Counterweights: The Presidential Election of 2012: the Whats and Whys of the Results

January 31, 2013


Many were surprised by the results of the 2012 presidential race, particularly the Republicans, who were convinced they would win.  In this Counterweights, Scott Akemon, assistant professor of political science and history, and Mark Greger, assistant professor of Spanish, discuss what happened and why.  For the purposes of debate, Akemon represents the liberal point of view and Greger the conservative.  As always, your comments and opinions are welcome in the blog section below.  Please remember the rules of civility in this and all forums. 

Greger:  With the sluggish economic climate and the president’s low approval rating going into the election cycle, you would have thought the Republicans would win this race.  I think, however, that Mitt Romney failed to convince voters that his policies would be any better than the president’s, even though Romney’s campaign consistently hammered away on Obama’s economic record.  Romney never seemed to be able to articulate a convincing vision for his presidency, either.  The president, on the other hand, controlled much of the conversation during the election cycle and was able to appear presidential.

Akemon:  I think you’re correct about Romney’s inability to gain traction with his economic message.  After all, the Republicans pretty much had the table set for them on the economy, but didn’t take advantage of the feast.  As Democratic strategist James Carville so succinctly said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”   That should be the number one topic of any election, especially in economically difficult times.  Mitt Romney attempted to focus on the economic challenges facing our nation but failed to present a clear unifying message that created a consensus of support.  Obama’s campaign, on the other hand, focused more on social issues and reminded the voters that although the economy was still weak it was continuing to improve as it had since he took office.

Greger:  And of course there were distractions, too, that took the focus off the economy.   The comments of Todd Aiken, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri who famously said that in cases of “legitimate rape” women will rarely get pregnant because the female body shuts down and prevents it, diverted attention from the Republican economic message.  However, I do not think these episodes changed the thinking of many voters in the long run.

Akemon:  You’re right that comments like Aiken’s on rape and some opinions about the age of the earth (that it is 6,000 years old rather than the 4.5 billion years that science has documented) allowed the national attention to be diverted from the economy to these fringe issues.  They certainly didn’t cause any measurable number of Republicans to vote for Obama.  Nevertheless, they did help the president find votes from moderates and undecided voters thanks in large part to news and social media.  If that kind of rhetoric swayed any one voting bloc it was probably women.  Obama’s campaign reached out to female voters through issues like abortion and equal pay.  The Democrats have always had a larger base of support with female voters on these issues.  In this election, Obama garnered 55 percent of the women’s vote, with Romney getting only 44 percent.

Greger:  Yes, but you fail to mention that Romney received 56 percent of white women’s, which suggests that his support may be better understood by looking at regional, ethnic and religious breakdowns in the demographics rather than gender.

Akemon: Still, Romney and the Republicans failed to moderate their party’s platform to be more supportive on women’s issues such as abortion.  Combine that with Todd Aiken’s comments and the Republicans all but put a bow on the female vote for the Democrats.  Two-thirds of unmarried women voted for Obama (67 percent).  And let’s not forget that predictions indicate that within another 20 years, the white population will be a minority.  So I think that’s a serious issue for Republicans.  And the Republican platform, which doesn’t allow for abortions even in the case of incest or rape, doesn’t sit well with many women.

 Greger:  The Republican pro-life stance on abortion is at the heart of the social platform of the Republican party.  The party has not wavered in its pro-life position on abortion since the Reagan era, nor is the pro-life position likely to change soon.  The exception of abortions in cases of rape and incest is an issue of contention within the Republican party.  Many moderate Republicans support allowing for the exception of abortion in cases of rape and incest.  The Romney campaign’s failure was in allowing the extreme voices to control the message on these issues.

But I take issue with you on the subject of women’s equality in general.  The Republican party solidly supports women’s rights.  The Romney campaign made concerted efforts to demonstrate his support for women by highlighting his record on women in government in Massachusetts during his governorship.  But Romney made several gaffes, such as the “binders full of women” comment, and that worked against him in courting public opinion.

Akemon:  Well, since I’ve already mentioned ethnicity and demographics, let’s turn to that piece of the puzzle.  Again the Republicans gift-wrapped a sizable vote for the Democrats.  True, Obama has increased deportations and failed to get Congress to pass the DREAM Act but thanks to some Republican-governed states, Latinos turned out to vote for Obama.  The Republican-controlled states Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Utah, Alabama and South Carolina have all passed laws targeting illegal immigrants.  Through the enforcement of these laws Latinos have felt so repressed they have begun to self-deport.  Indeed, some Republican legislators have expressed a desire and expectation for them to do so.  When any demographic group feels that it is the target of a political party it will support that party’s opposition.  Nevertheless, the Republicans did manage to gain some support from Catholic Latinos on the issue of abortion but those numbers were dwarfed when compared to the number of Latinos who voted not so much for Obama but against the climate of self-deportation the Republicans supported.

Greger:  You must admit that neither party has done a good job of appealing to Hispanics.  The Latino population is the largest minority group in the United States.  Immigration issues are a hot-button topic for them.  Neither party is viewed very favorably by this group.  The president has set a record for cracking down on illegal immigrants, and has also done little to address the question of immigration reform.  Likewise, the Republican party has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration, and has a poor track record on immigration reform.  Neither party does an effective job of courting the Latino vote.  But I agree that in this election cycle, the Republican idea of self-deportation was seen by the Latino community as being hostile.

Akemon:  I can certainly understand why listening to a white male Republican tell the media that he hopes the new laws in Alabama result in undocumented immigrants self-deporting would be perceived as hostile.  It even sounds that way to me.  In a country that is becoming more and more diverse, that perception, unless reversed, won’t help win elections.

Greger:  I’d call that merely creating and grabbing a sound bite. The core of the Republican constituency consists primarily of economic and/or social conservatives of all races and genders.

Akemon:  But you know what they say about perception being reality.  Don’t you think that Republicans have to do a better job of communicating a message of inclusion to voters?  After all, the goal is to win elections.  And speaking of winning, here’s what I think the Democrats should do to keep winning:

1. Focus on economic recovery and job creation.   They need to compromise where and when they can on fiscal policies in order to enact legislation that will improve the economy and pay down our national debt.

2. Push forward a social agenda that includes the passage of the DREAM Act and legislation for gender equality.

3. Democrats need to change their image on national security by becoming proactive instead of reactionary.

4.  Find a strong candidate for 2016!

What do you think the Republicans need to do?


1. Focus on the economy.  Republicans should take the lead on the nation’s economic policy.  Republicans need to show that they can do more than obstruct the president’s policies.  They need to present an economic vision for the nation.

2.   Diversify the base without compromising core values.  Republicans should attempt to build a big tent, but without compromising key Republican values.  Part of this would be to aim more for the societal middle than for the societal extremes. They must make inroads with at least some of the minority groups in order to remain relevant.  Some Republicans are already reaching out to minority groups.  For instance, Jeb Bush has taken the Republican party to task on the issue of the party’s treatment of the Latino voter group.  Republicans in the Senate, led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are attempting to initiate movement on immigration reform.

3.  Republicans need to present a strong vision for the future of the country.  The voting public needs to see a clear Republican alternative to the Democratic present-day reality.

Akemon:  Just for fun, let’s each recommend what the other party should do.  Here’s what I’d suggest for Republicans:

1. Focus on building a consensus for economic recovery.  Working with the Democrats through compromise in Congress over the next four years would be a good place to start.

2.  The Republican party should also moderate on the social issues that it can moderate on without losing its base of support.  The immigration issues facing our nation can be a great place for the Republicans to build a new base of support.

3.  Republicans also need to present a clear plan for the future of women in their party and its platforms.

I see that without knowing your recommendations, I’ve come up with nearly the same ones as you.

Greger:  You’re right.  We’re not so far apart.  Here are my recommendations for the Democratic party:

1. Focus on the economy.  Democrats also need to lead on the economy.  They need to work on compromising with Republicans on economic solutions.

2.  The Democratic party should also shift more to the middle.  The average voter is more concerned with the economy than with experimentation with social programs.  The focus should be more on economic recovery and less on social engineering.

3.  Democrats also need to present a clear plan for the future of the country under Democratic leadership.  This is something that Democrats failed to do in the last election.

Akemon:  We obviously share common ground.  Despite the vitriol and screaming we often hear in advocacy media, I truly believe that many Americans feel similarly to us – in fact, the polls reflect that overwhelmingly Americans want politicians to stop grandstanding and work together for practical compromise.  If they would only do so, we could all feel the way we should – like we’re in this together for the greater good.

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