US Presidential Election Report 2012

Four more years.  That was the news to which the world awoke on Wednesday morning, as incumbent President Barack Obama defeated Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.


In 2008, when hope and change fuelled a sense of urgency and optimism, Obama won almost 53% of the popular vote.  This time, in 2012, Romney managed to convince between 2 and 3 out of every 100 voters to change their minds and cast their ballots for the GOP instead.  Ultimately, this was too few.  To win, Romney would have needed to persuade between 3 and 4 of every 100 Americans to change their vote.


For the past few weeks the media has spoken repeatedly about the closeness of the election and the narrowing of the polls.  This was only ever true in some, limited respects.  While Obama’s lead certainly declined following his calamitous first debate performance, he always retained the edge in the all-important state-by-state polls.


Thankfully, for the sake of clarity and democracy, it looks as if Obama will win the national vote once again in 2012, albeit by a much-reduced margin.  Even if he had lost the popular vote, however, the geographical distribution of his support, coupled with the nature of the Electoral College system, have long meant that his re-election campaign looked fairly formidable.


On Election Day, the pollsters and Political Scientists were largely proven correct.  In the key swing states, where much of the 2-billion-dollar-election was fought, Obama held onto the majority of states he had carried in 2008.  Only North Carolina and Indiana evaded him, as the Democrats took crucial battleground states such as Virginia and Colorado.  Even Florida, going against more pessimistic polling predictions, broke for the incumbent president, albeit by the narrowest of margins.


As Election Day and election night unfolded, all eyes were on that most swingy of swing states, Ohio.  Proclaimed as a bellwether, gaining Ohio’s 18 Electoral College votes has long been crucial to winning presidential elections.  And after months of campaigning by politicians, union leaders and celebrities, the Buckeye State ultimately came down on the side of Obama.  Focusing in on the importance of Ohio can help to give us some clues as to how Obama won the election.


First, the election was overwhelmingly about the economy.  But the economy did not seal the election for either candidate.  A poor overall economic performance, like that of the last four years, should normally be expected to result in the challenger winning.  But sustained economic growth, like that of the last few months, would usually see the incumbent returned to power.  Recent jobs figures, for example, have been seized upon and given ballast to both campaigns.   Second, specific domestic policy successes helped Obama.  In Ohio, for instance, the bailout of the American auto industry was viewed very favourably.  Third, the Democratic ground campaign was extremely effective.  Turnout was high, which helped Obama, as Democratic campaigners effectively mobilised voters, who they feared might stay at home through disillusionment.  This was achieved through established networks of volunteers going door-to-door, sophisticated niche marketing, and an unparalleled social media campaign.


There are also three other, more general, factors that helped Obama to win re-election.  First, Romney has not been an effective candidate.  Partly due to his own errors and personality – he has been seen to be gaffe-prone and aloof – and partly due to the nature of Republican Party and nomination process, Romney struggled for much of his candidacy.  Second, foreign policy is a traditional area of strength for Republican candidates.  This time, the Democratic president held a strong hand on international affairs.  Having presided over the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama had an effective shield to protect himself from potential attacks on his foreign policy record.  Third, this election’s ‘October Surprise’ came in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which battered the East Coast of the United States a week before Election Day.  Returning to the White House to manage the crisis enabled Obama to appear presidential and rise above the inglorious fray of campaigning in those crucial few days before votes were cast.  It was in this period that Obama regained some momentum in the polls, which ultimately enabled him to win states such as Virginia, Ohio and even, it appears, Florida.


The result then may look close at, a predicted, 50% versus 48.5%.  But victory in key states means Obama has won with, an expected, 332 Electoral College votes to Romney’s 206.


Dr Jack Holland

Lecturer in International Relations

University of Surrey


Written 8am (GMT) Wednesday 6th November 2012