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Was the Presidential Election a Progressive Win?

2012 Presidential Election Results by State. Map by Ernesto Barahona.

2012 Presidential Election Results by State. Map by Ernesto Barahona, November 8, 2012. CC-SA.

On the surface, President Obama’s reelection appears to have been the electoral equivalent of a progressive exclamation point. Obama not only won 8 of the original 10 battleground states (winning: CO, FL, IA, NH, NM, NV, OH, VA; losing: IN and NC), but also earned a whopping 332 electoral votes.

A cursory comparison of CNN’s exit polls from 2008 and 2012 also seems to suggest that the “emerging Democratic majority” first described by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira is beginning to take hold. Latinos, Asians, and young people (18-29) made up a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in 2008 (each group gained a percentage point), while whites made up a smaller share (72% in 2012 instead of 74% in 2008). Further, President Obama’s margins among Latinos and Asians grew between the two elections by four (from 67% to 71%) and 11 percentage points (62% to 73%), respectively. Some have even gone further to argue that the country is now “center-left” because “the Republican Party lost the middle everywhere, and as a result the map got slightly bluer everywhere.”

But is this the correct interpretation of the trends above?

The simple answer to this question is “not exactly.”

As James E. Campbell, SUNY Buffalo, noted during last weekend’s Northeastern Political Science Association Conference, the 2012 exit polls also revealed that 51% of the electorate believes that the government is doing too much, while only 43% believe it should do more. Additionally, more of the electorate said that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed than not (49% to 44%).

Beyond these data, Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics.com pointed out the real issue that neither progressives nor conservatives can afford to ignore in their interpretations of the results: “The 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.”

So who didn’t show up?

Focusing on Ohio and comparing the exit polls from 2012 with those from 2004 (when Republicans won the state), the percentage of rural voters in the electorate declined by six percentage points (from 25% in 2004 to 19% in 2012). While the percentage of urban voters remained the same in both elections (25%), the number of suburban voters increased from 49% in 2004 to 55% in 2012. Even though many might mistakenly assume that it was this increase in suburban voters that hurt Romney’s vote totals, the data don’t bear that out. In 2004, George W. Bush lost suburban voters to Kerry (49% to 51%), whereas in 2012, Romney bested Obama among suburban voters 51% to 47%. Further, the exit polls show that Obama did better than Kerry among urban voters (66% to 58%), but worse among rural (38% to 40%) and suburban voters (47% to 51%). In other words, despite the apparent “decisiveness” of Obama’s reelection, the partisan polarization by geographical location (affirming The Big Sort thesis) may prove greater than it was after the 2004 election.

The county level data in Ohio provide more evidence that Romney’s problem was the size of his rural turnout. The average 2012 turnout in Ohio was 68% of registered voters. Forty-seven of the 88 counties in that state had lower turnout. Romney won 37 of these counties; Obama won 10. More intriguingly, when one looks to the results of Ohio’s Republican primary, Romney only won six of these counties, while Rick Santorum won 41. Further, five of the six counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, Trumbull, Lorain, and Montgomery) Romney won in the primary were taken by Obama in the general. This shouldn’t be surprising given that the five counties that Romney won in the primary were those counties that also happen to include Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton. And while it’s impossible to know whether or not Santorum’s primary voters did in fact cast ballots for Romney in the general election, it is interesting to note that the total number of votes Santorum earned in these 41 counties was 127,795. Romney lost Ohio to Obama by about 107,000 votes.

Although it’s difficult to ascertain whether Romney’s lack of focus on rural voters in both the primary and the general was the case in other swing states, Romney did follow a nomination strategy that prioritized the urban areas over the rural areas. He also tended to focus more on states with primaries (e.g., Florida), rather than those with caucuses (e.g., Colorado). Moreover, after he sealed the nomination, he did not make a concerted effort to reach out to either the Tea Party conservatives or the Ron Paul libertarians, many of whom live in rural areas. Hence, would it be all that surprising to discover that these ideological activists opted out of this election? Not really. They abandoned the Republican Party in the 2006 midterm and John McCain in 2008.

Beyond this, Obama’s total number of votes fell by about 7 million, while Romney earned approximately the same number of votes as McCain (59 million). Hence, the Democratic coalition got smaller, while the Republican coalition stayed constant. Overall, it seems unlikely that 2012 is the new 1912. And while urbanites may have become more progressive, it appears that the rest of the country has become more conservative. Polarization and not consensus remains the norm. Welcome back to the Gilded Age!

Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010).

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