What the 2012 election taught us

November 7, 2012

Presidential elections are teaching moments for political junkies. 

Video: Election Night highlights in two minutes.

We've been scouring the data for clues as to what we should learn from what happened tonight as President Obama relatively easily claimed a second term. Five of our initial lessons learned are below. Much more to come in the days and weeks ahead.

1. This wasn't JUST an economic referendum: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney built his entire campaign around the idea that the only question for voters was "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"  The goal was to turn the entire election into a straight referendum on Obama's handling of the still struggling economy.  It didn't work. Almost 6 in 10 voters said the economy was the the top issue for them and among that group Romney won 51 percent of the vote 47 percent for Obama.  And yet Romney lost — and lost convincingly.  Why? Obama turned the race effectively into a choice between someone who voters thought understood them and their concerns and someone who didn't.  One in five voters said that a candidate who "cares about people like me" was a critical piece of their decision; Obama won them 82 percent to 17 percent.

2. Republicans have a huge Hispanic problem: Nationally, Latino voters comprised 10 percent of the total electorate. Obama won 69 percent of their votes while Romney won just 29 percent. In Florida, Latinos accounted for nearly one in every five voters and Obama won them by 21 points. As we have written before, the Republican party simply cannot lose 7 in 10 Hispanic voters in elections and expect to be a viable national party in 2016, 2020 and beyond. Growth in the Latino community probably makes Arizona a swing state in the next presidential election and Texas could even be a swing state by 2020 unless Republicans can find a way to make inroads in the Hispanic community. Our guess? A major figure in the GOP — former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio — puts his foot down and speaks the truth to his party about the effect their stances on immigration are having on their long-term political prospects.

3. Virginia and North Carolina are swing states: We waited four years to see whether Obama's victories in North Carolina and Virginia were flukes, whether the two states with long Republican traditions at the presidential level would return back to their GOP roots. They didn't. Obama won Virginia. And, while Romney won North Carolina, he did so very narrowly  — less than 100,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast. Think of it this way: In 2008, Obama got 49.7 percent of the vote in North Carolina while he got 48.4 percent in 2012. Compare that to how the Democratic presidential nominee performed in 2004 (43.6) and 2000 (43.2) and you see how much North Carolina has changed. Both states are swing states in 2016 and beyond — an expansion of the map in Democrats' favor that Republicans were unable to match in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan or Minnesota in this election.

4.  The youth vote is no longer dismissible: In 2008, then candidate Obama promised to energize the youth vote like no candidate had done before him. Eyes rolled — including ours.  But Obama was right.  Voters aged 18-29 comprised 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 and Obama won them by 34 points.  Surely, skeptics insisted, that showing was a one-off — built around Obama's nonpartisan call for "hope" and "change." Or not. According to the latest national exit polling, 19 percent of the electorate was aged 18-29 and Obama won that group by 24 points. Once is an anomaly. Twice is a new political reality. The only question going forward is whether the youth vote is tied to President Obama uniquely or whether it is an advantage for Democrats more broadly.

5. Democrats electoral vote ceiling > Republican electoral vote ceiling: We strongly suspected going into this election that the electoral vote dominance that Republican presidential candidates enjoyed in the 1980s had switched over to Democrats. Obama's victory tonight affirmed that fact. Obama currently has 284 electoral votes and leads in Florida (29 electoral votes) and Virginia (13 electoral votes). Add those two — along with Nevada — to his total and total is 332 electoral votes, a sum well beyond what most people (and political types) thought he was capable of achieving. The problem for Republicans — and this is not at all unique to Romney — is that the best hope they currently have in terms of electoral math is the 286 electoral votes that George W. Bush won in 2004. (It would actually add up to 292 electoral votes under the current allocation.) A ceiling of 292 just leaves very little room for error — for any Republican candidate now or going forward.

Read more from Washington Post Politics

Obama reelected to second term

Big night for same-sex marriage and legalized pot

Full 2012 election results

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · November 7, 2012