What the Conventional Wisdom Got Wrong About the Election

If you believe the conventional wisdom, Barack Obama won reelection because his campaign executed an incredibly efficient ground game, which mobilized Hispanic voters, and the growing demographic power of that constituency propelled him to victory.

According to this version of political history, the electorate is becoming increasingly Hispanic.  About 50,000 Latino citizens reach voting age every month.  That represents 600,000 potential new voters every year.  Exit polls show that Obama did phenomenally well with this constituency, winning their votes by a 71-29 percentage margin over Romney.  Obama’s Chicago tacticians devised ingenious methods of identifying and contacting these voters, and getting them to vote, thus fueling his narrow but decisive victory.

Therefore, if you believe the conventional wisdom, the Republican Party faces a choice.  It can ignore this rapidly expanding constituency and face the prospect of permanent minority party status.  Or the Party can revamp, softening its positions on immigration to appeal to Latino voters.

There may be good reasons for the Republican Party to make such a change.  (That’s a subject for another day.)  But the Party should not do so merely to win back the White House.  For with the advantage of a little time and perspective, one can see that the conventional wisdom about Obama’s reelection is wrong.

Obama’s campaign organization was not particularly effective in mobilizing his supporters.  In fact, it turned in a lackluster performance.  Obama did not win because he energized the Hispanic vote.  In fact, he did noticeably worse among these voters than he did four years ago.

What’s wrong with the conventional wisdom?

The basic flaw is that it is based on exit polls.  Such polls estimate the percentage of those surveyed who voted for one candidate or the other.  But percentages don’t win elections. Raw vote totals do.  To draw worthwhile conclusions from the November results, one must toss exit polls and percentages to the side, and focus on vote-volume, i.e., the number of actual votes received by the candidates.  How many people voted for Obama?  How many people voted for Romney?  How many people stayed home and did not vote for anybody?

When the focus shifts away from exit polls and percentages, to actual vote-volume, certain truths emerge.

First, despite all the talk of Obama’s awesome ground game, his campaign was ineffective in getting citizens to go out to the polling places and actually vote for him.  In 2008, he received 69,498,516 votes.  (Unless otherwise stated, all the figures in this article are drawn from the invaluable Politico.com website.)  In 2012, he received 64,970,512 votes, a drop-off of 4,528,004 or roughly 6.5% of his 2008 total.

Some might counter that it is unfair to compare Obama’s 2012 performance with his 2008 performance.  In 2008, Obama was a fresh face in American politics.  In 2008, the country confronted a financial meltdown for which Republicans, who occupied the White House, were held primarily responsible.  In 2012, Obama occupied the White House, and he had a record of four tough years to defend.

But remember, the conventional wisdom, in addition to holding that Obama’s campaign ran an awesome ground game, also holds that the electorate is increasingly Hispanic and that Hispanics are overwhelmingly Democratic.  Adding 50,000 new, mostly Democratic voters, to the electorate every month should have allowed even a tarnished 2012 Obama to surpass the 2008 Obama.  After all, 50,000 new Hispanic voters per month for 4 years constitutes about 2.4 million new voters, the vast majority of whom were supposed to have supported Obama.  But Obama’s tally did not rise by 2.4 million votes, or even some fraction of 2.4 million.  It declined – and by over 4.5 million votes.

Such a performance simply doesn’t square with the notion of a masterful ground game.  Obama’s ground game was mediocre at best.  Its formidable reputation is more likely the product of the excellent relations between the Obama campaign and the press than of any tangible results.

Second, there is scant evidence that the Hispanic vote measurably boosted Obama’s vote-volume relative to Romney’s.

Of course, citizens do not check off boxes identifying their ethnicity, so no one can say with certainty how Hispanics voted.  But one can count actual voter tallies in counties where Hispanics predominate, and draw conclusions at least about trends.

According to the Census Bureau, Los Angeles County, California, home to 4.7 million Hispanics, is the most heavily Latino county in the United States.  Its population was 47.1% Hispanic in 2011. The next four most heavily Latino counties, in order, are Harris County, Texas (home of Houston), Miami-Dade County, Florida, Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), and Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix/Scottsdale). Now if the Hispanic constituency is growing and voting overwhelmingly Democratic, one would expect Obama’s volume of votes in these five counties to have expanded between 2008 and 2012, and his margin of victory over his Republican opponent to have increased.

But that did not happen.  In fact, almost the exact opposite occurred.

In Los Angeles County in 2008, Obama received 2,075,842 votes.  Four years later, his count total dropped to 1,781,383, a decline of 294,459 votes.  Romney’s 2012 vote total in the County also declined, but by only 134,620 votes (from 889,594 in 2008 to 754,974 in 2012).  In other words, not only did Obama’s vote volume, in the most heavily Hispanic county in the nation, decline between 2008 and 2012, so did his margin of victory.  In 2012, Obama’s Los Angeles County margin of victory shrank by 159,839 votes compared to 2008.

We see much the same story in the other heavily Hispanic counties.  In 2008, Obama carried Harris County, Texas by 19,099 votes.  In 2012, he lost the County by 585 votes.  That’s a tiny margin of defeat to be sure, but according to the conventional wisdom he should have won, and by more than his 2008 margin of 19,099 votes.  In 2008, Obama carried Cook County, Illinois, his home base, by a whopping 1,141,288 votes.  In 2012, Obama won big again – but his margin declined to 959,919 votes, a drop of almost 20%.  In 2008, Obama lost Maricopa County, Arizona by 144,282 votes.  Of course, he was running against John McCain, an Arizona Republican.  What happened in 2012, when he was running against a Massachusetts Republican with a supposedly larger Hispanic electorate?  He lost again, this time by 147,805 votes, an even larger margin.

The one heavily Hispanic county where Obama actually bettered his 2008 performance was Miami-Dade County, Florida, where his winning margin increased from 139,280 to 208,174.  But the reason for his bounce had nothing to do with the conventional wisdom.  According to local press reports, Obama improved his electoral performance because Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, had once supported unilaterally lifting sanctions against Cuba.  Obama’s campaign publicized Ryan’s stand among Miami’s Cuban-American community, a traditionally Republican voting bloc.

In short, despite the conventional wisdom about a rising tide of pro-Democratic Hispanic voters, Obama saw his vote margin decline in four out of the five most heavily Latino counties.  And he saw his margin grow in one of the five only because he managed to run to the right of Republican ticket on the issue of sanctions on Cuba.

Some might dismiss these numbers as resulting from the fact that California, Texas, and Illinois were reliably blue or red states.  (Florida and Arizona were another story, but we’ll set that aside.)  Perhaps Hispanic voters didn’t bother to vote in 2012 because they knew their votes would not have made a difference.  But those states were just as reliably blue or red in 2008. If the conventional wisdom were right, then one would still have expected the Obama vote margin to increase, if only to reflect the growing population of Democratic-oriented Hispanic voters.

Moreover, if we move away from safely Democratic California and Illinois, and safely Republican Texas, to the closely contested state of Nevada, we see the same trend running contrary to the conventional wisdom.

The most heavily Hispanic county in Nevada is Clark County, home of Las Vegas.  According to the Census Bureau, the County was 28.7% Hispanic in 2011.  The Obama campaign knew that to carry the swing state of Nevada, it had to amass a large majority in Clark County, so it poured resources into the area. Television advertising was intense, and precinct workers went door-to-door, reaching out to the same sympathetic voters over and over again, to ensure that they would vote.  If there were any county in America where we should have seen tangible results from the supposedly potent ground game, and the supposedly expanding reservoir of Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters, it would be Clark County.

What actually happened?  Obama did increase his vote-volume, by 8,774 votes.  But Romney, without the benefit of an effective ground game and facing an increasingly Hispanic electorate, increased his vote-volume by 31,822 votes, nearly four times as much.  As a result, Obama’s margin of victory in Clark County diminished, from 122,803 in 2008 to 99,755 in 2012, a drop off of 23,048.

Examining the actual voter tallies leads to this conclusion: The conventional wisdom is clearly wrong.  There was no awesome Obama ground game.  There was no surge of Democratic Hispanic votes.

But then why did Obama win anyway?

The answer lies, again, in vote-volume.  Or, more precisely, in non-vote-volume.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the number of eligible voters increased by over eight million citizens in 2012 compared to 2008.  But turnout declined by five million voters, from 131 million in 2008 to about 126 million in 2012.  That means that there were about 13 million more non-voters in 2012 than in 2008.

Obama won because Romney lost.  Romney could not energize an apathetic electorate enough to oust a weak and vulnerable incumbent.  Team Obama was like a baseball team held to two runs in a game.  Lousy hitting, sure.  But if the visiting team can score only one run, the home team wins, lousy hitting or not.

Mitt Romney is a good and decent man, who doesn’t remotely resemble the Snidely Whiplash cartoon image promulgated by the Obama campaign.  But he was an uninspiring candidate.  He changed positions on key issues.  He repeatedly shot at his own feet, with remarks that were as dumb as they were alienating.  (I don’t worry about the 47% who pay no income taxes.  My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs.)   His discomfort with crowds was palpable.  He fought hard for his Party’s nomination but once he had it, he showed little relish for the arduous job of being a presidential candidate.

Every electoral defeat is an opportunity to learn.  Often, the best source for instruction is the victorious opponent.  But in this case, the Republican Party would be making a mistake if it looked to the Obama campaign for lessons.  Of course, in 2016, the Republican Party should work to improve its ground game.  Of course, it should compete for the Hispanic vote.  But its main task should be to look at itself.  It needs to change a primary system that allowed one buffoon after another to take center stage and tarnish the Party’s brand.  But even more, it needs to find a candidate who can excite the fastest growing constituency in the electorate.  No, that isn’t the Hispanic community.  It’s the growing army of tired, surly, and cynical non-voters.

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