The Magazine

After the Tumult and the Shouting

A dyspeptic election.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On balance, what does this all mean? While analysts have been slicing and dicing the data showing the behavior of this bloc and that group, the forest has gone missing for the trees. Romney’s underperformance relative to Bush’s is notable, but so is Obama’s underperformance relative to his 2008 haul. Combine this with the decline in turnout, particularly among white voters, and it appears that the country at large was dissatisfied with the choice offered.

Indeed, there is no evidence whatsoever—either in the vote totals or in the exit poll—that the country had much confidence in either candidate, or either party, to handle the problems that confront us. If a single question on the exit poll captured the country’s lack of enthusiasm for both candidates, it was, “Who would better handle the economy?” Only 48 percent chose Obama. One would think that would sink the president’s reelection chances, but of the 49 percent who chose Romney, only 94 percent voted for him, with the rest backing Obama or a third-party candidate. The same thing happened with the deficit: Slightly more voters picked Romney (49 percent) than Obama (47 percent) to handle that issue, but Romney won only 95 percent of voters who trusted him more. That is Election 2012 in a nutshell: Voters did not trust Obama to handle the tough issues, but even less did they trust Romney to represent them in the Oval Office.

It is not hard to see how the nation’s deep disgruntlement could produce a major upheaval in two or four years’ time. It comes down to two questions. First, will the problems that plague the body politic continue? Nobody is optimistic about robust economic growth in the near or medium term, which in turn -suggests the continuation of trillion-dollar deficits. Second, will a candidate emerge who can relate to voters and convince them that he or she offers a real course correction, which 52 percent of 2012 voters said was needed? Clearly, neither Romney nor Obama managed to make that case, but that does not mean no future candidate could channel public frustration into a peaceful revolution, one that would remorselessly sack the powers that be.

In the meantime, conservatives who are navel-gazing need to think beyond electoral groups. That -analysis is inherently favorable to the Democratic party, which for generations has been the undisputed master of us-versus-them identity politics. And it misses the much bigger point: The country was not persuaded that the Republican nominee had their interests at heart. Part of the blame belongs to the Romney campaign, but part of it reflects the failure of the Republican party during the Bush years to deliver the prosperity that remains at the heart of the conservative political pitch. It is sad but true that most voters have no adult memory of how Reagan pulled off a turnaround from the Carter malaise; instead, their most salient memories of Republican presidential leadership are of economic stagnation during the two Bush tenures, father and son.

The silver lining here is that the country is also increasingly skeptical of the Democrats, albeit not enough to deliver Romney the presidency. In 2016 the Republican party must find a nominee who can relate to average Americans—and then deliver the kind of prosperity that has been sorely lacking for the past decade.

The United States of America in 2012 is a dyspeptic and disappointed nation, deeply frustrated and lacking confidence in either political coalition. As a consequence, we saw stark declines—in participation, in confidence, and in the vote shares of both parties. If the problems that have driven the country’s dissatisfaction persist, then decline could easily generate tumult, and the next several elections could produce major changes in the way business is conducted in Washington, D.C.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers