Kevin Drum provides a wonderful opportunity for me to launch my first volley in the struggle to write the first draft of history for the 2012 election:
Liberals, you should rein in the triumphalism. Obama won a narrow 51-49 percent victory and the composition of Congress changed only slightly. This was not a historic vindication of liberalism, and it doesn’t mean that we can suddenly decide that demography will sweep us to victory for the next couple of decades. The plain truth is that although an increasing number of voters are turned off by what Republicans represent, that doesn’t mean they’ve become lefty converts. A lot of them are still pretty nervous about a big part of our agenda, and we have a lot of work ahead to get them more solidly on our side.
There’s a lack of consensus in the media thus far when it comes to interpreting November 6. Was the election the nail-biter the political media spent the better part of a year assuring us it would be; or did Obama seal up victory surprisingly early, based largely on the strength of a historic demographic and cultural realignment in American politics? It might seem to be an abstract discussion, but it’s really not. When it comes to recent history, conventional wisdom is far from unassailable, but it does carry outsized influence in determining how Americans are told to conceive of themselves and their country.
As the great philosopher Zack de la Rocha once said, “Who controls the present now controls the future.”
All right — so first of all, Drum is about one point off the ultimate final score for the popular vote (a nit I’ll pick mainly because I correctly predicted 51-48). Not a huge deal, but in an electorate of roughly 119 million, one percent is a lot of people. (Keep in mind these numbers are not final, with absentee ballots and the like still to be counted in many places.) It’s a larger margin of victory than Obama’s predecessor enjoyed in either of his victories; and Obama’s clearing 50 percent is something Clinton never did.
What’s more, 2-3 points was Obama’s margin of victory in countless polls in the days before the election; so, in retrospect, only liberal anxiety as well as some rightwing motivated reasoning vis-a-vis polling can be blamed for many folks going into election night on pins and needles. Remove yourself from the equation, and trust the general validity of statistical modeling, and it’s hard to agree that 2012 was a real “photo finish” like 2000 or 1968.
Yet even if you still think three points counts as a close finish — not an unreasonable position — looking at the overall national vote obscures more than it clarifies. As we all were told ad nauseam, this was a race that occurred by and large in nine states: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Neither campaign was concerning itself with amassing as much of a national popular vote as possible; Romney didn’t spend much time in Texas, if not for superstorm Sandy, Obama would’ve barely stepped foot in the tristate area; they were trying to win these nine states.
And what happened in those nine states? The president won eight. That’s not close. That’s a blowout.
OK, but what if he won those eight states by the skin of his teeth, right? Wouldn’t that count as something of a squeaker? Sure. But let’s look at the (as of this writing) final scores, via The Fix:
Florida was undeniably close; and Ohio’s two point differential is on the very lowest end of a clear victory. But after that, and excluding North Carolina (which Obama definitively lost), there’s Virginia, where the president had a comfortable three point win, and then a slew of states where the difference was more than four. Overall, then, these nine states, where the race really happened, went decisively to the president.
Now, does anyone really believe that, if the race were determined through the popular vote, the Obama campaign would fail to amass significantly more voters on its side of the ledger from states like California, New York — and even Texas, with its large and growing Latino populations? After witnessing the campaign’s historic GOTV operation, in which Democrats literally remade the electorate in their own image, do we doubt they’d find the votes?
Lastly, Drum says that Congress “changed only slightly,” a claim that I assume is founded on the marginal shift in the House of Representatives rather than the Senate. The Senate did appreciably change, not only through the Democrats gaining two seats (something just about no one imagined possible a few months ago) but through those new Democrats being significantly to the Left of those they replaced. Baldwin is to Kohl’s left; Murphy is to Lieberman’s left; Warren is to Brown’s left; Donnelly is to Lugar’s left, etc.
It’s true that the House didn’t move much, but as many have pointed out, this is almost entirely a consequence of the redistricting triumphant Republicans engaged in — as they had every right to — after the 2010 election and in light of the new Census. Look at the raw numbers and you’ll see that Democrats garnered roughly 500,000 more votes than their Republican opponents. Not a landslide by any means, but a number that goes unreflected in the actual Congressional results.
I wanna wrap this post up, because it’s already become rather long. So I’ll save some more of my thoughts for the next one. But I’d like to emphasize one last time that the way 2012 is interpreted by the media is important in terms of the politics of the approaching “fiscal cliff.” Drum goes on to make a finger-wagging point to liberals about entitlement reform and debt that goes to the heart of how I think this political dynamic manifests itself… but, again, I’ll save it for next time.
Too long; didn’t read version of this post? Check the headline — 2012 wasn’t close.