In search of the undervote

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  • 08/21/2022

Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics combed through the data from Election Day, and made some discoveries that run counter to the emerging conventional wisdom about Barack Obama's re-election victory, which might be more properly described as Mitt Romney's loss.  As he puts it, 2012 was a mirror image of 2004, in which similar forces combined to take the wind out of John Kerry's sails before he could overtake the slow but steady S. S. George W. Bush.

Trende's most remarkable insight is that the racial composition of the electorate hasn't really changed all that much, which is very different from the current talk of demographic shifts that are destroying the GOP's ability to compete on the national level.  This is not to say that strategies to grow more competitive with other groups are not important, but the cold truth, based on Trende's analysis of the data, is that white voters are still out there; they just didn't bother to show up at the polls in 2012.  What did Romney in was the undervote - the people who could have provided him with a margin of victory, but stayed home instead.

In other words, if our underlying assumption - that there are 7 million votes outstanding - is correct, then the African-American vote only increased by about 300,000 votes, or 0.2 percent, from 2008 to 2012. The Latino vote increased by a healthier 1.7 million votes, while the ???other??? category increased by about 470,000 votes.

This is nothing to sneeze at, but in terms of the effect on the electorate, it is dwarfed by the decline in the number of whites. Again, if our assumption about the total number of votes cast is correct, almost 7 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. This isn???t readily explainable by demographic shifts either; although whites are declining as a share of the voting-age population, their raw numbers are not.

Moreover, we should have expected these populations to increase on their own, as a result of overall population growth. If we build in an estimate for the growth of the various voting-age populations over the past four years and assume 55 percent voter turnout, we find ourselves with about 8 million fewer white voters than we would expect given turnout in the 2008 elections and population growth.

Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.

Put another way: The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator, it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator.

(Emphasis mine.)  Trende dons his safari gear and goes off in search of the undervote, which turns out to be not so much disaffected evangelicals (a group many thought might have been turned off by Romney's Mormon religion) but, at least in the crucial battleground of Ohio, rural voters in stagnant high-unemployment areas.  In other words, precisely the people everyone thought would crawl through broken glass to vote against Barack Obama.  But instead, they evidently stayed home.

After making due allowance for the possibility that further data will modify this preliminary analysis, Trende suggests that one of the most important factors in this outcome may have been the Obama team's pre-emptive character assassination of Romney:

My sense is these voters were unhappy with Obama. But his negative ad campaign relentlessly emphasizing Romney???s wealth and tenure at Bain Capital may have turned them off to the Republican nominee as well. The Romney campaign exacerbated this through the challenger???s failure to articulate a clear, positive agenda to address these voters??? fears, and self-inflicted wounds like the ???47 percent??? gaffe. Given a choice between two unpalatable options, these voters simply stayed home.

Obviously, the "47 percent" thing is Romney's fault - he said what he said, becoming the latest in a distressingly long line of Republicans to learn the dangers of "inelegant phrasing" - but it fit neatly into a narrative the Obama negative-campaign squad already had in place.  At the same time, Obama's deliriously hypocritical whining about how he was going to be the victim of the worst negative campaign in history was designed to insulate him from reciprocal attacks.  The media would have very enthusiastically assisted him in that effort, if it proved necessary - any Republican consultant who thinks he can get away with anything remotely comparable to the "tax cheat" or "Romney killed my wife" slanders needs to find a new line of work, pronto.

But the Romney campaign stuck to the "nice guy in over his head" narrative, which meant backing away from some of the more devastating lines of attack.  Romney mentioned things like Solyndra, but never as a drumbeat of corruption charges, and he never drove home the idea that taxpayers got their pockets picked to finance Obama's hobby of picking market loses to subsidize.  It all fit into the thin campaign narrative of "well-meaning incompetence," which proved no match for the burial shroud of "heartless bureaucrat who doesn't really care if you live or die" that was flung over Romney early on, and sealed with $100 million worth of stitches during the crucial period after the primaries when Obama had the campaign landscape all to himself.

This fits in with the "passion gap" I wrote about the other day, and the "empathy slander" discussed by David Steinberg at PJ Media, in which he notes the staggering 81 to 18 percent advantage Obama enjoyed among voters who said their most important consideration was finding a candidate who "cares about people like me."  Steinberg's suggested response includes emphasizing the callousness of the modern Left, which talks a lot about how much it cares, but in practical terms seems blissfully unconcerned with the damage its policies cause to the people it claims to love.  This simply cannot be done within the context of a "nice guy in over his head" campaign, especially when the nice guy is busy telling voters that his opponent is the Devil.

No matter who the Republicans run next time, they'll never be allowed to get away with either Obama's campaign of demonization, or the odious cult of personality Obama supporters built around the "Lightworker."  Not only would a lot of Republican voters recoil from that sort of thing, but the media would create a huge blowback narrative - they would never politely ignore platoons of school kids forced to sing worship songs about a Republican candidate, or chuckle indulgently at celebrities comparing a vote for the GOP to sexual intercourse.

But such extremes are not necessary to motivate the undervote.  All that is required is constant and forceful criticism of the Democrat, coupled with equally forceful presentation of the Republican candidate's virtues.  The Romney team always underplayed his personal charity, and didn't build a successful narrative around the truth that his investment career helped a lot of middle-class people out by giving them both jobs and competitive businesses to patronize.  Why didn't we see more glowing testimonials from the people who got to keep their jobs because of Bain Capital investments?  Would it have been so hard to find some average folks to talk about how greatly their lives were improved because they got to shop at Staples, or do business with other successful Bain companies?  If you think that sort of thing sounds petty, you're missing the point.  Many voters respond to such things, particularly marginal voters.  The proof lies before you.

It would also be helpful if the next round of Republican nominees avoided tearing each other to shreds during the primary.  The Democrats probably won't be holding a bloodbath primary next time, and even the contentious 2008 Obama-Clinton contest was nothing like the savage, and seemingly endless, gladiatorial contest Republicans held in 2012.  That's Mitt Romney's fault too - he was right in there swinging his battle axe.  The narrative Sean Trende credits with suppressing so much of the Republican vote was launched against Romney during the primaries; Newt Gingrich spent millions of dollars pushing it.  A bit more restraint among the primary contenders - at the very least, refraining from the deployment of the same kind of ordnance the Left uses - would go a long way towards making the undervote easier to find next time.  Also, it really helps not to have a Get Out the Vote effort that fails so badly it ends up effectively suppressing your own vote.


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