Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What We Know: The Calm After the Election

Oh, that 20/20 hindsight. Now that the election's over, didn't we just know it was going to end the way it did? Wasn't it painfully obvious that President Obama was going to be reelected and win every swing state by recount-resistant margins? Elizabeth Warren? Claire McCaskill? Heidi Heitkamp? Marriage equality?

Of course not. That's the fun of a campaign. But the polls were right and the right was very wrong. And the sweetness of the Democrats' victories will stay with progressives until the reality of the fiscal cliff descends on the country.

What did we learn from this election? So many lessons.

Obama's Osawatomie speech in December, 2011 set the tone for his campaign. He staked himself out as a true Progressive and claimed the middle class for his own. Romney, meanwhile, was becoming "seriously conservative" while trying to outflank those political dynamos in the GOP nomination field.

Defining your opponent before they define themselves is an essential component of a victory. Obama was able to define Romney as a job-busting, China-outsourcing plutocrat while Mitt was still aglow from his primary victories. The lead that Obama built in the summer polls became a crucial buffer for him come the fall.

The Citizen's United decision was a bad one, but it didn't alter the race in ways that Democrats feared. As a matter of fact, the two parties raised about the same amount of money, but the Obama campaign was more frugal and strategic about how they spent it. Campaign finance laws still need to be amended and adjusted because the effect of all the money was just as corrupting and polluting as ever, but the spending gap never materialized.

Conventions still matter. The Democrats had a terrific convention that highlighted the right message and leveraged the speaking talent that resides in the party. It also helps to have a former President at your disposal who is far more popular now that he was when he left office. The Republicans, by contrast, had a terrible convention that didn't highlight the candidate and was remembered more for an empty chair and Paul Ryan's untruths than full-throated rhetoric.

Debates still matter. There was considerable chatter before the debates about how they don't move the polls much. President Obama's Denver performance proved that wrong as Mitt Romney got a nice bump out of the first debate, simply for showing up and being coherent. The great fallacy about the bump, though, was that it morphed into momentum. It did not. Romney's bounce lasted approximately 3 days, then settled down with him still behind the president in both national and swing state level polls. The lead that Obama built with his summer advertising held even though Romney showed that he wasn't quite the monster the Obama campaign asserted he was.

Debates still matter. Obama's performance in the second and third debates not only stopped any movement to Romney, but actually provided the president with a bounce of his own. Obama won both debates, and he exposed Romney for having few ideas, few details and a woefully inadequate grasp of foreign policy. Romney also lost his cool, which had to turn off some voters who were giving him a second look.

Unscripted comments can derail a campaign. Romney's 47% comment and the unconscionably disgraceful Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are all you need to know.

The polls were right. I'll repeat that. The polls were right. In fact, if you looked at the polls in July, you would see that it would take a mammoth effort by the Romney campaign just to make up the margin to achieve a tied race. Even Mitt's debate bounce only brought him within one percent of the president in the poll aggregator's computations. The right wing math deniers even came up with anti-math to show that Romney was going to win 315+ electoral votes. Meanwhile, real math people at fivethirtyeight, Pollster, Votamatic, Princeton Election Consortium, PPP, IBD and yours truly were analyzing and conducting polls that reflected exactly where the race was going, who would win, and by how much. Rasmussen and Gallup took the biggest lumps and will have two years to repair their reputations.

The campaign of ideas, promised by the right when Romney selected Paul Ryan to be his running mate, didn't materialize. There was some initial talk about Medicare and the Ryan budget, but when both proposals turned out to be unpopular they disappeared from the discussion on a national level. In the same way, Barack Obama did not run a high-minded campaign of ideas as much as undertaking a slog that dragged Romney through the mud and segmented the country into gender, ethnic and racial groups. Obama won those groups. By a lot. That was the difference.

There was/is a gender gap. And a Latino gap. And an African-American gap. And all three went in Obama's favor. Romney was left with a declining demographic of older white men and younger people without college degrees. If you wanted to chart the fall of a political party, like the Federalists or the Whigs, you couldn't start with a more disastrous demographic time bomb. The Republican Party had better reorient itself quickly, though I doubt they can do it in time for 2016. In fact, some of the talk today is that Romney was not conservative enough to win. Evidently the GOP only wants to win 140 electoral votes next time around.

There are more lessons, but they are subjects for another day. It's time to celebrate the victories and look forward to the next four years.

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