A few stray thoughts and observations in the aftermath of the 2012 election -- on substance, process, and tactics:
(1) The polls were broadly right, both at the state and national levels -- a dichotomy that I believed to be unlikely in the extreme as recently as yesterday morning. The electorate ended up being D+6, nearly on par with 2008, and six points better than the 2010 midterms. I was wrong about this, as were a good number of other observers. The 2012 party ID figures from Gallup and Rasmussen upon which my assumptions were based were wildly off. National polls predicted a very close race, and that projection was borne out by the vote totals. As of this writing, the president is winning the popular vote by a slim, 50/49 margin. When all is said and done, roughly two percentage points will separate the two candidates, down considerably from Obama's 2008 seven-point popular vote romp. Yet Obama pulled off wins in every swing state, save North Carolina (Romney also flipped Indiana back into the red column). The president carried Ohio by approximately two points -- largely in line with most polling -- and though his victory margins in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were slashed substantially, they all still fell in his direction. The biggest surprises were Florida and Colorado, which looked promising based on public polling and raw early data. Romney lost "the big three" -- FL, OH and VA -- by just over 300,000 total votes. This will certainly raise serious questions about Team Romney's "expand the map" push in October. The campaign spent precious resources and time playing in states that were called almost instantly for Obama. If they'd focused their efforts on the states they absolutely had to have, rather than indulging in their quixotic blue state adventurism, they could have made it a much closer race in the Electoral College. I still think Romney would have lost, though, because Karl Rove's 3-2-1 model would have ultimately lacked that elusive final "one" (CO, IA, NH, WI all went blue). Barack Obama becomes the first president in modern American history (Clarification: Post-WWII) to win re-election even though his electoral college and popular vote margins contracted.
(2) The presidential outcome is terribly troubling on three levels:
- Policy: Obamacare is Exhibit A. It's here to stay, even if certain elements of it are struck down or frustrated by states. This enshrines a massive federal intrusion into citizens' lives, raises the cost of healthcare, and exacerbates an existing doctor shortage. It's also fiscally unsustainable, guaranteeing that its failures will be exploited to push even more bad ideas in the future. Exit polls showed most voters disapproving of the law, yet their voting decisions helped cement it into the American policy firmament.
- Our politics: Mitt Romney, for all of his faults, ran an aggressive, well-funded, honorable campaign that (generally) focused on the very profound, very big, very urgent issues of our time. He scored a major debate victory then sprinted toward the finish line, harnessing enthusiasm and momentum along the way. But it wasn't enough. He was defeated by a small, petty, and overwhelmingly negative opponent whose turnout machine swamped all else. The unserious and unseemly drumbeat of birth control, Big Bird, binders, and Blame Bush worked. The "Kill Romney" strategy laid the groundwork for this successful approach. The president offered no meaningful or sweeping vision for a second term, but it didn't matter. What an awful precedent. I fear it says more about the nation than it does about the opportunistic and ruthless Obama campaign. Two core assumptions must be re-evaluated: America the meritocracy, and America the center-Right nation.
- Demographics: Romney performed very well among white voters, but got hammered by African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and young voters. These problems aren't going to magically disappear. Obama the Alinskyite will almost certainly avail himself of coming opportunities to further marginalize Republicans with these groups, likely by pushing a flawed and partisan immigration reform package early in his second term. It'll be a win-win politically. If it passes, he takes the credit. If Republicans block it -- even for entirely legitimate reasons -- they'll again be branded as the anti-minority bad guys, worsening their demographic problems. Conservatives must begin to pick battles carefully and undertake the difficult process of expanding their appeal. This will be a long, hard project.
(3) The Senate results are an unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans. In a cycle in which Democrats were defending nearly two-thirds of the seats in play, GOP gains once seemed nearly inevitable. Instead, Republicans lost seats. The ranks of Harry Reid's reckless, no-budget majority have expanded. Astonishing. Republicans basically gave away two eminently winnable seats (MO, IN) because unprepared and careless male candidates stumbled badly on questions about rape. This is totally unacceptable. If winning matters, the quality of candidates must matter. If Republican primary voters are just out to make a point, that's fine. But they should get accustomed to losing. In fairness, some excellent Republican nominees also went down, succumbing to the undertow of a surprisingly bad cycle. Democrat holds in North Dakota and Montana are particularly glaring missed opportunities for the NRSC.
(4) The House remains in Republican hands, which is certainly better than the alternative. Democrats will end up gaining a handful of seats, even as Republicans picked off a few Democratic incumbents in places like Kentucky, New York, and Pennsylvania. But there were some ugly notes here, too. Illinois was an absolute disaster for the state's delegation, thanks largely to bare-knuckles reapportionment by Democrats. And a number of conservative rock-stars either lost or are on the ropes, including Col. Allen West, Michelle Bachmann and Mia Love. Still, that Democrats were unable to even come close to winning back Congress' lower chamber in a D+6 electorate year is fairly remarkable. A question that will receive much scrutiny in the coming days: How should House Republicans manage their role as the loyal opposition in the lame duck session and beyond? That dance will be more delicate and treacherous than one might assume.
(5) Thin gruel, but a few small silver linings:
- The Senate will soon be home to two new dynamic conservatives: Ted Cruz of Texas, and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Both are significant upgrades over their predecessors, even though only the latter represents a pick-up. Jeff Flake will also be an energetic conservative voice from Arizona, as he replaces another fine conservative leader, retiring Sen. Jon Kyl.
- Republicans now control 60 percent of all US governorships, the first time either party has attained that level of dominance in over a decade. This edge may prove crucial as battles over federalism play out over Obama's second term.
- Mediscare was neutralized as an anti-conservative cudgel. The Romney/Ryan ticket won seniors by double digits while speaking the truth about the solvency Medicare -- a feat that defied decades of political conventional wisdom. Indeed, one of the House Republican pick-ups came in a district where the incumbent Democrat based her entire candidacy on attacking the Ryan budget. She failed. Major entitlement reforms remain a fiscal necessity, whether liberals want to face that fact or not.
(6) Despite two years of brutal partisan warfare, billions of dollars in campaign expenditures, bottom-scraping Congressional approval, and horrific right track/wrong track numbers, the practical short-term implication of last night's election was the preservation of a status quo that most Americans despise. Barack Obama remains the president (albeit by securing a slimmer victory than last time), Harry Reid remains the Senate Majority Leader (with an improbably expanded caucus), and John Boehner remains Speaker of the House (and its double-digit Republican advantage). In spite of the nation's sour mood, incumbents generally thrived across the board. Simply amazing.