As part of the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October, the History News Network interviewed participants on presidential history. Following the conference, Dick Walsh, editor of the History News Network, conducted a post-election analysis interview with Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado. The full video chat is available on the Miller Center’s website (click here to watch), but in this post, we survey key insights on the election offered by Prof. Chernus.
Prof. Chernus, who in full disclosure was a foot soldier in President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, discussed the Obama campaign’s technologically sophisticated strategy. The Obama database contained some 33 million names with details and in his personal experience, Chernus discovered how detailed the microtargeting could be. As a volunteer, he was able to go into the database and build a list in his own precinct to target voters. While he was surprised at how early the election was called for Obama, Chernus argued that the key was the turnout and the ground game effort that was made.
When asked what explained Obama’s unexpectedly large victory, Chernus argued that there were so many variables involved and those variables interacted in so many different ways that there is simply no one explanation. You can explain bits and pieces of it – for example, why the ground game was successful or why certain demographic groups voted the way they did – but to try to put the whole picture together is like trying to explain Hurricane Sandy. Why did Obama win? We may never have a comprehensive picture.
In the video chat, Chernus discussed the key myths told during the campaign. To clarify, what Chernus means when he says myths are “the stories that are told to create a sense of identity to make sense out of the American experience. They are a mixture of fiction and truth.” In 2012, the dominant myth that resonated was a story that hasn’t been seen on the national scene in quite awhile – the story of the gap between the super rich and the rest of us. The story first began to surface with the Occupy Movement in 2011. It’s been a long time since wealth and income inequality has been a story in the mass media. Obama began to speak about the difficulties of the middle class and the privileges of the rich about a year before the election. It is, of course, a story with deep historical roots, and has been used in the past by Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as earlier progressive and populist movements. According to Chernus, the Obama campaign made very effective use of this myth to create a story about Romney as a vulture venture capitalist. Of course in politics you want to define your opponent before your opponent has a chance to define you. Obama defined himself as a champion of the middle class fighting against a predatory capitalist who would do to the whole nation what he had done to the workers of the companies bought out by Bain Capital.
The Romney campaign made some effort to rebut this myth, but for the most part their strategy was not to engage. When you rebut, you go on the defensive and reinforce what your opponent says about you. Instead, the Romney campaign’s effort was to define Obama as incompetent, and someone who had destroyed the economy and who didn’t know how to get us out of the recession. The Romney team went back to Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That is also a traditional story in American politics. In the spring and summer, most pundits thought it would be the story of the election. The intervening months since then have shown that was too simplistic an analysis. The idea that political fortunes are determined by the economy is a long-standing story, but Chernus hopes it will be harder to make that case in the future because it is too simple – there are too many other variables interacting in elections.
Dick Walsh concluded the chat by asking Chernus whether we are seeing the end of Reaganism and Reagan voters, as Michael Lind and Peter Beinart recently argued. The myth that “big government is the problem” is deeply rooted in the American tradition – it goes back to colonial times. In some ways, Thomas Jefferson was the great apostle of destroying big government, but it has been so powerful especially in the last 35 years or so. To argue that because Obama got two to three percent more of the popular vote than was predicted, and therefore the story is dead, is a dangerous mistake. The Romney camp underestimated the ability of the Obama camp to turn out the numbers that they did. But if you’re talking about narratives and ideology, the conservative machine is still very, very powerful and it would be a mistake to underestimate it. Chernus believes we’re going to see its power in the bargaining over taxation and spending – the so-called “fiscal cliff.” In the immediate aftermath of the election, Obama emphasized compromise. He didn’t do enough compromise and back room deal making four years ago. Chernus thinks Obama respects the power of the anti-government impulse as a continuing force in politics and he is not going to underestimate it this time around.
Watch the full video chat with Prof. Chernus here.