By Patricia H Kushlis
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about elections it’s that the fat lady’s song sometimes resembles a five hour Wagnerian opera far more than a three minute hip-hop track for I-pod.
Furthermore, such elections may also not follow the shortest distance, or even the most obvious route, between two points – as we saw with the recent 2012 US presidential race as the tipping point came when the media called the race in Obama’s favor not, as expected, because of the swing states of Virginia, Ohio or Florida (where the state finally went for Obama by some 74,000 votes) but with the unlikely combination of New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
Yes, this was a reasonably close election but no cliffhanger. In the end, Obama rode to a second term despite a still struggling economy and relatively weak jobs performance numbers caused primarily by a self-inflicted and inherited drawn-out financial sector crisis that threatened to destroy the US and global economies before this young president’s election in 2008.
There are many reasons for Obama’s second term victory – the pundits and the analysts will be pouring over massive amounts of data generated for months to come but, as John Nichols in The Nation points out this was nothing like George W Bush’s squeaker “victories” in 2000 or 2004 which the Republican Party – or at least the powers that existed then – delusionally termed mandates with “winners” that behaved delusionally accordingly.
Even a week before the November 6, 2012 Elections I had sworn to friends that I intended to turn off the television, shut down the computer, go to bed early and pull the covers over my head for the duration of election night. I didn’t do that – as the composite polls and analyses began predicting solid Obama and Democratic Senate victories almost immediately thereafter. I did watch the results at home on PBS - between trips to the refrigerator - in a far more serene atmosphere than when I had worked at Voter News Service elections headquarters in New York City for Elections 2000 reporting the then too close to call swing and bell weather New Mexico vote to the major US news outlets throughout the long night and into the early hours of the morning.
A different electorate?
Certainly the American electorate has changed demographically over the past decade and these changes have implications for the elections. In a nutshell, there are simply fewer Evangelical, older white males - except in the Old Confederacy and several of the Plains States - than in the past.
This was the first time New Mexico was designated neither a swing nor a Bell Weather state. In reality, New Mexico is still a Bell Weather state because, after all, the electorate went for Obama and, like the country as a whole, by smaller margins than in 2008. The percentage of the vote in the president’s camp here was 52% - three percentage points below what, I’m told, is considered safely blue.
Yes, New Mexico has a majority Hispanic population but Hispanics in the state’s south tend to register as Democrats but vote Republican so it should come as no surprise that Republican Congressman Steve Pearce gained reelection in the geographically-large, mostly rural, population-small District 3 that borders Mexico. New Mexican Hispanics also tend to be more integrated into the society as a whole than Hispanics elsewhere in the country: some New Mexican Hispanics are very much part of the professional and leadership classes that run this state. In fact, their ancestors came directly from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. In no way then are they part and parcel of an underprivileged, immigrant, Hispanic working class as is the case for some of this state’s neighbors.
I asked Lonna Atkeson, an American electoral specialist at the University of New Mexico, why New Mexico voters had behaved so differently this time around e.g. why this state had apparently shifted from purple to blue just in the past several years. She said although she wasn’t sure, that New Mexico voters were still moderate to conservative (witness the election of right wing Susana Martinez as governor in 2010) but that it was possible to say that the state was trending blue and one reason was that younger voters were supplanting older more conservative white ones in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, and that New Mexico youth vote more consistently Democratic than their elders.
This supports observations from friends of mine who had been at an Amy Goodman talk at the University of New Mexico earlier in the fall which was very well attended by a large number of young and enthusiastic Obama supporters.
Conceding the Land of Enchantment without a Fight
Professor Atkeson also told me that the Romney campaign had never even attempted to make a play for the voters here – essentially conceding the state to Obama without a fight, and that regardless, Romney’s persona as wealthy and white did not resonate well among many New Mexicans who are neither. Since this state, unlike Utah, has few Mormons but many Roman Catholics, Romney’s religion may or may not have been a negative. It’s hard to say. After all, we have a well-respected moderate Democratic Mormon Senator – Tom Udall whose religion simply was no factor – but, it’s also pretty clear that Romney’s Mormon religion didn’t help him conquer “The Land of Enchantment.”
Atkeson and I also discussed the Senate and the three House races – all but one won by the Democrats - the most interesting being the open race for the Senate which two term Congressman Martin Heinrich won handily over former Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson. This was, however, no Heinrich landslide. Furthermore, the gender issue did not arise. Heinrich won with only 51% of the vote to Wilson’s 45% (a third party candidate won 3.6%) but according to Atkenson, Wilson’s negatives were high. She’d run several prior negative contentious campaigns – either squeaking out victory in 2006 or losing in the 2008 primary for the US Senate race to the more conservative Steve Pearce. Pearce was then soundly trounced by moderate Tom Udall in the general election.
I have to wonder how many more Republican candidates lost because of high negatives. Or perhaps all the out-of-state right wing money being poured into a barrage of extremely negative television and radio commercials aimed to swing the vote just turned people off. I understand that’s what happened in Jerry McNerny’s tough Congressional re-election fight in California.
Or maybe a blitz of television advertising no longer has the same effect on voters and the “ground game” – or the importance of “the last three feet” - is just plain more important.
Another thought: Has anyone looked at how the rate hikes and exorbitant prices charged by the cable television companies are turning people off – and tuning them out?
Money is as money does
The New York Times reported that the biggest donors to Republican Super PACs got little pay-back for their money. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s $60 million in Super Pac donations, for instance, bought him narry a seat out of the eight candidates he helped bankroll. Adelson was not alone in seeing his pay-outs fall short. Karl Rove must also not have had a happy Tuesday night not only because most of the money he collected failed to deliver results to his clients but also more importantly in the long term because his model of the American electorate finally failed to work.
Then there’s the issue of messaging. As John Hambre observed in the Forward to Persuasion and Power, James Farwell's new book on political communication (to be released in December by Georgetown University Press), the world has changed and “we live in a time when it is no longer possible to take two different positions to a problem, thinking they will never be exposed to reconciliation over time.” Amen.
Obama did not have this vulnerability; Romney did and in spades: he took one position during the primaries and through the convention but flip-flopped on those same issues during the debates and thereafter. Ambiguity is one thing but major changes of position on major issues are another.
Can a Republican candidate win primaries dominated by ultra-conservative voters and then move to the center in the general election in which moderates predominate in this day and age? Maybe the traditional messaging flip-flop tightrope is finally just too difficult for even the most astute to walk.
See Patricia Lee Sharpe's Four More Years: Obama's Starting Menu, WhirledView, Thursday, November 12, 2012 for more WV post-election analysis.