In my “morning after” post, I speculated that the nation has affirmed its mild embrace of big government. I am not so certain today. It is probably still true that the nation is not as center-right as conservatives presumed it to be, and that the Obama election in 2008 indeed reflected a shift in public views, but a couple of statistics have me curious.
Compared to 2008, Politico exit polls found a 10 percent increase (53%) in the number of people who said “the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” If this accurately represents public sentiments, that’s quite a win for the free market, but it wasn’t enough to change the status quo in our national government.
We can safely say that over the last four years the nation’s electorate pulled back to the center. Conservatives held on to their 2010 gains in the House, and held-off a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. The former reflects rural districts, while the Senate reflects the influence of major metropolitan centers. Furthermore, the popular vote gap was tightened by a few points, from roughly 7 to 2 percent.
The center-left thesis appears to be false, but a couple of other theories are emerging about what went wrong and what needs to change before 2016.
One theory is that it was all about the ground game. My prediction all along was that this was a turnout election and that Romney’s enthusiasm advantage would lead to a win. I underestimated the power of Obama’s Chicago machine. Romney simply failed on the organization and motivation front, having virtually no local presence. There is no doubt that ground game operations were partially responsible for his loss, and we will see much more emphasis on it in four years, and perhaps less on advertising.
A second theory is that Romney miscalculated his coalition and focused too much on the white vote. As Tim Carney noted in a tweet, Romney’s “47 percent” comments may have been more than pandering; it may have revealed just how off he was about his base and the competition. If Romney bought in to the “makers vs. takers” myth, it certainly contributed to his failure. The Republican Party stands for principles that are not exclusive to race or income, and cannot let the issues be defined in this way. More on the minority vote later.
A third theory, and one that I think is most responsible, is that Mitt Romney brought an excel sheet to a personality fight. Many conservatives hoped that the election would result in Americans taking a hard look at sober realities and choosing the wise and austere path. We hoped for too much. Dan McLaughlin (aka @BaseballCrank) shared a very telling poll this morning:
On the most important qualities (values and vision), Romney wins by 13 and 9 percent. But the bottom completely falls out among those who want a president who cares about them. This little datum has me placing blame squarely on the candidate himself, and particularly his inability to connect the dots between policies, values and the real lives of average people. I argued this in my last post, and I’ll echo it until I’m blue in the face: we must articulate an understanding of liberty as the cornerstone of equality and opportunity, or it will be defined for us purely in terms of self-interest.
I’m not convinced that Romney would have won had he been able to do this. His plastic delivery, inconsistent past and his immense wealth were handicaps that made anything he said sound rehearsed and insincere. As so many of us knew from the start, but few were willing to admit, Mitt Romney did not have the necessary “it” factor. He was a boring, pragmatic and ideologically malleable executive. He was too presidential to be president.
I would almost guarantee that the GOP’s 2016 nominee will be a minority with a blue-collar background—someone who exemplifies the opportunity brought on by freedom, and who got through life on merit, not government programs. Perhaps Jindal? Rubio? Even Haley, who gets extra points for being female. Ted Cruz will generate a buzz in 2016 as well, but more as a spokesman than a candidate. Whoever it is better be likable.
After all of the analyzing and over-thinking, we end up coming back to the same tried and true maxim: in a close election, the undecided vote goes to the guy people would rather have a beer with.