Many established beliefs about presidential politics have been proved false by Obama's reelection: 1.) The idea that, when unemployment is above 7 percent, incumbents fail; 2.) The notion that incumbent presidents who are reelected always increase their percentage of the vote over their first race; 3.) The idea that late deciders break for the challenger; 4.) The belief that if majorities say the country is on the "wrong track," the incumbent will be defeated. All wrong.
The problem with all of these so-called laws of politics is that they are based on a tiny sample. There have only been 20 presidential contests between 1936 (the year these "laws" are usually dated from) and today. That's too small a data set from which to glean reliable trends, far less iron laws of politics.
Romney made his share of mistakes. It's possible that if he hadn't alienated Hispanic voters during the primaries by his harsh anti-immigration stance, if he hadn't committed the "47 percent" blunder, and if he had more effectively rebutted the Obama smear campaign against him as a rapacious capitalist who was willing to inflict unemployment on thousands to increase his own and his shareholders' profits, he might have pulled out a victory.
But it's also true that Romney had many strengths, and Obama had many weaknesses. One lesson for Republicans in this defeat (beyond the issue, addressed by this column before, of immigration) is a familiar one that we must examine anew: The Republican message of free enterprise, self-reliance and individual initiative is a harder sell than the Democratic message of "Let the government take care of you."
This is particularly true among single women. Romney won male voters 52 to 45 percent, but he lost women 55 to 44 percent. While Romney prevailed among married women by 53 to 46 percent, Obama's margin among single women was a crushing 68 to 30 percent. Adding to the gloom for Republicans, fewer than half of American households now feature a married couple. The illegitimacy rate is 40 percent. And the women's vote has been increasing as a share of the total for the past several election cycles. In 1980, women were 50 percent of the electorate. This year, they were 54 percent of voters.