When the Republican presidential primary commenced in 2011, the understanding was that the 2012 presidential election was eminently winnable. Unemployment sat stubbornly above 9% for most of the year. President Obama's job approval rating languished in the low-40s, particularly after the summer's grueling debt ceiling debate. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature legislative accomplishment known more commonly as Obamacare, remained hugely unpopular. And the Republican Party, perhaps rightly, expected to re-harness the momentum that enabled it to garner massive victories in the 2010 midterms.
The composition of the 2012 electorate was perhaps the determinative factor this election cycle. A May 2012 study by the non-partisan Brookings Institution discussed how minorities would decide this election, an assertion that proved eerily prescient. Obama handily won the Asian, black, and Latino demographics, earning 73%, 93%, and 71%, respectively. Obama also maintained a considerable edge with women and even youth voters. The expectation of low turnout among the crucial 18-29 voting bloc proved wildly inaccurate: data indicates that youth turnout in 2012 was roughly the same as it was in 2008. This year, 67% went for Obama ... one point higher than in 2008.
2. It's the economy, stupid!
Except, not really.
Republicans largely tried to make 2012 a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, and exit polls did reveal that voters overwhelmingly considered the economy the most pressing issue. But the GOP's singular reliance on its economy argument was a mistake for two reasons.
First, the economy steadily improved over the course of 2012. While the numbers disheartened Democrats in 2011, by election day there was cause for cautious optimism: housing prices are rising, unemployment is trending downward, and the stock market had its strongest year since before the Great Recession. As the good news continued to come, a major GOP weapon was thereby blunted.
Second, although this strategy worked for Bill Clinton in 1992, 2012 was a different election for a different time. There were other issues — foreign policy, abortion — that received minimal interest from the GOP because the economy commanded such disproportionate attention, ultimately to Republicans' detriment. Sometimes these issues were naturally important to voters, while other times the GOP actively created or amplified issues through blunders of their own creation (see: Todd Akin). Ultimately, Republicans failed to moderate their focus and advance compelling arguments in these other areas.
3. The auto bailout
Romney wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt, and Obama bet on American workers. These are by now familiar talking points and Romney's op-ed is appropriately infamous. It's safe to say, though, that the success of the auto bailout, and scores of satisfied laborers, secured the Rust Belt for Obama: Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin went blue on Tuesday.
4. Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Joe Walsh
In the weeks before November 6 there was ample speculation about the specific effect more extreme congressional candidates would have on Romney's chances. Now that the smoke has cleared, we know many down-ballot candidates did definite damage.
Though Walsh admittedly faced an uphill battle against disabled Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth in a gerrymandered district, Akin and Mourdock came from solidly red states, Missouri and Indiana, whose own Senate bids were virtually assured. Yet these conservative darlings were not moderate voters' cup of tea. Each made absurd, scientifically inaccurate, and ecclesiastically questionable statements regarding rape, to their shared detriment: incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) routed Akin by 12 points; Mourdock, who unseated veteran moderate Sen. Dick Lugar in a bitter primary, fell to Joe Donnelly by a slim 2-point margin; and Walsh lost by 9 points.
While the candidates' antics weren't enough to meaningfully alter the trajectory of their states in the presidential race — Missouri and Indiana still voted for Romney and Illinois was already safely blue before Walsh's comments — moderate voters elsewhere were turned away from Romney. It certainly didn't help that shortly before Mourdock blithered away his Senate chances Romney released an ad specifically endorsing him.
5. Bill Clinton
As John Stewart accurately stated after the Democratic National Convention (DNC), Obama and the Democrats wisely called on their Jedi Master for assistance. Given that Clinton departed from his presidency with one of the highest approval ratings of any president and remains enormously popular today (even Republicans tried to weaponize him), having his support was a no-brainer.
The mending of the Clinton/Obama relationship ... and the former's titanic efforts on behalf of the latter ... is destined to be an enduring storyline from this election, particularly if Hillary Clinton decides to run in 2016, as is widely expected. Indeed, before 2010, Clinton and Obama were far from chummy. Obama beat Hillary in a rancorous 2008 primary and allegedly neglected to reach out to the 42nd president early or often.
Nevertheless, Clinton came through for Obama in a big way. He electrified the DNC and provided a crucial post-convention bounce. And as Obama struggled to capture white male votes, Clinton helped deliver this group to Obama in New Hampshire, along with the state.
Romney, meanwhile, could not turn to a former president to bolster his standing. The other living Republican ex-presidents are ill-suited for surrogating. One was defeated by Obama's top agent in 1992 and the other remains grossly unpopular. That most Americans still blame Bush II for our economic hardship is evidence enough.
6. Running mates
In short, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) was not the game-changer conservatives hoped for. While Biden canvassed battlegrounds shoring up white male and female support, Ryan failed to deliver even his home state of Wisconsin. Further, the public remains deeply divided on Ryan's budget plan, which in many respects has become the center of the GOP economic agenda. Ryan was far from a Palin-esque debacle, but he was no great help either.
This is the second piece in my five-part series 2012 Election Reflections. My first piece, "When This is All Over, Everyone Should Make a Concerted Effort to Return to Civility," is here.