I know it’s painful, but let’s take a look – for me a last look – at what happened and didn’t happen in the election:
Mandate? Who got a mandate? The president? His popular vote was nearly a 50-50 break with Governor Romney. Congressional Democrats? Yes, they won the Senate. But the Republicans won the House, as well as now having thirty-one governorships. My point? In this election the American people ended up looking a lot like a boss who calls in two squabbling subordinates, hears them out and then tells them to spare him (or her) the details, work out their differences and get the job done. The mandate isn’t for one policy or another. It is for both sides to grow up and fix the nation’s spending, taxing and economic troubles.
Power of the Permanent Campaign? I don’t know. In Ohio the Obama people never dismantled their 2008 apparatus. In Chicago they spent four years assembling what reports suggest was a truly formidable data mining and management operation, with dazzlingly sophisticated targeting and messaging capacities. What did it get them? The president won with 6.8 million fewer voted than last time. All those years of effort for that?
Inept Romney Operation? Let’s agree that there was a lot to shake your head at in the way Team Romney ran their race, much of it evident only after the voting. I don’t know anyone who believes you can develop a complex software program like the now-infamous ORCA get-out-the-vote package and expect it to work first time out. But apparently that was the expectation of the wizards of Boston. And when have you heard of a major presidential campaign producing invalid polls? Actually, those two day-after tidbits – the software and the polling — leave me speechless. I have no way to make sense of them. We’re not talking Campaign 101 here, more like Campaign Pre-School. And yet. And yet. They came within inches of winning at least the popular vote. So you pit what was perhaps the most technically formidable presidential campaign on record with what sounds like the Keystone Kops, and the Kops almost win. How do you make sense of that?
The Big Clue: For me, the big clue to this election was not the apparent surge of minority voters or youth voters. And it was not the gender gap. Don’t get me wrong. Clearly the Hispanic and Asian voters, in particular, need more attention from the GOP. But the real mystery and, I believe, the key to everything that happened on Election Day, was the voter who didn’t vote, 7.6 million of them in all when you add the (negative) difference between Romney’s total and McCain’s to the president’s drop off. Some of this ghost vote went to third parties, whose combined total jumped about a third from 2008. But that still leaves around seven million absent and unaccounted for, more if you consider the population increase.
Why did they stay home?
Here’s my guess. In 2005, pollsters started seeing a sector of the 2004 Bush vote breaking away from the GOP over spending and deficits. Think of it as the Perot types a decade after Perot’s eccentric but devastating (for Mr. Bush’s father) run. My guess is that the most vocal and active segments of this group later became the Tea Party, though many of the others found the Tea Party itself off-putting. But in 2006 and 2008 much of this group (vocal or not) voted for the Democrats, if only to teach the Republicans a lesson. Then came 2009 and the current president’s string of shock and awe trillion-dollar bailouts and deficits, pushing the New Perots back to the GOP in 2010.
But here was Governor Romney’s problem. This swing vote still distrusted Republicans, particularly anyone they saw a moderate Republican, meaning to them moderate about fixing the nation’s fiscal problems (which they saw as indistinguishable from its economic problems). Several times through the primaries, pollsters split GOP primary voters between sympathetic-to-the-Tea Party and neutral-to-anti Tea Party. It turned out to be pretty much a 50-50 division. Romney consistently won the neutrals and antis. All the swinging from candidate to candidate we saw in that period was in the pro-Tea Party segment.
Now it is true that by Election Day two weeks ago everyone with a strong institutional attachment to the GOP had lined up solidly and enthusiastically behind Romney. But my guess is that there were millions of others – maybe as many as seven million – who shared the Tea Party views about spending, deficits and debt but didn’t care much for the GOP itself and weren’t sold. They remembered Romney’s reputation for flip-flopping. They were troubled that his themes came together with clarity very late, not until the first debate really. So they never felt they could trust him to follow through in office, as, broadly, they felt they could trust Republicans in the House.
This is why they stayed home – or if they showed up at the polls, didn’t cast a vote for president.
If I am right, winning back this sympathetic but distrustful group is the single biggest task for Republican candidates in the coming years. That will mean standing firm – intelligently firm — on spending, deficits and debt.