It’s both the most often repeated and ridiculously misleading statistic of campaign 2012: that no president since FDR has ever been reelected with unemployment over 7.2 percent. True, but no one bothers to explain that until Ronald Reagan won by an 18-point margin, capturing 49 states, despite being “weighed down” by that unemployment figure, no president had been reelected with unemployment over 5.3 percent. There is just no relationship between unemployment levels and electoral outcomes.
That’s just one example of the kind of feckless analysis that led many to misunderstand the contours of this election, which was won by a combination of mostly favorable fundamentals and brilliantly executed strategy.
The economy, fundamental No. 1, operated in a much more complex manner than the unemployment statistic suggested. Models using economic data did not predict a Romney landside, as many presumed; rather, our economic circumstances suggested a 50-50 race.
The exit polls confirm the nuanced role of the economy. By far, the largest number of voters identified the economy as the nation’s most important problem, though they voted for Romney by a narrow (4-point) margin. Moreover, the plurality that cited unemployment as our most important economic problem sided with the president by 10 points. Romney came out ahead by 1 point as the candidate better able to handle the economy, while Obama led in post-election polls on helping the middle class.
Perhaps most revealing, the 39 percent who thought the economy was getting better supported the president by nearly an 80-point margin, while those who saw no change favored Romney by 17, and voters who saw continued deterioration opposed the president by nearly 80 points. Had the number seeing improvement been appreciably lower, it’s likely the president would have lost. The economy was not lifting the president, but it was certainly moving in the right direction, fast enough, to enable his reelection.
Demography, though not destiny, is another fundamental. As I noted many months ago, given the growth of the non-white vote, President Obama could win with less than 40 percent of the white vote. He got 39 percent. Twenty years ago, 83 percent of the electorate was white. Now it’s just 72 percent. The substantial support the president got from Hispanics (44-point margin), African-Americans (+87) and Asians (+47) helped propel him to victory. Some suggested the rising proportion of nonwhites in the electorate was somehow a fluke of 2008, but it simply reflects the changing composition of our country.
Yet another structural element is the tendency to give parties a second term in the White House. Only once in the last century has a candidate been defeated running for a second party term. Academics like professor Alan Abramowitz employed statistical techniques to estimate that an incumbent running for a second party term enjoys a 2.5- to 5-point advantage. Polling data also suggest voters were willing to give the president more time to complete his work.
Finally, on a structural level, the president had many more routes to 270 votes in an Electoral College now slightly biased toward Democrats. That multiplicity of avenues made it more likely the president was going to reach his goal.
Beyond structure, strategy loomed large. As you have heard me say ad nauseam, the natural state of a presidential election is to be a referendum on the incumbent, which was not a posture that served the president well. By attacking early and often, by transforming Mitt Romney from an economic Mr. Fix-it into a symbol of everything that was wrong with our economy, the Obama team branded the challenger with negatives he never shook (the exit poll found the president with favorable ratings 7 points higher than his unfavorables, while Romney’s unfavorables were higher than his favorables), making the election, importantly, about Mitt Romney.
Structure and strategy combined to produce an impressive, but foreseeable, victory.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.