In a special Presidents’ Day event last Monday, the Miller Center brought together top scholars to reflect on and analyze the 2012 elections. Participants included the Miller Center's Oral History Program Senior Fellow and Editor Michael Nelson, Rhodes College, as well as Nicole Mellow, Williams College; Marian Currinder, Georgetown University; and David Mayhew, Yale University. The session was moderated by the Miller Center's Director of Democracy & Governance Studies, Sid Milkis. Read on for highlights of the session and watch the video for more in-depth analysis of the 2012 election.
Nicole Mellow noted that even though Barack Obama was a very different candidate in 2012 compared to 2008, the election outcome was very similar. In 2008, he was the candidate that promoted “hope” and “change,” but this time around he represented the status quo. Whereas in 2008, he critiqued the handling of the economy, this time he “owned” a middling economy. In 2008, Obama criticized the war presidency, yet he has continued many of the same policies. According to Mellow, this demonstrates stability in terms of partisanship and voting patterns. Very few voters were up for grabs in this election.
The coalition that gave Obama success hinged in important ways on his ability to bring together two elements of the Democratic Party that haven’t always been aligned and have often proved challenging for other Democratic candidates. Mellow argued that the coalition was built on two particular moments – the New Deal of the 1930s and the social justice mentality of the 1970s. In terms of the economic commitments, 63 percent of voters with family income under $30,000 voted for Obama, bearing out a class-based alignment of the parties that has spanned the 20th century. But she also noted that Democrats have had trouble in retaining middle class support.
The Obama campaign also recognized that social justice and equality have increasing benefits for the party. Along the domain of education and educational attainment, Obama received a majority of the vote of those with a high school degree or less. But, the only other education group from which he received a majority was the post-graduate constituency. Obama also did remarkably well with young voters, who are more diverse and can be viewed as a sign of future party loyalty. Finally, Obama received strong support from African American voters (93% voted for Obama) and from Hispanic voters (71% voted for Obama), which was helpful to Obama in states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida, all three of which went to Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Marian Currinder highlighted the role of campaign spending, emphasizing its limits. She pointed out that while election spending topped $6 billion, we still have the status quo. In this election we saw the big dogs/fat cats unleashed, with one particular individual – Sheldon Adelson – playing a prominent role. Thanks to the Speech Now vs. FEC decision, individuals can give what they want to an independent group and spend what they want on speech. We also saw a greater role for Super PACs and 501c4 groups that engage in electioneering and lobbying activities, providing a means for big donors to launder money to Super PACs. There was an astonishingly small number of donors behind the $1 billion worth of outside spending. The silver lining for some is that it didn’t make a big difference – both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue still look the same. But outside groups are not going away and they’re looking for more effective ways to spend money in 2014 and 2016.
Currinder also noted that not all dollars are created equal and this was particularly evident in the presidential race. For Obama, fundraising was a tool for mobilization. Both presidential campaigns and their Party Committees raised about the same about of money, but they had very different bases of support and strategies. Currinder argued that the differences in who contributed to each campaign mattered. Obama’s donors gave smaller amounts, but he could return to them over and over again, and use fundraising as a tool to get donors involved in grassroots efforts. On the other hand, Romney’s donors maxed out after one or two contributions, so he was forced to constantly seek new donors. Romney’s approach also did little to mobilize grassroots support. Obama had more control over the money he spent because it was coming from his campaign account, whereas more of Romney’s money was spent by the party and outside groups.
Finally, Currinder asserted there are limits to the effectiveness of outside spending. She acknowledged there is no doubt that outside spending played a role, especially in House races. But, candidates know their districts and know their states. Many outside groups are based in DC and swoop in at the last minute without knowing the contours of district and what people care about.
David Mayhew emphasized that the 2012 election was about a perfect storm of incumbency and it was possible because there was little “edge” in the 2012 election (i.e. there was no Iraq War as in 2006, no big economic crisis as in 2008 and no voter blowback as in 2010). Thus, the 2012 election defaulted back to the normal conditions, the statistical incumbency pattern, of the last 20 years or so.
At the presidential level, the pattern has been that if the party runs its same candidate again, then the party keeps the office 60% of the time. (If it is an open seat, it’s a 48% chance that the same party holds the office). Why is this case? If you’re in office, then you have no trouble raising money and you have a campaign organization that is in good shape. As president, you can also do things (e.g. appear with Chris Christie after a hurricane, fire drones, etc.). Voters can also be risk averse. The opposition can also face challenges in its nominating process and with its party base, a difficulty the incumbent party doesn’t face.
The incumbency advantage story of 2012 is also corroborated at other levels of government. Of the six governors running, all of them were re-elected. Of the 22 senators running, 21 were reelected. Scott Brown (R-MA) was the only senator who wasn’t reelected, but interestingly, he was also the only one who never faced a November electorate before.
In the House of Representatives, it’s important to note that not all members were running in the same districts because of reapportionment. Yet, 94% of Democrats were reelected and 92% of Republicans were, giving the House a 93% total incumbency rate. Of the 63 House Republican Freshman who took Democratic seats in 2010, 86% were reelected (only 9 lost). This is a remarkable success rate considering that 2010 was not a normal election. Furthermore, whether the Republican in one of the 63 districts ran well was largely independent of who was doing the redistricting. Even without redistricting, the Republicans would have kept 224 seats, still retaining the majority. There were also eight states in which Democrats took a Senate seat while the Republicans took the majority of that state’s House seats. Mayhew argued this was partially due to bad nominating by Republicans and partially the result of incumbency advantage.
Mayhew also noted that divided party control is also a persistent feature of government. There is no instance of Republicans controlling just the Senate since Grover Cleveland was president. Since 1956, it is more common than not that one party will win the presidency and one party will win the House. Mayhew proffered that the likely explanation was the public individuation of candidates.
Michael Nelson highlighted the adaptive behavior of the parties since Bill Clinton’s presidency. Before Clinton, more presidents faced challenges from within their party (e.g. Ford, Carter) as a result of changes that opened up the nominating process in 1972. The adaptive behavior began with Clinton. He was both vulnerable and unpopular, but he figured out that just by being president, he could raise preemptive amounts of money and use his in-tact campaign organization to scare off potential Democratic challengers. It was a pattern followed by both George W. Bush and by Obama.
Nelson also argued that second term presidents aren’t likely to achieve much of their agenda. He noted that Obama has been pushing immigration reform, gun control and climate change as if he has a mandate to move forward on those issues, but none of them were election issues.