The 2012 United States Presidential Election is a tremendous topic, and so much has been written on it already. Even though I have been following the race closely for years now, and (putting modesty aside) am somewhat of an expert on the matter, I still don't know if what I can write can do it justice. For one Presidential race, the 2008 contest, I wrote about the race before it happened. For all the others, I wrote about them long after they happened. This one, I will be writing about four days after election day, when the winner has been decided, but the total vote is not yet in.
The results of the 2012 US Presidential Election are in one way, the most basic way, clear: Barack Obama, the incumbent President, has won another term. He won by 332 electoral votes to Mitt Romney's 206. Although not all of it has been tallied, the New York Times, which has an excellent election tool, currently lists the popular vote total as 61,811,225 votes for Obama to 58,580,193 votes for Romney. Barring any very, very weird electoral college mishaps, Obama has won with a narrow popular vote margin, and a comfortable electoral college margin.
We know that basic result. We do not know where that result came from, or what it means for the future.
Writing now, the campaign is still fresh in many people's minds. Along with the long Republican Primary, the campaign had a number of other moments that seemed to be memorable at the time: the last few debates gave us Obama's sleepy night in Denver, big bird, binders full of women, bayonets and horses. There was controversy about Paul Ryan's workout pictures. Barack Obama said "voting was the best form of revenge". The Benghazi embassy attacks became a point for the Republicans, and then the exploitation of them became a point for Democrats. Joe Biden probably made many gaffes, but who can keep track of those? While I can't guess what people will remember after the news cycle has passed, I am guessing that 50 years from now, historians won't point as "bayonets and horses" as the turning point of the election. They won't even point to Hurricane Sandy, and Obama's response to it, as the turning point.
Behind the day-to-day drama of the campaign, there are larger issues at play. While a good campaign team and a good strategy are important, my view in the long term is that elections are about demographics, issues, and the electorate's overall tendencies. Barack Obama was an incumbent President with demographics favorable to him in many states. His challenger, Mitt Romney, had a smaller base of electoral votes, and being the challenger, had to offer the burden of proof to independent voters that his economic plan could beat out Obama's tepid, but real, recovery. He failed to do that. Part of that is I think that Romney and his campaign team misjudged just where the median of the United States electorate is. There was an element of what is called "dogfooding" in this, which brings me to one of the first conclusions about this election.
One of the truisms passed around by conservatives is that the United States is a "Center-Right" nation. Something put forwards by some (but far from all) on the right is that Obama was a socialist. Or at the very least, he was radically left-wing, out of touch with the mainstream of American thought. Which makes good ad copy, which helps fire up the base, but which is probably a bad thing to believe if you are running a campaign. Although perhaps not totally unwarranted. Many of the recent Democratic victories have asterisks next to them. Bill Clinton managed to win two elections, but he never got above a plurality. Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college. Obama's win in 2008 could be seen as a reaction against Bush and the financial crisis of 2008. But even with all the special circumstances, the basic fact is still that the Democratic Party has won four of the last six electoral colleges, and five of the last six popular votes. The two Republican wins in the electoral college were thin majorities, as opposed to the Democratic candidates 100+ electoral vote victories.
So beyond all the campaigning, beyond any incumbent advantage or post-Sandy boost, the reason Obama won was because his politics were more mainstream than Romney's. If America is a center-right nation, and Obama is a radical leftist, Obama is not going to win. For that matter, in a center-right nation, the center-right candidate should not be 1-for-6 in the popular vote over the past six elections.
This is, in my mind, the most basic cause of Tuesday's outcome. And it is also what this election signifies for the future. Because even though the victory was close (if 160,000 people had voted differently in New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio and Virgina, Romney would have won the electoral college), and the results in The House barely give Obama a mandate, he still won. It is not impossible that with the current basic set-up, with the coasts and mid-west being reliable Democratic, that the Republican Party can win a Presidential Election. However, it becomes increasingly improbable, and the only road to victory is to win by a whisker by winning back Ohio, Florida and Colorado. This election shows, as much as we can know from the limited sample of recent Presidential elections, that the Republicans are basically at a severe disadvantage in the electoral college, and perhaps in the basic demographics of the nation.
Besides the basic outcome of the election, which is a matter of simple fact, this is what I think was the basic cause of that outcome, and what will be the long-term results of that outcome. I am posting now, a few short days after the election, so what I write now may seem very myopic in a few months or few years.