The election results of the 2012 Presidential election have been subject to many different interpretations, with each interpretation’s being dependent on the observer’s partisan bent. The current (dominant) narrative is that President Obama was re-elected on the basis of minority voters, and that the Republican Party is no longer competitive nationally, because it has become the home of angry, white, Southern males. Does this narrative have any truth to it?
Let’s address this narrative by examining the 2012 vote through the context of the 2008 and 2004 Presidential elections. Overall, President Obama was re-elected 51-47% over his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. While Obama’s victory was clinched by his campaign team’s knowing exactly where the votes were (or weren’t), this was not a “game changing” election with record turnout like 2008 was; in fact, numerical voter turnout was 2% less than it was in 2008. If you were to dig a little further, you’d notice that President Obama’s 2012 popular vote total was 4 million less than what he received in 2008, while Romney received about a million more votes than John McCain.
Depressed GOP voter turnout
While Romney’s exceeding the McCain vote totals is rarely mentioned, what is never mentioned is that a strong argument can be made that 2012 GOP voter turnout was not what it could have been: in 29 states, Mitt Romney actually received less votes than former President George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign. This drop off in Republican turnout resulted in approximately 3 million votes that theoretically could have been Romney’s but weren’t. To put this drop-off in its proper perspective, President Obama was re-elected last year by 5 million votes.
While this drop-off would not, by itself, have changed the outcome of the 2012 Presidential contest, it can be argued that it cost Romney the crucial state of Ohio – he received 198K less votes than George W Bush did in 2004, and President Obama carried the state by 166K votes. The national impact of this GOP vote drop-off meant that a 51-47% popular vote victory for Obama would have been 50-48% instead.
Loss of Hispanic support
An unmotivated GOP base is only part of the problem, however. What also hurt Mitt Romney was a drop-off in GOP support from Hispanics. While Hispanics have never been a Republican voting group, Republicans historically have been competitive within this demographic (the late Ronald Reagan once said that “Hispanics are already Republican…they just don’t know it”), especially in Florida and Texas. To illustrate how costly this loss in support was to the Romney-Ryan ticket, in two Florida counties with large Hispanic populations (Osceola and Miami-Dade), Obama’s margin between 2008 and 2012 increased from 159 to 235K – that 76K increase in the Obama vote margin there was the margin by which Florida voted for him last year.
The GOP’s “early vote” problem
Of course, even if Romney had carried Ohio and Florida, and had engaged the GOP base vote present in the 2004 Presidential election, he would still have had only 253 electoral votes -17 electoral votes short of winning. The third factor which hurt Mitt Romney was the Democrats’ continued supremacy at motivating their supporters to vote early. To illustrate, this is how Obama carried Iowa: the early vote went 59-39% for him, while those voting on Election Day voted 51-46% for Mitt Romney.
It’s the suburbs, stupid
The fourth problem facing the Republicans is the (since 1992) swing of suburban voters in major metropolitan areas towards the Democrats. Not having this vote has made Republicans in general and Mitt Romney specifically uncompetitive across New England, the Northeast, the Midwest, and parts of the West. However, not having this vote clearly made the difference in two states in the 2012 contest. If the GOP base had been motivated to vote at the same levels they did in 2004, President Obama would have only received 51% of the vote in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Given those narrow margins of victory, he was able to carry those states on the basis of an above normal vote for him in the affluent suburbs in Northern Virginia and Philadelphia.
While there are many explanations for the causes (and possible solutions) for the GOP to be able to win future Presidential elections, the plain reality is that some of the problems are related to demographics, while others are related to politics at its simplest: knowing who your voters are, and making sure that they are motivated to support you.