If I had to choose one word to describe the 2012 presidential election, it would be decline. The results showed a decline in overall turnout, a decline in the GOP coalition relative to its 2004 high, a decline in the Democratic coalition relative to its 2008 high, and in general a stark decline in public confidence that the nation’s leaders can fix its pressing problems.
Just look at the results. In 2008, some 131.5 million Americans went to the polls; while the votes are still being tallied, this time around there probably were between 127 and 130 million votes cast. Most of the decline came from white voters; in fact, between 6 and 9 million white voters went missing this year, relative to 2008. It is a reasonable guess that the number of white votes in 2004 roughly equaled the number in 2012, despite the fact that millions of new whites have become eligible to vote and the aging white population has entered peak voting years.
Much has been made of the increasing whiteness of the GOP coalition, with the implication being that Mitt Romney lost because he failed to attract enough support from ethnic or racial minorities. Without doubt, this was a problem for the GOP nominee and certainly made a difference in key swing states. In Colorado and Florida, Romney’s support among Hispanics was lower than that of George W. Bush and even John McCain.
But Romney’s problems were much bigger than this, as he failed to pull enough white voters into his coalition to win. In Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, Romney improved on McCain’s share of white voters, but these states saw notable declines in white turnout. Meanwhile, in Iowa and Virginia—where white turnout was roughly constant—Romney failed to match the levels that Bush pulled when he won both states.
This suggests that the identity politics explanation is insufficient to explain Romney’s electoral problem. It was not merely a failure to attract Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, African Americans into the GOP coalition (preliminary data actually suggest that Barack Obama won fewer African Americans in 2012 than he did in 2008). There seems to have been an overall hesitation among many types of voters—white or not—about entering the GOP coalition. It looks as though many backed Obama over Romney, and many more simply chose not to vote.
An examination of the exit poll makes it easy to see why. Obama’s campaign against Romney, which portrayed him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, appears largely to have been successful. Romney’s favorable rating in the exit poll was just 47 percent, with 50 percent holding an unfavorable view. By 53 to 43 percent, voters said that Obama was “more in touch with people like” them, and by a staggering 53 percent to 34 percent, they said Romney’s policies would favor the rich instead of the middle class.
In other words, Romney lost in large part because of a yawning empathy gap. Typically, this plagues Republican candidates to some degree, even victorious ones, but it was pronounced this year, and appears to have been determinative. The voters who showed up on Election Day identified more closely with Obama than Romney, and those who stayed home presumably identified with neither. Importantly, this problem transcended age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Compared with Bush in 2004, Romney simply failed to connect with people.
What of the Democratic performance? There is little for the left to celebrate here beyond the fact that their candidate won a second term in the Oval Office. After all, President Obama won fewer popular votes, a smaller share of the popular vote, and a smaller share of the Electoral College. The last president to be reelected with such a diminished coalition was Franklin Roosevelt in his third and fourth terms. No president in American history but Barack Obama has ever entered a second full term with his coalition diminished across the board.
It is not hard to see why Obama’s support fell. If the public was skeptical of Romney’s ability to represent their interests and values, they were almost as skeptical of Obama’s ability to tackle the tough problems. A plurality of voters said that the health care law should be repealed. Voters almost tied over whom they preferred on the economy, which remains the number-one issue, and there was a similar split on the deficit. More broadly, a majority of voters said the government was “doing too much,” which clearly ran against Obama’s message as well as his proposed second-term agenda. While voters approved of Obama’s job performance, they were curiously split on a related question—49 percent said they were “enthusiastic” or “satisfied” and another 49 percent said they were “dissatisfied” or “angry.” This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the 44th president.
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.