The Reality Check Election

Column: How Romney lost on culture and economics

Wikimedia Commons
November 9, 2012

Republicans (and I) thought the 2008 election was a fluke. We thought the Obama coalition of minorities, young people, and white liberals had been brought together under unusual circumstances: the unpopularity of the Bush presidency, the war in Iraq, and the recession and financial crisis. The 2010 midterms, in which the Obama coalition did not appear and Republicans had their best performance in decades, supported this assumption. A combination of GOP enthusiasm and a lackluster economy would spell trouble for Obama’s reelection. Obama would not be able to replicate his 2008 performance. His voters would not show up.

We were wrong. Not only did Obama’s voters re-appear, but there also were more Hispanics and young people than four years before. The extraordinary advertising and get out the vote operation of Obama for America identified and turned out every Obama supporter they could find. Even though Obama won fewer votes than in 2008, and became the first president since 1892 to be elected to a second term with a smaller share of the vote than in his first, he won a decisive victory, and his party gained seats in the House and Senate, because his voters were motivated and the Republicans were not. Election analyst Sean Trende estimates that 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. Whites are the foundation of the Republican Party. They voted 59-39 for Romney. If Trende’s 7 million missing voters had appeared, Romney would have had a much better chance at winning.

Why did they stay home? The biggest clue can be found in the returns not from 2012 but from 2011. A year ago, Ohio called a referendum to decide whether or not the state legislature’s repeal of public sector collective bargaining would stand. Buckeye voters rejected that repeal decisively, 61 percent to 39 percent. At the time, Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute saw a foreboding trend: "The differences between white-working class independents and the GOP’s conservative base are becoming too substantial to ignore." The white working class, which had voted for Republicans in droves in 2010, was falling away from Republicans a year later. They did not care so much about the deficit or debt. They opposed Obamacare but supported a safety net. They were less concerned with or supportive of overseas interventions. The idea of economic fairness mattered to them.

The Obama campaign and its outside affiliates such as the Priorities USA Action Super PAC exploited this fissure between the GOP and the whites without college degrees who are essential to its political success. Obama’s side spent $396 million on ads, 85 percent of which were negative. Those ads relentlessly painted a picture of Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate raider who shipped American jobs overseas, closed factories without regard to the human consequences, and cared far more about profits and rich people than about the rank and file of America. The most famous of those advertisements ridiculously implied that Romney was somehow responsible for the death of a factory worker’s wife by cancer. The ad was false and insulting and offensive. But, like negative advertising in general, it worked.

Obama’s lieutenants ran a broad-based campaign that gave potential supporters a variety of reasons to vote. The economic message was that the economy was slowly improving and Obama was doing his best to fix a problem Bush had created. The social message was that Republicans wanted to roll back the rights of women and gays. For blacks, the Democrats said Republicans wanted to restrict and even overturn their ability to vote. For Hispanics, the Democrats said Republicans would undo Obama’s executive youth amnesty. On foreign policy, Obama had left Iraq, was winding down American involvement in Afghanistan, and had given the order to kill Osama bin Laden.

Romney’s campaign, on the other hand, was remarkably one-dimensional. He bet everything on dissatisfaction with the president’s economic record. He did not touch the social issues. He minimized the differences between his foreign policy approach and Obama’s. He campaigned on the idea that Obama had broken promises and failed to restore prosperity and strength to America. This message was aimed at suburban white women who had voted for Obama in 2008 but might be turned toward the GOP in 2012. It was not aimed at the white working class who had given the GOP its margin of victory in 2010.

The exit polls showed that Romney won on the economy, but by nowhere near the margin he needed to beat Obama. Indeed, when voters were asked which economic problem they faced the most, Romney lost to Obama on unemployment and housing, and only fought him to a draw on rising prices. The economic issue on which Romney won decisively was taxes—but hardly anyone said taxes were a problem!

Romney’s economic message was aimed at voters who had already achieved success and were worried that it might be taken away. The mantra of his convention was "we built that," a call to battle for small businessmen and prosperous whites who took offense at Obama’s belittling of individual achievement during his July 13 remarks in Roanoke, Va. Romney's message of tax reform, budget cuts, carbon energy exploitation, and championing of small business was catnip to conservative enterprisers such as myself, but as of 2005 we made up only 11 percent of registered voters and our ranks have probably diminished since.

Romney was good at telling voters who had already achieved in life how he would support and expand that achievement. He was not very good at telling voters who had not yet achieved success how he would expand opportunity and improve their condition. At times he seemed outright dismissive of these voters, such as when he wrote off Obama’s floor of 47 percent of the vote. His campaign gave Paul Ryan just one opportunity to talk about poverty, civil society, and social mobility, and even that opportunity came only after an internal fight.

Since 1994, religious conservatives such as Rick Santorum, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and President George W. Bush have addressed social and cultural insecurity through faith-based appeals to charity, outreach, compassion, and volunteerism. Romney, who by all accounts is a devoted, virtuous, faithful man, would have been well positioned to make similar arguments. But he was uncomfortable with such rhetoric, either because he did not want to draw attention to his religion or because he thought that it would alienate affluent whites. That left him exposed.

And Team Obama pounced. They used Romney’s opposition to Obama’s auto bailout as a metaphor for his concern for the rich over the poor and middle class. They ran ad after ad saying the Ryan plan would cut nursing home care. They portrayed Romney’s tax reform proposal as a giveaway to the wealthy and a tax increase on the middle-class. The accuracy of these charges simply does not matter. What matters is that they were effective. They suppressed turnout and support for Romney among the white working class and preserved Obama’s "Midwest Firewall" of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

Obama won overwhelmingly the fifth of voters who said the most important quality in picking a president is that he "cares about people like me." The majority of voters who thought the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy broke 71 percent to 26 percent for Obama.  A majority of voters said Romney’s policies would generally favor the rich, while a plurality of voters said Obama’s policies generally favor the middle class. A majority of voters said George W. Bush was more to blame for our current economic problems.

Obama pollster Joel Benenson is right when he says, "The contours of the 2012 presidential race were shaped less by the country’s changing demographics than by the underlying attitudes and values of American voters." The attitudes and values of the Obama coalition, including Hispanics, are much more favorable to a robust and active federal government and safety net. These voters see government support for the poor, middle class, and elderly not as a matter of accounting but of morality. The Romney campaign failed to convey an economic message responsive to these attitudes and values while ceding the ground of social and cultural debate to the left. The result was a drubbing for the GOP and a reality check for conservative pundits (like me).

Obama’s "coalition of the ascendant" may have appeared for a second time, but that does not mean Republicans are doomed to defeat. Republicans and conservatives today are in a similar position to Democrats and liberals after 2004. The aftermath of that election was filled with conservative proclamations of a lasting majority. The issue matrix, including the social piece, was said to favor Republicans. Conservative states and families were said to be growing, while liberal states and families were said to be in decline or shrinking. Democrats retreated to their hideouts to ponder and debate their future.

Within two years, they had retaken the Congress. Within four years, they retook the presidency. Their economic message was aimed at the middle class. Their opposition to unpopular wars was also in their favor. The Democrats appealed to the center and relied on the incompetence and corruption of incumbents, which is always a safe bet. They ran candidates who appealed to moderates, independents, and even conservatives in Republican bastions in the South and Midwest.

If the Republican Party cannot find appealing and attractive spokesmen and women for a conservative economic message that champions the working and middle class, a cultural message that speaks to the anxieties of the white working class, and a rhetoric that avoids fodder for the comedy "news" shows and blogs that shape the mindset of young people, it will have to wait for the Democrats to screw up royally, and for the Obama coalition to rip itself apart. Both things will happen. But they may not happen for some time.