Election Watch: 2012 Is in the Books!

By / 11.22.2012

I won’t bore readers with much about what they already know: Obama won; Democrats increased their margins in the Senate; Republicans lost House seats but easily hung onto control. Many of the scenarios we all spent a lot of time discussing during the General Election cycle are now moot: there was no “disputed election;” no electoral vote/popular vote “split;” no Republican Senate that would have allowed the GOP (in conjunction with a Romney win) to enact its agenda on a party-line vote; no Romney presidency without a Republican Senate that might (in theory, anyway) have enabled him to abandon his many promises to conservatives and pursue a bipartisan fiscal agreement.

As the final votes trickle in, it’s increasingly clear total voting will be down a relatively small amount from 2008, though not in most of the battleground states. And the composition of the electorate was very similar to that of 2008, despite widespread predictions that under-30 voters and Latinos would not turn out at anything like 2008 levels. In the end, the main difference between 2008 and 2012 from a demographic point of view is that Obama’s percentage among white voters dropped from 43% to 39%, which was partially offset by an increase in his percentage among Latinos from 67% to 71%. Yes, Obama’s percentage of under-30 voters dropped, but it was partially offset by a small gain among voters aged 30-44 (probably reflecting late-twenties voters from 2008 who moved into the next category). The only two states Romney “swung” to the GOP were the two closest Obama states in 2008, Indiana and North Carolina. Obama’s final popular-vote percentage will be very similar to George W. Bush’s in 2004. It does, as you may have heard, make him the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote in two consecutive elections since FDR.

Democratic gains of two net seats in the Senate were the most remarkable result, given the vastly pro-Republican landscape. A lot of the post-election talk was about the unforced errors of Tea Party candidates in Missouri and Indiana, but Republicans would have still fallen four seats short of a majority had both those states fallen into the GOP column. In the House, although there is some controversy over how to measure the national popular vote (some states don’t collect or report votes for unopposed candidates), it’s reasonably clear Democrats won a small plurality even though they only picked up ten net seats, leaving Republicans with a 232-203 majority.

A lot was made of Republicans picking up a net gubernatorial seat to give them 30 governorships. But 8 of the 11 governorships up this year were controlled by Democrats, who actually won 5 of 6 races considered competitive by the Cook Political Report. Both parties made some gains in state legislative battlegrounds, though Democrats hit more of their marks (flipping both houses in Maine and Minnesota and gaining total control in Colorado and Oregon, while Republicans won key races in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alaska). The big state legislative trend was polarization: only three states now have split control of legislatures, and only six have split control of legislative and executive branches. Moreover, the number of states with a party enjoying super-majorities nearly doubled, notably in California, where the long-standing GOP veto-power over budget and tax legislation has finally been eliminated. In ballot initiatives, proponents of same-sex marriage broke their winless streak decisively, winning marriage equality rights in Maine and Maryland while beating a same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota. On another front, voters in Washington and Colorado approved initiatives decriminalizing small-scale sales and use of marijuana. And in California, voters approved a very big and controversial tax initiative aimed at funding public education.

The usual period of post-election spin is still underway, and has in many respects merged with the debate within and across both parties about the fiscal negotiations that are dominating the “lame-duck” session of Congress. It is reasonably safe to say that the “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party” is more like a pillow-fight. Mitt Romney made it much easier for Republicans to dismiss him as a future factor in GOP counsels with a characteristically clumsy post-election donor call in which he seemed to blame his loss on Obama giving key constituencies public-policy “gifts”—a construction of events it was easy for even the most militant conservatives to reject as a reprise of the disastrous “47 percent” donor call in September. But with the exception of a debate over somewhat softening the GOP’s opposition to a “path to citizenship” for some undocumented workers (or their children), and a general condemnation of poor messaging on abortion (it will be the last time any Republican politician of note speculates on the ontological character of rape), Republicans are generally satisfied with conservative ideology, and are mainly looking for better candidates and better campaign technology going forward.

Moving into the fiscal talks, it is true that one big-time conservative power broker, Grover Norquist, may have to back down partially on his opposition to tax loophole-closing measures that aren’t offset dollar-for-dollar by rate cuts. But at this point, Republicans are holding the line against rate increases and are demanding significant “entitlement reforms.” So by and large, it’s about as likely Democrats will have internecine strife over Obama concessions on spending as that Republicans will fall out like thieves over taxes. Overshadowing all these deliberations is the strong possibility that the long-term demographic trends benefiting Democrats will be at least partially offset in 2014 by midterm turnout patterns boosting the importance of older and whiter voters—and perhaps by the historical tendency of incumbent White House parties to lose support in second-term midterms. Around those realities—and such external events as economic trends and the possibility of foreign-policy explosions involving the Middle East or China—politics will inevitably revolve.