The Voters Have Spoken but What Did They Say?

by Harvey Asher, Ph.D. on December 3, 2012


Immediately after the 2012 elections, a deluge of newspaper columnists and talking head commentators confidently predicted what the outcome meant for the future of American politics.  Unfortunately, as happened with their pre-election predictions, the pundits are misreading the evidence.

From the Right, we’ve heard from Rush Limbaugh that “we’ve lost the country,” and from Stanley Kurtz that “the existence of America as we know it is in doubt.” Star Parker announced the triumph of those “not having traditional values on family, sex, and abortion.” These plaintive cries reflected shock, anger, and nostalgia about the passing of an imagined America.

On the question of what to do in the wake of defeat, Charles Krauthammer insisted on “no reinvention when none is needed,” and that the party “required only a single policy change: border defense plus amnesty.” Kurt Schlichter’s solution was for Republicans “to do what guerrillas do and infiltrate into the enemy’s turf, slipping conservatives into mainstream media, academia, and the entertainment world.”

Rick Santorum was more in tune with the evidence when he called on Republicans “to build a new box and offer Americans a broader, bolder and more inclusive vision of freedom and opportunity, as well as the tools to use them,” but was short on details.

From the Left, we’ve gotten exaggerations about the scope of the Obama consensus.Robert Creamer interpreted the vote as approval “for a society where everyone gets a fair share and plays by the same rules…. whether you are a man or a woman, a gay or a straight.” Joan Walsh considered Obama’s reelection “a victory for the Democratic ideal of activist government, and a mandate for more of it.” Paul Krugman’s thought the win showed “a lot of liberal ideas have become perfectly mainstream.” Maureen Dowd rhapsodized how supporters “lifted up Obama” with the hope that he would now be more amenable to dramatic change.

Contrast the rhetoric of wish fulfillment with the president’s more modest and realistic post-election response: “I’ve got one mandate.  I’ve got a mandate to help middle class families and families that are working hard to get into the middle class.”

Democrats were understandably overjoyed at the results of the 2012 elections. They gained two Senate seats and five new women senators joined their ranks. In the House, Democrats added eight seats, while there were eleven fewer Tea Party-supported candidates in the House from among those who sought re-election.

Understated in the post-election celebrations were several important inconvenient truths:

  • On election eve, a majority of Americans did not favor Obamacare, the President’s approval rating stood at only 50%, and a majority of Americans wanted to “drill, baby, drill.”
  • Voter turnout for the “critical election” was appreciably lower than it was for those of 2008 and 2004 – 57.5%, versus 62.3%, and 60.4%, respectively.
  • Obama took the popular vote by only 3.2%, about half of what he received in 2008, against a weak opponent who was not enthusiastically embraced by his own party.
  • In the swing state of Ohio, Obama’s margin of victory was less than 2%; in Virginia around 3%, while in Florida, it came in at under 1%. The close results cannot be blamed on voter suppression, though a number of Republican legislators worked toward that goal under the pretext of preventing voter fraud.

If Romney had won some of these swing states and/or captured the 44% of Hispanics who voted for George W. Bush, and if the Republican Senate nominees from Missouri and Indiana had not self-destructed by making idiotic comments about rape, we could be having a very different conversation about the meaning of the 2012 contest.

As things stand, the election results endorsed President Obama governing from the center-left, not the left-center, and his asking the wealthy to pay more — but not on the scale of massive wealth transfers that characterized the Great Society of the 1960s. The president also received confirmation to use the federal government for job creation, to continue offering programs for the disadvantaged, and to act as a first responder to weather-related catastrophes.

The Republicans got a mandate to modify an agenda based exclusively on competition/individualism without compassion, and to offer more to people of color and women.

The mandate for both parties was to work together to end gridlock in Washington and to find a balanced solution to deficit reduction. There are signs the messages have been received by noted politicians if not by the pundits.

Harvey Asher

After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University, Harvey Asher taught a variety of courses in history and interdisciplinary studies for thirty-five years at Drury University, a liberal arts school in Springfield, Missouri. His articles on themes in Russian history, American history, and the Holocaust have appeared in the Russian Review, Kritika, the Journal of Genocide Research, the Russian Dictionary, the SHARF Newsletter, Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia, and Lessons and Legacies of the Holocaust. He is also the author of The Drury Story Continues, an informal but thorough history of the school.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Harvey Asher December 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

Thanks so much for stopping by. I appreciate your comment!

Judy Baughman December 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Excellent, Harvey. Thanks for sharing.

MerCyn December 3, 2012 at 10:21 am

Great overview of election results. Loved the line, “…nostalgia about the passing of an imagined America.”

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