The biggest turning points of the 2012 election

December 28, 2012

The 2012 election cycle served as a reminder that campaigns are unpredictable. In fact, some of the most pivotal points of the past two years were unforeseen events that quickly shaped the political landscape. 

Today, we look back at the biggest turning points of the 2012 cycle in the battles for the White House, the Senate and the House. These are the most significant moments that left broad marks extending well beyond a single candidate or race. 

Overall, no other moment stood out as much as Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark in an August interview that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy. Not only did it sink the GOP’s hopes in a race it had long been bullish about and needed badly to win back the Senate majority; it also forced every other prominent Republican across the country to weigh in, and was affixed in the minds of many voters when another Republican Senate candidate later stoked controversy with a remark about rape and pregnancy.


(Christian Gooden/AP)

Aware that Representative Akin (R-Mo.) was prone to saying controversial things, Democrats sought to elevate him in the primary, spending money on paid media efforts aimed at helping the congressman outrun the competition. It worked, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) got exactly the opponent she wanted for the general election.

Even as McCaskill’s team was pleased with the outcome on the GOP side, her vulnerable standing and Missouri’s Republican tilt meant the Democrat still faced an uphill climb coming out of the primary against Akin. While the congressman’s words had gotten him in hot water in the past, none of his previous remarks were as damaging as what he would go on to say in August.

Immediately after Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, Republicans across the country were asked to weigh in. Most, including Mitt Romney, swiftly denounced his remarks and called on Akin to end his campaign. Republican groups that would have otherwise been expected to provide him with reinforcements ran far away from him. (Though the National Republican Senatorial Committee funneled money though the Missouri GOP to help Akin in the closing stage of the race).

Making matters worse for the GOP, Akin didn't drop out. He stayed in until the end, allowing McCaskill’s campaign to air ads referencing the remark. The spots received national media coverage and reminded voters in states other than Missouri about what he said. Akin lost in November by nearly 16 points in a state Romney carried by nearly 10. 

What's more, the issues of rape and pregnancy were fresh in voters’ minds when Indiana GOP Senate nominee Richard Mourdock said in a late October debate, “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock’s remark sunk his already struggling candidacy, robbing Senate Republicans of another seat in GOP-leaning state they wouldn’t have imagined losing a year prior. 

As Republicans try to repair a struggling brand and seek to undo some of the political damage they sustained in 2012, ensuring that future Senate nominees do not resemble Akin must surely be at or near the top of the priority list. 

Below is our take on the biggest turning points in the race for the presidency and control of the House: 

* Romney’s “47 percent” remark (presidential race): Perhaps no other single development in the 2012 campaign received more attention than Romney’s “47 percent” comment at a May fundraiser that surfaced in September. In a video published by Mother Jones magazine, Romney said “47 percent” of voters would vote for President Obama “no matter what” and that he doesn't “worry about those people.”

The remarks were made public during an already tumultuous period for Romney, and were received poorly by the public. Romney was forced to explain himself, veering his campaign further off-message and providing Obama's campaign with fodder to argue that the Republican was out of touch with many Americans.

To be clear, to say that Romney lost as a direct result of his “47 percent” remark would be misguided. For a whole host of other reasons, including Obama’s early ad barrage, and the GOP’s misreading of the electorate, Romney came up short. But the “47 percent” remark certainly didn’t help. And in a campaign where individual moments matter and a narrative can be shaped quickly, few instances compared to this one.

* Redistricting (House): While the battles for the White House and Senate were shaped by developments late in the campaign, the most pivotal event in the battle for the House came earlier, in the decennial process of redrawing congressional lines.

Democrats gained eight House seats, but came up well short of retaking the majority. A major reason for this outcome was redistricting. Republican-controlled states drew about four times as many districts as Democrats did. And an already polarized Congress was spurred toward further polarization by the new map. A study from the nonpartisan election reform group Fair Vote showed that there were 15 fewer competitive districts in 2012 then there were in 2010. Thus, Democrats were left with fewer opportunities to make gains.

Despite a pretty evenly split popular vote in House races, the GOP will enjoy its second biggest lower chamber majority in 60 years, in part because of the map on which the two sides were competing.

What did we miss? The comments sections awaits!

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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