Throw Open the Tent Flaps – America is Changing

December 12, 2012

After every election all the instant historians tell us what it all means, why one candidate lost, why another won and what lessons we should take from the results.  It’s generally a helpful exercise, but sometimes the analysis and talking points are based on erroneous information which oftentimes is more apocryphal than enlightening.  It’s critical to electoral success for a party to learn from its losses, to adjust its messaging and generally reassess where it stands.

But it is especially critical to learn the right lessons and, just as critical – and more to the point – not learn the wrong lessons.  It’s also somewhat important not to allow instant analysis to become part of the lore of the election.   Here are a couple examples that deserve mention:

Claim #1: Mitt Romney got fewer votes than John McCain did 4 years earlier.

This is simply not true and is not fair to Mitt Romney nor his team.  With the proliferation of early voting/absentee balloting, election returns are taking longer than ever to come back and what appeared a fact just after election day is just not so.  As of this writing Mitt Romney has received almost 800,000 more votes than John McCain did in 2008, and he did so with 3 million fewer overall voters than there were in 2008 (and almost a million fewer Republicans.)  This is not a criticism of either candidate but it bears saying.   Mitt Romney increased the overall GOP vote total despite the fact that overall turnout numbers (and GOP numbers) were down compared to 2008.  It is, however, fair to say that there was an enthusiasm gap with Republicans in 2012.

Early voting appears to have provided Democrats with a tactical advantage over Republicans in the 2012 election.  Despite some reports that claimed Republicans were doing much better in early voting than in 2008, tracking results in many races clearly showed a strong Democrat advantage among the early voters.  Had GOP turnout been significantly higher in 2012 than four years earlier, some of this Democrat advantage could have been mitigated.  But clearly, early voting provided a significant advantage to Democrats.

Additionally – and something both parties may need to contend with as Super PACs spend more and more on negative ads – 3rd party candidates received almost 400,000 more votes in 2012 than they did in 2008.  Barack Obama, on the other hand, got 4.1 million fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008 – but his cushion was big enough that he could afford to lose those votes and still win comfortably.

Claim #2: In the end, the economy was not a big enough issue.

In fact, the economy was the issue in 2012 – overwhelmingly so.  Fully 59% of voters said it was the most important issue facing the country, while 18% mentioned health care, 15% said the budget deficit and 5% said foreign affairs.  And Mitt Romney did win voters who were most concerned about the economy, but he didn’t win them by much (51% to 47%).  The problem for Mitt Romney and the Republicans was that voters still blame George Bush for the state of the economy.  When asked in exit polls who was more to blame for the current state of the economy, Barack Obama or George Bush, a majority (53%) blamed Bush while just 38% blamed Barack Obama.  This is a key point to remember when analyzing election results, and its importance can be seen in the chart below which shows how people answered this question in the critical swing states across the country.  In only one swing state did less than a majority of voters blame George Bush for the current state of the economy.  Yes, that would be the one swing state Mitt Romney won, North Carolina.   But even there, a plurality blamed Bush.

“Who is more to blame for current economic problems,
Barack Obama or George W. Bush?”

Claim #3:  The GOP has a “woman” problem and it cost them the race.

Well, yes….and no.  The actual facts are more complicated.  Overall the GOP did have a woman problem in 2012.  Mitt Romney lost women by 11 points while winning men by 7 points.  Taken on their face, some might point to these numbers as indicative of the need for the party to moderate on social issues, overhaul their message and present a different agenda for America that addresses the concerns of women across the board.  Maybe, but it’s not so simple.  Looking deeper into exit poll data provides more perspective.  Yes, Mitt Romney lost women by 11 points, but he won white women by 14 points (56% – 42%).  He won white women in Florida and Virginia by 17 points (58% – 41%).  He won white women in Ohio, 53% – 46%.  He even won white women in California, 50% – 48%.  And New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Michigan, well, you get the idea.  It’s difficult to say he has a problem with white women, although he did do better with white men (62% – 35%).  The GOP deficit with women is driven by women of color.  Mitt Romney lost African American women by 93 points (3% – 96%) and he lost Latino women by 53 points (23% – 76%).  These are the groups that put him in the overall negative column with women and, along with African American men (-76 points) and Latino men (-32 points) these are the audiences (as well as Asians and other non-whites) that made the difference for Barack Obama in 2012.  The importance of these differences is a critical take away from this election and one that speaks to a bigger issue overall for the Republican Party…

The Changing Electorate

Consider this:
If the ethnic makeup of the 2012 electorate had been the same as it was in 2000, Mitt Romney would have won by almost five million votes.  That’s not a misprint and is worth repeating.  If the electorate looked like it did in 2000 when George Bush first won election and given how those groups voted in 2012, Mitt Romney would have received almost five million more votes than Barack Obama.  The ethnic demography of America is changing rapidly and this change is helping the Democrat Party significantly.  How rapidly is it changing?  The table below shows the percentage of white voters in the electorate over the last six elections:

A number of factors are at play here, including increased turnout percentages among African Americans and Latinos, as well as lower turnout percentages among Whites.  But the ethnic make-up of the electorate is changing – and that is an undeniable truth that Republicans cannot ignore.

Looking at how the Republican nominee fared with non-white voters and their growing proportion of the electorate should serve as a wake-up call to all Republicans.  A bullhorn really.  The race was as close as it was because the GOP nominee did exceedingly well with white voters.  But the support Mitt Romney enjoyed with white voters paled in comparison to what Barack Obama enjoyed with voters of color.  Unless Republicans can make inroads into the African American, Latino and other non-white voting groups, the rapidly changing demographics of this country will consign them to long term minority status (no pun intended) in elective politics.  That’s math, not opinion.

Exit polling does provide some insight into what is driving discontent and the messaging challenge Republicans face with non-white voters.  Immigration is certainly impacting views here, and responses to an exit poll question on immigration show the difficulty for the GOP.

“Should most illegal immigrants working in the United States be:”

– Offered a chance to apply for legal status  65%
– Deported to the country they came from    28%

A very large majority of voters believes illegal immigrants should be given the opportunity to stay in the country legally, and these voters supported Barack Obama by a margin of 61% to 37%.  In contrast, just over a quarter of the electorate wants illegal immigrants deported, but these voters supported Mitt Romney by a margin of 73% to 24%, undoubtedly complicating his ability to communicate a winning (or even a “not lose badly”) message on this issue.  The policy implications of immigration are certainly having a large impact on America.  But the political implications this issue has for the Republican Party are immense.

Another very telling finding from the exit polls is the electorate’s overall view on the basic idea of America as the land of opportunity.  Voters were asked the following question on America’s economic system:

“Do you think the US economic system generally:”

– Favors the wealthy                    55%
– Is fair to most Americans           39%

Not surprisingly, the 55% who think our system “favors the wealthy” voted for Barack Obama by a margin of 71% to 26%.  The 39% of voters who believe the system is “fair to most Americans” voted for Mitt Romney by a margin of 77% to 22%.  This is a key challenge for Republicans and goes to the individual voter’s basic view of fairness. The results of this question are not about Mitt Romney’s unfortunate comments concerning the “47% who don’t pay taxes” or any other misperceptions about various sectors of the electorate.  This is about the American Dream.  It is about ensuring a level playing field for all Americans.   It is about empowerment and justice and equality.  The electorate is changing and the Republican Party needs to offer a compelling and coherent argument that its policies are ultimately more beneficial – culturally, socially, economically – to these growing demographic groups than what the Democrats are offering.

Mitt Romney has been criticized for not running a better campaign.  Some have said he was the wrong candidate, that he couldn’t identify with the average voter and the average voter couldn’t identify with him.  And perhaps there is some truth in those criticisms.  But the math behind the inexorable drop in white voters as a percentage of the population is a truth that Republicans cannot deny.   All things being equal, George Bush would not have been elected in 2000 with an electorate that looked like 2012.  And Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 with an electorate that looked like 2000.  The makeup of America is changing and in order for Republicans to remain relevant they need to recognize this hard reality.  And it begins with refining and refocusing their message to a more inclusive and more welcoming one that demonstrates how the basic tenets of the Republican Party are more likely to empower individuals and help them share in the magic of America, no matter what rung of the economic ladder they currently occupy.

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