Historians will long debate which presidential election was Barack Obama’s greater achievement.
It’s easy to make a case for 2008, when an African-American broke the race barrier and racked up the biggest Democratic winning margin since LBJ in 1964.
But Obama had the wind at his back four years ago. The electorate – exhausted by a needless war in Iraq; angered by an economic meltdown – was anxious to rid itself of George W. Bush and his disastrous tenure. Obama’s bid was brilliantly orchestrated, both on the stump and on the ground, but he had the advantage of fortuitous timing. He surfed a very big wave.
But in 2012, he was swimming against the current. This time around, he was an incumbent saddled with a sour economy. He faced a ginned-up opposition that hated him and wanted him gone, an opposition bankrolled (thanks to the Citizens United ruling) by an unprecedented amount of money, courtesy of the Koch Brothers and many others in the one-percent plutocracy. No president except Franklin D. Roosevelt had ever won re-election while burdened with such a high jobless rate, and on that factor alone, it appeared that the arc of history would bend against him.
Not. Obama is serving another four years, and another failed Republican campaign has gone into the trash can.
He now joins FDR as the only other Democrat to win two straight elections with more than 50 percent of the vote. The losers will naturally try to demean Obama’s win any way they can (this is what they do), but that historic achievement speaks for itself.
Obama’s victory appears to have shocked a lot of people – most hilariously, Karl Rove, who lapsed into denial on Fox News last night; live and in color, he morphed into Baghdad Bob, the Saddam Hussein flak who kept insisting under U.S. bombardment that everything was hunky dory. But there is really no cause for shock. Some of us (dare I say, including yours truly) intuited many months ago that Obama’s win was in the offing.
Back in July, in my newspaper column, I wrote that “the 2012 contest has taken on the broad contours of 2004,” when Bush (another polarizing figure burdened by a major issue – in his case, Iraq) eked out a narrow win by successfully framing the race not as a referendum on himself, but as a choice between him and a more flawed opponent. I wrote, “the parallels are almost eerie,” given the fact that the opponent, both in 2004 and 2012, was “a rich Massachusetts patrician with seemingly flexible convictions and a personality that impedes any visceral connection with voters…an opponent who is easy to attack.”
Bush wound up winning narrowly in the Electoral College, and by roughly two percentage points in the popular vote. He did so in part by defining his opponent, John Kerry, early and often, in highly negative terms. President Obama has won fairly easily in the Electoral College, and by roughly two percentage points in the popular vote. He did so in part by defining Mitt Romney, early and often, in highly negative terms. Especially at ground zero – Ohio – Romney was relentlessly hammered in TV ads as an out-of-touch one-percenter who refused to release multiple tax returns; who hid his money in the Caymans; who shuttered factories and outsourced jobs during his tenure at Bain Capital. These attacks had the added advantage of being true, and in response Romney (just like “flip flopper” Kerry) sat on his hands all spring and summer, failing to fight back.
A message that resonates
But these parallels can only go so far; Obama didn’t triumph just because he outmanuevered Romnney on the tactical front. He won because his core themes (the importance of the safety net, the belief that the rich should pay their fair share) resonated with more voters; and Romney lost in part because the core themes of the Republican brand are just not very popular. In fact, the Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. As Casey Stengel would say, you can look it up.
Romney’s trickle-down pitch worked swell during the primary season, when the audience was white middle-aged conservatives. But his message didn’t go down well with the rainbow coalition that constitutes America in the 21st century. One of these days (maybe), the Republican party will wake up and realize that it can’t win national elections by narrowcasting its appeal to aging white people. But apparently this realization will require multiple head-hammerings with a 2-by-4.
The hammering continued last night. The electorate continues to become more racially diverse, and Republicans continue to reap nothing from this diversity. Obama won the burgeoning Hispanic vote by a whopping 44 percentage points. That’s not a typo; that’s an unprecedented chasm. Florida alone tells the tale. Romney desperately needed to win Florida, but Hispanics virtually shut him down (rough justice for his primary-season anti-immigrant demagoguery). Back in 2008, Hispanics were 14 percent of the Florida electorate, and Obama won them by 15 percentage points; this time, Hispanics were 16 percent of the Florida electorate (a new high), and Obama won them by 22 percentage points. And the growing Hispanic electorate helped fueled Obama’s wins last night in Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada – all formerly Republican strongholds.
And if we assess the electorate along gender lines, Obama’s political edge was even clearer. His defense of the safety net resonated with women, just as Romney’s determination to shred the net (defund Planned Parenthood!) turned them off. Just as in 2008, women voted far more heavily than men – constituting 53 percent of the electorate – and they favored Obama by 11 percentage points. But to really appreciate the gender gap, take a look at Iowa, one of the swing states that Romney was banking on. Obama won the state by six points – and he owes his win to women, who were 54 percent of the state electorate, and favored him by 19 points.
And just as Bush won in 2004 by winning the turnout battle, Obama did the same in 2012. All we heard all year long was that Republicans were far more enthused than Democrats, that Republicans were jonesing so badly to beat Obama that they would overwhelm the other side at the ballot box. This was a big theme among conservative bloggers, and among the trolls who foul the comment boards. But guess what – it didn’t happen. Check out the exit polls, and you’ll discover that self-identified Democrats were 38 percent of the electorate; Republicans, 32 percent. In fact, that 32 percent is identical to the GOP share in 2008, when the party’s spirits were supposedly at their nadir.
Challenge isn’t over
Does Obama have big challenges going forward? Obviously. The GOP, even in defeat yet again, is likely to concede him nothing. The usual polarization will persist. But those are matters for another day. For now, as the smoke of battle dissipates, let it be recorded here that, for those of us who treasure factual reality, it is deeply deeply satisfying to witness the defeat of a guy who is arguably the most ignominious pioneer of post-truth politics.
Into the hazardous-waste bin, we can hereby dump all of Romney’s rhetorical toxins – his lies about Obama’s (non-existent) apology tour; his lies about Obama’s (non-existent) gutting of the workfare law; his lies about the Obama bailout that’s prompting Chrysler to ship Ohio jobs to China (not); his lies about how Obamacare will supposedly dictate “what kind of treatments” people can have (not happening); his lies about how Obama supposedly voiced sympathy for terrorists within hours of the attack in Benghazi; his embrace of birther clown Donald Trump; his indulgence of surrogate John Sununu, who blew the dog whistle by asserting that Obama needed to “learn how to be an American”; his TV ad endorsement of tea-party extremist Richard Mourdock, who infamously said it’s “God’s will” that women bear the children of their rapists. . . and on and on.
It seemed for awhile that Romney’s serial mendacity would never end. Now, blessedly, it has. For that alone we can be thankful, when we cut the turkey.
As for Karl Rove, the super PAC operative whose plight is a metaphor for his party’s, perhaps he’ll spend the ensuing days trying to explain to his rich donors how he wasted $300 million of their money. Is this a great country, or what?
By the way, with respect to yesterday’s post: Maine and Maryland made history last night – as the first states to approve gay marriage by popular vote. The same result appears likely in Washington state. To quote Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1