuebi permalink

    Excellent post, Bruce. I agree with a lot of it, and even the parts I don’t agree with are well-reasoned. I’m sorry to hear you’re disappointed and depressed, as I think Romney (and pretty much anyone else) winning the Presidency would not necessarily generate solutions to the long-term problems you’ve highlighted — and in many cases, may have exacerbated them. Moreover, something Obama said (I think in one of the debates?) is worth holding onto: America is strong, and it would survive a Romney Presidency. It can survive an Obama Presidency too. While we have huge problems, everyone else on the planet does too. And, many of our core assets — our cultural diversity, our deep prizing of liberty, our respect for law and order, our military might, our immense physical footprint and bounty of natural resources — are unmatched in the world.

  3. John Stowell permalink

    This is as good an analysis as any of the so-called pundits on TV have offered. I’d add that the GOP needs to get a grip on the changing demographics and either embrace it or go the way of the Whigs. They’ve got up-and-coming stars on their bench (some are heading to Iowa already) and they need to encourage them. It’s all about addition – not subtraction. Ignore the talk radio echo chamber and don’t let them – and primary voters – force you so far to the right that you can’t come back. I’d ignore “rape” questions next time. I’d give Clint Eastwood the wrong datefor the GOP convention. I’d spend a little more on technology and shoe leather because Team Obama ate your lunch on GOTV. And I’d start the opposition research right now on Hilary Clinton, the next Democratic nominee. And yeah – The Boss trumps The Marshall any day.

  4. Robert Carey permalink

    I voted for Obama because I believe that people like Romney are the ones truly responsible for the economic problems the country is having, and because I believe there were far more important things at stake than the economy in this election. I am not crazy about Obama. He is too conservative for me. I might change my mind if he would cut the military in half and get rid of the PATRIOT act in its entirety.

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