What Will Be Revealed Today?

The latest most-important-election-of-our-lifetimes is upon us.  Almost every election seems to get spun this way, although in 2000 many Americans did not believe that it mattered which Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum party got elected (including several of us at ToM who voted for Nader [audible hissing]).  We saw how that turned out. At least since the terrorist attacks of 2001, each election has appeared to be an epochal battle for the soul and the very destiny of America—from liberals who could not conceive of the war-mongering, civil-liberties-trampling George W. Bush winning reelection, to conservatives who find it impossible to understand how America can endure another four years of the corrosive liberalism of Barack Obama.  In between, there was the perilous atmosphere of systemic collapse that pervaded 2008.  Today we seem to remember that election as an inevitable win for the first African American president, but it hardly felt that way at the time.  Indeed, although Obama won by a commanding margin, what counts for a commanding margin in American presidential politics is still quite slim: winning the approval of 54% of the electorate still means there is a vast swath of the country that either did not like the candidate or did not care to vote.

Here we are today, seemingly as polarized as we were in the very close elections of 2000 and 2004, if not more so.  Whichever candidate wins will undoubtedly leave a good deal of ill will on the other side, although that is nothing new.  Still, many huge questions remain before us:

Are polls accurate?  A good deal of criticism has been directed at Nate Silver, the stats whiz who started out blogging and built his FiveThirtyEight brand by predicting the outcome of 2008 with great precision.  Many mainstream pundits (such as Joe Scarborough) have scoffed at Silver giving Obama strong odds of reelection: anywhere from 66%, or 2-to-1, to close to 90% at the President’s height in the polls.  Meanwhile, conservatives have argued that polls are systematically missing the race, which would explain why Silver is off; his model is ultimately just a reflection of the polling.  We have more polls than we’ve ever had before, as the nonstop scrutiny of the horserace online and on cable news has generated an unprecedented number of surveys, particularly at the state level.  (TPM’s estimate for Florida, for instance, is based on 112 different polls.)  If Romney manages to overcome the small leads that Obama appears to hold in Colorado, Ohio, and other swing states, it will not just be egg on Nate Silver’s face; it will call into question polling in general.  We have more data, more snapshots of public opinion than ever, and this information should allow us to smooth out the outliers and the missteps made by any given poll, providing a clearer picture of reality.  But, as failing campaigns tend to say, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.

But what if that’s not true anymore? In fact, the poll that matters is not only on Election Day, since the polls have been open in many states, such as North Carolina, well before Nov. 6th.  Although early voting was prevalent in 2008, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and Republican leaders at the state level have attempted to curtail it in various ways.  Democrats tend to assume that greater turnout benefits them, since their voters have the hardest time getting to the polls and are more likely to vote if there are more opportunities.

Will voter suppression efforts, such as new voter ID laws, make a difference in critical states?  Some observers note that ID laws are likely to prevent a wide variety of people from getting to vote, not just Democrats, so it remains to be seen whether the effect will be enough to tip the outcome.  Also, measures such as ID laws and purges of the voter rolls have been halted by numerous court decisions in recent months and weeks, possibly limiting their impact

More broadly, what will the election portend about the changing electorate?  Several years ago I was struck by a report that indicated that Obama would have lost the 2008 election if the demographics of the electorate were the same as in 1988, i.e. if Obama maintained the same level of support among Latinos, African Americans, and other groups, yet they made up a smaller proportion of voters, McCain would have prevailed.  Even though Obama clinched a convincing margin of victory in 2008, it would not have been enough to win with the voters of the 1980s.  In retrospect, this insight casts past Republican successes in a different light: George W. Bush won a narrow victory in 2004 by running up support among a largely white, conservative, evangelical base that cared deeply about issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  As the Economist put it, citing a great novel, “the conservative rural red-neck Calvinist vote has captured America.”

A strategy that aims to win largely on the strength of white support, while alienating blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and other groups, does not appear viable going forward—if ethnic patterns of voting hold up, which is, of course, a big if.  If Romney prevails today, he may be the last candidate to do so with white voters accounting for almost all of his support.  A Republican strategist admitted as much in August, saying, “This is the last time anyone will try this.” Ron Brownstein has speculated that Romney would have to garner 61% or more of the white vote to win, which is far from impossible but amounts to a greater margin among white voters than George H.W. Bush scored in his big victory over Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Sociologist Ruy Texeira has been forecasting such a change in the electorate for over ten years, urging even in the depths of Democratic despair in 2002 that progressives take note of “an emerging Democratic majority.”  At the time, when liberals seemed marginalized by the march to war and full spectrum GOP dominance in Congress, the White House, and Supreme Court, the idea seemed implausible.  Yet Republicans appear conscious of this demographic shift, which creates the possibility of either a new Democratic coalition or a swift change in the way Republicans deal with issues of women’s rights and reproductive health, immigration, and gay rights.  The latter seems more likely, but such a tactical maneuver on the part of Republican leaders may meet with stiff resistance from a GOP base still committed to a socially conservative and nationalistic agenda. We asked Nicole Hemmer, a political historian at the University of Miami whose commentary has appeared widely in publications such as the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, what her take was on the GOP’s demographic dilemma:

91% of Mitt Romney’s support comes from white people. The GOP has basically tapped out that demographic, and unless they pivot they won’t be able to make inroads with minorities. But just a tweak back to, say, GWB’s immigration policy will go a long way to bridging that divide. Easier said than done given the base, but they’re going to have to. Distancing the party from the Joe Arapaios of the world would help too.

What role will the Tea Party play?  The passionate conservative movement has made itself felt everywhere from the local level (the defeat of Atlanta’s T-SPLOST referendum) to the highest levels of US politics.  Candidates backed by the Tea Party took over the House of Representatives in 2010 and pushed the federal government to the brink of a once-inconceivable default on its debt in the Summer of 2011.  Although the Tea Party appears to be supported by a constituency that is older, whiter, and wealthier than the US public at large, they have made themselves a force to be reckoned with—even in a younger, browner America.  Yet despite its influence and its impressive organizational ability, the movement has stumbled.  It failed in a determined and aggressive effort to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010.  It insisted on purity in Republican primaries, taking out some venerable Republican incumbents (most notably Richard Lugar) but elevating weak candidates for Senate in Alaska, Delaware, and Nevada that robbed the GOP of seats it could easily win.  Now its chances in Missouri and Indiana appear to be imperiled by evangelical candidates who say the kind of retrograde things that some in the Republican base believe, but few politicians ever want to get caught saying out loud.  If Obama is reelected, his majority will look like the inverse of the Tea Party, and he will have retained a Democratic Senate thanks in no small part to Tea Party activism.  And while Romney had to make pathetic demonstrations of fealty to the hard right in his primary—vowing, with inadvertent candor, to be “severely conservative”—true believers will be rightly suspicious of whether they can trust his severe convictions.

What will be the lasting impact of Citizens United?  Liberals have understandably bemoaned this Supreme Court decision, which essentially gives private groups carte blanche to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections as political “speech.”  I remember first hearing news of the ruling in 2010 and thinking that it foretold a dark future for America.  Many progressives have worried that giving monied and corporate interests the biggest of all megaphones—the ability to flood the airwaves with messages that serve their own private interests—would crush causes with less money to spend, whether consumer groups, labor unions, environmentalists or any other constituency.  As casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson vowed to spend as much as $100 million of his own money to support Newt Gingrich, the prospect of the richest businessmen buying politicians and setting the national agenda seemed even more disturbing.

However, other voices suggested that ad spending may not determine votes, and commentators have recently wondered whether nonstop ads may yield diminishing returns.  As Josh Marshall noted, so-called SuperPACs have been dropping ads in odd places like Houston, where the state’s vote in the Electoral College is hardly in contention:

[There] may turn out to be quite simply too much money going to the SuperPACs. Not too much in some moral or civic sense but too much in that there’s literally nothing left to spend it on. Remember there are only so many TV and radio stations in Ohio, Florida and Virginia. The time is probably all bought up — actually, almost certainly has been for some time.

If plutocrats like Adelson and the Koch Brothers throw everything they have at the President, and he still manages to carry a small lead into the general election, what does that say about money in politics?  Are the implications of Citizens United as bad as we thought, or is public opinion more resistant to persuasion (even if it is loud, grating, nonstop cajolery)?

Finally, what will the outcome of 2012 mean for the longer trajectory of US politics?  If Obama were to win, he would be the first Democrat to win an outright majority of the vote twice since FDR.  If Romney loses, it will mean that Republicans have won the popular vote only once since 1992 (with Bush’s 50.7% in 2004).  If Obama loses, many parts of the progressive agenda of the last few years will be erased, although such measures as the 2009 Recovery Act (the stimulus) and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are essentially impossible to undo.  Healthcare reform may not be fully repealed, depending on the outcome of Congressional races this year and in 2014, but its implementation would likely be hobbled, and Republicans will try to chip away at the many different programs included in reform.

Progressives hoped that 2008 signalled a turn away from the conservative policy agenda introduced by Ronald Reagan, which emphasized tax cuts, deregulation, and free markets. This set of policies defined American politics throughout the years of Clinton and Bush, and an Obama loss would appear to repudiate the idea that Americans had truly rejected the Reaganite program.  Indeed, the years 2009-2013 may seem like a momentary detour. “If Barack Obama loses,” Nicole Hemmer predicts, “liberalism is toast for a while.  Expect more Clintonism in coming elections.” If Obama wins, though, it may be seen as a vindication of the belief that government must play a more active role in ensuring public welfare—as symbolized by the bank and auto bailouts, healthcare reform, and so on—an idea that the political mainstream regarded as an antique relic of the age of FDR until very recently.

In any case, the trends toward greater ethnic and cultural diversity are likely to continue, as will growing acceptance of equality for gays and lesbians.  How a future Republican administration and the GOP in general grapple with these changes, and how Democrats jockey for advantage on issues that have traditionally been problematic for them remain huge questions for Americans to consider.  How either a President Romney or Obama will deal with the approaching fiscal crisis that Congress engineered last year is an even more pressing concern, and we at ToM have no insight whatsoever about the canny political machinations that are soon to come.

As a group of (mostly) historians, we know little about the future, and only a little more about the past.  But the outcome of this election will likely say a lot about where the country is headed, how it copes with crisis and what it values.  It has been said that a presidential election is an MRI of the country’s soul, and we still haven’t seen the results.  But the outcome feels more contingent than a brain scan.  Our MRIs are not designed by Diebold, supervised by partisan politicians, or carried out by little old ladies across the country.  As Tom Stoppard once said, in a democracy it is not the voting that matters—it’s the counting.

For what it’s worth, our crack team of political reporters at ToM have their predictions:

Jude Webre: Obama can still get to 270 even if Romney wins Florida and steals Ohio. And “steal” is not figurative. I don’t usually go in for conspiracy, but after the untold millions that have been spent through Rove Associates et al, not entirely far fetched.  That caveat aside, I’m cautiously optimistic. Poll analysis and spidey sense would both have to fail for Romney to win as it looks today. God help us if he loses while winning the popular vote though.  Prediction: Giants in 4, 52-48, 303-235.

Keith Orejel: I fully expect that in 2012, as is generally the case for close elections, political gradations will be more clearly recognizable than in a major electoral blow-out like 2008. This will perhaps be most true when examining America’s spatial political map. Since the death of the Solid South in the 1960s, historians such as Matthew Lassiter and Lisa McGirr have been increasingly venturing towards a truly “spatial” analysis of American politics, where “blue” cities counter “red” rural areas, with the “purple” suburban swing voters holding the balance of power. Until now, electoral data has seemed to both prove and disprove these findings. In regard to my own work on rural voters, Reagan and GW Bush may have dominated the rural vote, but Clinton managed to capture a large portion of the rural electorate by marshaling many neoliberal economic policies that appealed to white rural voters (for more on this see my piece on Rick Santorum) while dominating the African American vote of the rural southern black belt. However, as American politics becomes increasingly polarized, as we have seen throughout the Obama administration, along with major demographic trends–including the decline of the African American population within the rural South–one wonders if we are indeed witnessing the ultimate triumph of spatial politics, where locational political economies become the primary determining factor of ones voting preference. Get your red and blue markers out, its time to start filling in the map.

Me: The outcome will mirror George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection.  Obama wins Ohio and Virginia, but not North Carolina; Florida appears to be the essence of a tossup, yet again, but Obama’s extensive GOTV operation could push it into the Democratic column, netting 332 electoral votes.  He wins by 2+ in the popular vote.  Democrats hold the Senate with 49 votes, plus the independents Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME), barring a last minute surprise in Montana (where Democrat Jon Tester has been running close) or Nevada (where polls may underestime Democrat Shelly Berkley’s chances against Republican Dean Heller, as occurred in Harry Reid’s 2010 reelection).

Adam Gallagher: Obama wins, Dems keep the Senate, Fascists gain a couple seats in the House.  Sometime around the inauguration Obama will decide in a show of bi-partisanship that he is going to fire Biden, taking a demotion to become the VP and offer the Presidency to Paul Ryan.

Ryan Reft: Obama wins by an astonishing 190 electoral votes.