Professors conduct postmortem on Obama's election
“There are a lot of things we thought we knew about elections,” said Wilson School professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bart Gellman ’82, who moderated the panel.
These “things” included the idea that Democratic turnout would be significantly lower due to liberal disillusionment with President Barack Obama and that the campaign would shift in favor of Romney due to the economy.
But the 2012 campaign turned out rather differently, with a victory in both the electoral and popular votes for Obama.
Acting Vice Dean of the Wilson School Brandice Canes-Wrone ’93 said the economy’s impact on the election was much more nuanced than pundits had previously suggested.
According to Canes-Wrone, whether the economy favors one candidate or the other depends on a whole host of “fundamentals” — that is, indicators of the state of the economy such as unemployment, consumer confidence and the stock market. The latter two factors were quite favorable during the Obama administration, Canes-Wrone said, and unemployment, while still high, showed improvement.
“This is an election where campaigns mattered and the candidates’ personal qualities mattered,” Canes-Wrone said. “It wasn’t an election where there was an overwhelming sense that the economy would point to one candidate or the other.”
Campaign finance, another major issue during the campaign, also played a surprisingly minor role in the outcome. According to politics department chair Nolan McCarty, the election consisted of “two really well-financed political parties and networks of donors and activists that completely canceled each other out.”
Having dismissed the impacts of campaign finance, the discussion soon moved to other factors that could have affected the outcome of the election. The factor that received perhaps the most attention was the question of race.
“There’s intense division [between the Republican and Democratic Parties] along the lines of race,” African American studies professor Imani Perry said. She explained that the Republican Party would perhaps enter a crisis if it continues to be perceived as “centered around the interests of white men.”
Following up on that point, the discussion turned to the Republican Party’s attitude toward Latino voters, 71 percent of whom voted for President Obama.
Politics professor Ali Valenzuela noted that Republicans were most successful with Latino voters on the question of health care, where he said Latino men were split “about 50/50” on Obama’s plan.
Valenzuela added that minorities in general may also have been alienated by Republicans due to the Romney campaign’s characterization of Obama.
“While these efforts to paint Obama and his supporters as outside the mainstream were very present, I think all around they were unsuccessful,” Valenzuela said.
Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an adviser for Fox News polls, was blunt about the Republicans’ need to court Hispanics.
“You cannot continue to lose a group 80/20, especially not this group,” Shaw said, quoting a friend’s remark in reference to Republicans and Latinos.
But the question of whether the Republican Party would change in this and other respects, though it was much discussed by the panel, remained largely unanswered.
According to McCarty, the Republican Party’s ideological trajectory in the future is “very hard to predict.” He had been expecting to see the Republican Party move to the political center after their loss in the 2008 election, he said, but it did not happen.
Instead, mobilized by the Tea Party movement and antipathy toward Obama’s health care bill, various very conservative Republicans swept into Congress in the 2010 election.
Given this and the fact that the Republicans lost by a lower margin this year than in 2008, McCarty said “this is not the sort of defeat” that would make the party “rethink” its political orientation.
Canes-Wrone, however, said that the political problems of the nation would need to be met by both parties.
“We can’t just frame the question in terms of the Republican desire to compromise or not,” Canes-Wrone said. “It’s a dynamic process.”
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