Election 2012: In search of who we are

Presidential elections are always big, defining moments for the American people.  They’re always potent intersections of policy and culture, in which large national and regional groups find themselves voting the same way for entirely different reasons.  This election is particularly significant, not just because of the historic choices placed before American voters, but because different media groups have produced wildly divergent portraits of our electorate.  No matter what happens on Tuesday, some serious people who took their best shot at predicting the outcome are going to be proven wrong (unless Gary Johnson wins, in which case everyone will be proven equally wrong.)

Much of the difference between one election model and the next boils down to the composition of the electorate.  For example, CNN’s final poll predicts a 49-49 dead heat… but the sample is weighted an amazing +11 points toward the Democrats.  It’s the exclamation point on a season filled with polls that predict Democrats will do better than they did in 2008, while the tsunami of Republican and Tea Party voters who produced a congressional landslide in 2010 will stay home.  They crawled through broken glass to put the brakes on Obama’s agenda two years ago, but now that they have a chance to vote him out of office, they’ll just roll over and take a nap?  That has always seemed unlikely.

In fact, the Rasmussen polling firm actually models an electorate where Republicans have an outright advantage over Democrats, and a pretty big one to boot – 5.8 percent nationwide according to their final pre-election monthly survey, 2.6 percent for the quarter, and an average of about 2.5 percent over the past year.  Conventional wisdom has long awarded Democrats a 2 to 3-point national edge over Republicans in voter registration, but Rasmussen’s model says that advantage vanished after the 2010 midterms, and Republicans have been either at parity, or in the lead, ever since.

If that’s true, Romney will crush Obama on Election Day – very few of these “photo finish” polls assume Republican parity in voter turnout, never mind a Republican advantage, and all of them have Romney winning independents by 8 points or better.  Rasmussen’s track record for predicting the composition of the electorate is very good, particularly with respect to the size of the Democrat population; most of the significant variances between Rasmussen models and exit polls since 2000 has come during attempts to guage the relative size of the Republican and independent segments of the electorate.

Amazingly, the CNN poll that showed a 49-49 tie with a +11 Democrat sample shows Romney winning independent voters by 22 points.  Is this really an electorate where partisan Democrats outnumber independents and partisan Republicans by such overwhelming numbers?  Are those “independent” voters really just a mirage, a phantasmal distraction from a battleground in which excitement levels among the partisan voting bases are really all that matters?

And what about those enthusiasm levels?  Both anecdotal observation and polling data suggest Republican voters and Romney-leaning independents are more enthusiastic about this election.  Romney’s pulling gigantic crowds in swing state; Obama and his surrogates are drawing limp attendance while fighting rear-guard actions in previously solid-blue areas.  Obama dragged along Bruce Springsteen to fire up Madison, Wisconsin with a concert, and managed only half the crowd Romney pulled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The edge in early voting Democrats require for victory hasn’t materialized for Obama – he’s actually lagging behind Romney in some critical areas – and there isn’t much to indicate that an army of excited Obama voters will sweep into the polls on Election Day.

Incumbents have a lot of huge advantages in elections, but one of the big disadvantages for an incumbent President is the danger of undecided voters chugging into the final day of a tight race, with notable enthusiasm problems among the President’s base, and deciding it would be exciting to vote for change.  (Challengers always try to milk this sentiment, of course; both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton turned the word “change” into a mystical mantra, repeated by willing disciples throughout the news media and popular culture.)  Is there anything about Obama’s record in office, or the current state of his campaign, that would make undecided voters gravitate to him at the last moment?

What of the conventional wisdom that incumbents with Obama’s soft approval ratings and dismal economic performance have a tough time securing re-election?  Have we become a people willing to settle for trillion-dollar deficits, mediocre growth, higher taxes, a crushing regulatory burden, permanent double-digit unemployment, rising gas and food costs, and relentless deception on important issues like Benghazi or Operation Fast and Furious?  Are we really going to shrug and say it doesn’t matter what Obama did with all that “green energy” money?  Will we let him posture as our only defense against predatory Wall Street interests while he’s got MF Global charlatan Jon Corzine working as a campaign bag man?  The notion of a President who can’t break 48 percent in even the most slanted poll, presiding over unemployment far above the 7 percent line of doom, securing re-election would have been thought laughable a few years ago.  Have we agreed to lower our standards for Barack Obama one more time?

Far from “moving to the center” as Bill Clinton did after the Republican congressional victories of 1994, Obama has only become more bitter, partisan, and divisive.  His campaign is filled with nakedly tribal appeals, as when he told a recent audience to treat voting as an act of revenge.  That’s far from the first time he’s spoken in such terms, having long ago told a Hispanic radio audience to “punish their enemies” at the polls.  Class warfare has been a staple of his rhetoric for years, and he’s downright nasty about it, filling his infamous Roanoke, Virginia speech with sneering contempt for the private-sector “smart guys” who think they deserve credit for their own success.

Obama’s “War on Women” narrative is also a symbolic, tribal appeal.  No one seriously thinks failure to compel the public funding of inexpensive birth-control measures is equivalent to “banning” them or cutting off women’s “access” to contraceptives.  Even among the most rabid liberal partisans, few truly believe Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, or other prominent Republicans actively hate women, or wish to kill them.  This is all about getting the “home team” worked up for a sporting event, the political equivalent of yelling for your favorite football team to “murder” the other guys on the field.  Such blind “us versus them” cheerleading has always been a part of politics, and probably always will be… but have we become a nation in which it outweighs everything else?

Perhaps the polling models predicting an Obama victory will prove true, and it won’t matter that much of America was unsatisfied with his performance in office, or that huge numbers of formerly game-changing independent voters were leaning against him.  Maybe this election will be all about motivating die-hard base voters to storm the polls in greater numbers, and the Democrats will turn out to be better at it.  But that would make us a very different country than the one that elected Barack Obama for entirely different reasons in 2008, or voted decisively to block his agenda two years later.  If we’ve really changed that much for the worse, we’ve gotten the “transformation” Obama often mentioned, but it’s nothing for him to be proud of.