On Sunday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said this of President Obama’s 2012 campaign during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation”:
“He didn’t win in a landslide. He won by three percentage points, but he won by waging a very effective campaign, and he won by in some ways dividing the country … I think the basic part of his campaign was that those that were successful weren’t paying their fair share, even though we have incredibly high taxes for high-income Americans. I think he ran a campaign of them and us. And it was quite effective, that somehow the Republicans don’t care about the large number of people.”
Elections are, of course, divisive by their very nature. There are two (usually) candidates, meaning that the way to win – with apologies to John Harris and Mark Halperin — is to make the other guy (or gal) unpalatable to voters.
But, Bush’s comments got us to thinking. Was the 2012 election any more (or less) divisive than past races for president?
To answer that question, we turned to exit polling — and, specifically, to how self-identified Democrats and Republicans voted in 2012 as compared to past elections.
In 2012, President Obama won 92 percent of the Democratic vote to just 7 percent for Mitt Romney. Obama won 89 percent of Democrats in 2008 while John McCain took 10 percent. The numbers were similar among Republicans. Obama won 6 percent of Republicans in 2012 while he took 9 percent of self-identified GOPers four years earlier. (The only place where there was a significant shift between 2012 and 2008 was among independents. President Obama won unaffiliated voters by eight points in 2008 and lost them by 5 points in 2012.)
The numbers among partisans suggest that 2012 was no more or less divisive than 2008. (A three point differential is not hugely significant.) And, it’s not clear whether the movement among independents means much of anything when it comes to trying to divine whether the election last November was more divisive than usual.
So, we asked Scott Clement, our resident polling guru, to look all the way back to the 1972 election — the first time exit polls were conducted — to see how the 2012 election stacked up when it came to voting on partisan lines.
What the chart makes clear is that in terms of partisanship, the 2012 election wasn’t an outlier but a continuation of a trend. Since the early 1990s, partisan presidential voting has been on the increase — with roughly nine in ten Democrats voting for their party’s nominee in each of the last three contests.
By the same token, no Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992 has won double-digit support among Republicans — with Obama’s six-percent showing last November roughly consistent with what Democratic nominees have won among GOPers dating back to 1972.
(The 1992 election is a bit of aberration on all sides, given that Ross Perot, running as an independent, took 19 percent of the national vote.)
Other data affirms that, yes, we are now living in remarkably partisan times but that we have been doing so for the last decade (at least).
Of the 10 most polarized years ever in American politics – as divined by comparing a president’s job approval numbers among his own party with those of the opposite party in Gallup data over a year – nine, yes, NINE, are in the last nine years.
The simple fact is that we live in remarkably polarized times. Given the deep — and sustaining — chasm between the two parties, it’s hard to blame that divide on Obama. It could just as easily be laid at the feet of George W. Bush. Or on the silo-ing of media and political opinion, which allows partisans to consume news they agree with and talk to people who affirm their point of view at all times.
Regardless of who gets the blame, it’s hard to imagine any future president — up to and including Jeb Bush — “bringing the country together”. The reality? Partisans — and they tend to be the people driving the political debate — have no interest in coming together, unless “coming together” means close-to-full capitulation to their way of seeing things.
Division then is inevitable — in 2016 and beyond — unless some event occurs that forces a massive shifting of the political tectonic plates. And that, at least at the moment, seems unlikely.