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Letter From Washington: Lessons From the 2012 U.S. Election

December 30th, 2012 World

WASHINGTON — The 2012 U.S. elections, though not seminal, revealed much about the nature and direction of U.S. politics.

A divided government may be ingrained: At the presidential level, Democrats start with a decided advantage. Changing demographics — more Hispanics and other minorities solidly behind the party; women and young voters moving that way and forming hard-to-break voting habits — cut the Democrats’ way.

The electoral map that decides U.S. presidential contests tilts Democratic. President Barack Obama won the national popular vote by 3.7 percentage points, and carried the electoral map — the number of electors from each state is based indirectly on population — 332 to 206. If you took 1.9 percentage points from Mr. Obama and added them to Mitt Romney’s tally, the Republican would have won the popular vote by more than 125,000 votes. Yet if that formula were then applied to every state in the country, the only ones that would change would be Florida and Ohio. Mr. Obama would have lost the popular vote but would still have won the Electoral College vote, 285 to 253, and thus the presidency.

This is why some states that are reliably Democratic at the presidential level and where Republicans now control the statehouses are trying to change the Electoral College system. Each state controls its own rules. Only two, Maine and Nebraska, award electors by congressional district; everywhere else, it’s winner-takes-all.

Republicans are pondering a shift to the approach used in Maine and Nebraska. They see a possible test case in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Obama won the popular vote by more than five percentage points, rolling up huge margins in Philadelphia and its suburbs and in Pittsburgh. Mr. Romney, however, carried 13 of the 18 congressional districts. If this new system were in effect, the Republicans would have gotten 13 of the state’s 20 electoral votes while getting trounced in the popular vote. If this occurred in mainly Republican states, it would erase the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage.

In elections for the House of Representatives, Republicans already have a structural advantage. Democratic voters, especially minorities, tend to be bunched into a relatively small number of districts.

“The high-density Democratic population makes it more difficult for Democrats to create more competitive districts,” said Nathan Gonzales, congressional analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter on U.S. politics.

It’s this bunching, more than any redistricting edge, that enabled Republicans to retain a lead of 234 seats to 201 in the House of Representatives this year even though Democrats received a million more votes over all in House races. There is little to suggest this advantage will lessen in the years ahead.

Conventions matter more than debates: The news media treat the national political conventions as irrelevant dinosaurs; the presidential debates are depicted as the Super Bowl or World Cup of politics.

It didn’t work out that way this year. The conventions mattered more. Mr. Romney and the Republicans blew a chance at the convention in Tampa, Florida, to reset his candidacy. At their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Democrats stepped up to the challenge, especially with a powerful speech by former President Bill Clinton that set the basis for more positive public attitudes about the U.S. economy.

Mr. Obama’s disastrous performance in his first debate with Mr. Romney certainly mattered, though the duration of the Republican nominee’s bounce was exaggerated. Before that debate, the president was about four points ahead nationally; that was close to his final margin.

Moving to the center is tough in the media age: Richard M. Nixon advised Republicans to run to the right in the primaries and to quickly move to the center in the general election. This formula worked as recently as 1980 for Ronald Reagan. For Democrats, the formula is to run to the left in the primaries and to move to the center in the general election.

This is much harder to do today with the omnipresent news media tracking and assembling every public pronouncement and policy change. Mr. Romney tried to pivot after the primaries; there is little evidence that it worked well. He couldn’t escape earlier assertions that had alienated Hispanics (calling for undocumented workers to choose self-deportation) or women (boasting that he would end U.S. government funding for Planned Parenthood).

There are polls — and polls: Polls done on the cheap, automatic phone calls, some online surveys and partisan polls all missed the mark. More professional polls, with telephone interviews, conducted for the news media and other sources, were accurate in most instances.

Campaigns matter: Improving attitudes about the economy and, to a small degree, the president’s response to Hurricane Sandy, moved the needle in the closing weeks. Mr. Obama was indisputably a better political candidate.

The contrasting campaigns widened the margin. Post-election forums at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and the campaign e-book “The End of the Line,” by Jonathan Martin and Glenn Thrush of the Web site Politico, illustrated the Obama campaign’s supremacy on tactics: polling, the use of digital and social media, advertising, identifying voters and getting them to the polls.

The biggest advantage was overarching, strategic. “We knew who our guy was and where the country was,” said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign manager. “They didn’t seem to have a sense of either.”