Like every election, the Nov. 6 vote offered a snapshot of the state of politics in the U.S., and the 2012 results provide some important lessons for the future.
While Democrats are rightfully rejoicing at the election outcome, Republicans are wondering about the future of their party, and how it can remain viable in an era of rapid demographic transition.
Among the lessons that both sides should be heeding are these:
• A party that’s out of touch loses elections.
As a candidate and as a president, Barack Obama has plenty of shortcomings, and with a still-struggling economy, this was a race that a sensible opposition party could easily have won. But sensible, reasonable, or even rational, are not words that apply to the unfortunate amalgam of anger, paranoia, and magical thinking that characterizes today’s GOP.
The party’s ideological framework survives in 2012 mostly through the constant recitation of misinformation by media sources that exist solely to maintain what has become an alternate version of reality, one where Barack Obama is a Muslim socialist from Kenya, where climate change is a vast left-wing conspiracy, and where opinion polls and jobs data are skewed to discourage Republican voters.
For years, Republicans believed that the proliferation of conservative media sources, from Fox News to talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere, was an asset to their movement. Instead, the GOP base and these various media have formed an unhealthy symbiotic relationship that is harming the conservative movement. The conservative faithful get a whitewashed version of the news that fits every one of their preconceptions, and the conservative media get a faithful following from an audience that increasingly can’t live without them.
Over the years, this relationship has sent all involved careening further and further from reality— hence the look of disbelief on so many Republican faces on Election Night. They went into the voting booths on Nov. 6 convinced they were going to win in a landslide, because that’s what the pundits on Fox News and other conservative media were telling them. Mitt Romney didn’t even prepare a concession speech. The fireworks display that was supposed to celebrate Romney’s victory was already in place on Boston Harbor.
It was Fox News itself that gave the game away on Election Night as conservative political operative Karl Rove sputtered in protest at Fox News’s reluctant call that Ohio, and thus the election, had gone to President Obama. Rove objected with a recitation of conservative precincts he insisted had yet to be counted, and which were sufficient to turn the tide in the state.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s response was telling: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?” It’s a question that Republicans should be asking themselves on a whole host of fronts.
• A majority of Americans reject Republican policies.
To conservative true believers, the rejection of Republican policies represents a moral failing, or ignorance, on the part of voters. But that’s just more of the “math that Republicans use to make themselves feel better.”
Voters rejected conservative policies because they live in the real world, where Republican policies have failed miserably. There is a reason that the majority of Americans still blame Republicans, particularly President Bush, for the global financial collapse from which we have been struggling to recover for the past four years— they have memory. They also have perspective and most Americans knew that the road to prosperity was going to be a long one in the wake of such an economic disaster.
Most voters are old enough to remember what life was like under Republican control—wars of choice, tax cuts for the wealthy that fueled only higher deficits, and the slashing of public investment and the social safety net. And let’s not forget the 2005 push to privatize Social Security, or the 2011 push to do the same to Medicare. Mitt Romney offered up more of the same toxic brew. Republicans shouldn’t wonder why the majority of Americans said no thanks.
• Liberal fears over the impact of big money were overstated.
In the wake of the Citizens United decision, outside money poured into the 2012 election like never before— and the vast majority was spent on behalf of Republican candidates, which had many liberals decrying the selling of our democracy.
But in the end, the big money had surprisingly little impact, other than driving swing state voters to unplug their televisions. As even Donald Trump (a man with a tenuous grip on reality) was able to discern, billionaires spent a whole lot of money on the election and got exactly zilch for their trouble. The endless attacks had almost no impact on public opinion, becoming little more than white noise to voters. The good news is, the billionaires may think twice before trying to buy elections in the future.
• Minorities and young people are getting used to voting.
This is the one that should make Republicans sit up and take notice. If they don’t, they may as well change their party’s symbol to a mastodon, because they’re headed for extinction. It turns out most blacks and Hispanics see a constructive role for government, particularly in providing opportunity and a seat at the table for groups that have historically been left behind in America. Young people are worried about climate change, because they are the generation that will have to deal with the increasingly unsettling consequences. They are also the generation that will have to deal with the effects of our national debt, but that hardly endears them to Republicans. Despite what they may say on Fox News, Republicans invariably make our deficit problems worse. Sorry, it just comes down to math.
• Most polls weren’t skewed.
We were never headed for a Mitt Romney landslide, despite the refrain to the contrary on Fox News and from the conservative punditry at large. George Will, it turns out, lives in the same fantasy world as Glenn Beck.
In the end, if you took the average of the polls (which consistently showed Obama headed towards victory), you ended up with a projection remarkably close to the final outcome. Just ask Nate Silver, who analyzes polling for the New York Times.
Some polls, of course, were skewed—mostly Gallup and Rasmussen, which used likely voter screens that filtered out huge numbers of Obama voters. They’ll need to rethink their methodology before the next election.
• The tide has turned on the religious right.
For years, the Republicans used ballot initiatives, like gay marriage bans, to boost turnout from religious conservatives. Last week showed that, outside the South, such tactics will be self-defeating in the future. If anything, the proposed gay marriage ban in Minnesota boosted turnout of younger voters and helped the DFL reclaim a U.S. House seat, reclaim the state Legislature, and nearly defeat Michele Bachmann in the state’s most heavily Republican district.
• Gerrymandering makes a difference.
It’s been suggested that Americans voted again for divided government— but that’s not actually the case. More Americans voted for a Democratic-led House than a Republican one, it’s just that gerrymandered House districts managed to thwart the public’s will.
The 2010 elections, which gave Republicans big gains in many states, allowed them to control redistricting and they redrew House districts to their advantage in many states.
In the Senate, where candidates run statewide (which eliminates the possibility of gerrymandering), Democrats picked up seats and added to their majority. If the will of the voters had been accurately reflected, the Democrats would again be in charge of both houses of Congress. Rigging the system made a difference for Republicans. It was about the only thing that kept the GOP from total disaster.