In some respects the 2012 presidential campaign has played out in predictable fashion. The focus has been on the economy. President Obama has tried to make Mitt Romney unacceptable. A ton of money was spent. In a polarized country the race is close. But much about the 2012 elections has surprised voters and pundits alike. Here are only 10:
1. The meltdown of GOP Senate candidates: Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Connie Mack IV, Tommy Thompson and George Allen have showed, one GOP insider wisecracked to me, “It must be really hard to run a competent campaign.” Some of these candidates might win, but most won’t. Republicans as a result are unlikely to take back the Senate, something that seemed very possible only a few months ago.
2. The debates were the surprise: For weeks liberals denied it, but in fact the debates (all four) fundamentally changed the trajectory of the race and the perception of Mitt Romney. Democrats didn’t expect that Romney to show up, but, candidly, Republicans were just as surprised.
3. Obama never devised a second-term agenda: Republicans for a couple of years have lived in fear that Obama might embrace Simpson-Bowles, thereby splitting the GOP and taking the middle ground in the political landscape. That he did not, and never came up with an alternative, remained for conservatives an unexpected blessing.
4. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the vice-presidential nominee, was a really good candidate: Even those conservatives including Right Turn who praised his intellect and argued in favor of him as VP didn’t fully appreciate how good a retail politician he was. In large and small settings he proved himself to be a crowd-pleaser. He kept his cool while Vice President Biden made a spectacle of himself. And when Romney was traversing a rocky spell in August, Ryan seemed to steady him and the campaign. He is, by near consensus on the right, a future leader of his party.
5. The jobs figures were a wash: With each monthly jobs report the pundits puzzled over which candidate would benefit. In fact, the majority of voters’ overall impression of the economy (either in recession or in weak recovery) has been fixed for some time. Following the Democratic National Convention, Democrats shifted somewhat on the right track/wrong track issue, but Republicans and independents never did. For them, the economy remained lousy, no matter what the Bureau of Labor Standards’ figures and adjusted figures were.
6. Likability is not a fixed phenomenon: Nearly all the mainstream media convinced themselves that Romney was unlikable, unlikable candidates can’t get elected and therefore Obama had a lock on the election. Romney did have likability problems, that is, until Americans got a good look at him for themselves. He was able to reverse the negative impression left by tens of millions of dollars in ads and hostile mainstream media. Voters, it seems, are persuadable when presented with new information. The press? Not so much.
7. The gender gap is the Achilles heel of the GOP: Pardon the mixed metaphor, but for a couple of decades it has been conventional wisdom that Republicans can’t win the women’s vote and can’t win it because of “women’s issues.” Obama certainly played that to the hilt, spending more time talking about Sandra Fluke than Benghazi and running thousands of ads hyping the abortion issue. Despite all that, Romney is likely to come close to closing the gender gap. (It is very possible he will do better with women voters than Obama will do with male voters.) Maybe abortion, contraception and the phony “war on women” are not the way to convince over half the electorate to vote for a presidential candidate.
8. Obama had a national security advantage: Democrats thought killing Osama bin Laden was sufficient. Republicans thought they could raise doubts about Obama’s handling of Iran and stormy relationship with Israel. In fact, the attack at Benghazi damaged Obama’s national security standing, at the very least making a mockery of his claim to have set al-Qaeda back on its heels. That and the defense sequestration (which Obama was forced to misrepresent as Congress’s idea) leveled the playing field on foreign policy.
9. Money matters: This election should disabuse us of the notion that all the ads and robocalls represent money well spent in an election year. We passed the saturation point in about the second week of September, causing most voters to tune it all out. When everyone has enough money, there is no advantage to be had, and, ironically, donors become less influential. In large part because the ads did come out a wash, Romney was able to make an impression in his non-ad moments, especially the debates.
10. Moderators don’t hurt conservatives: Republicans for very good reason think there is endemic media bias and that network moderators bring their own political preferences to the presidential debates. They let Obama talk longer. They interrupted Romney more. Candy Crowley inexcusably took sides in the debate. All true. But it didn’t make a lick of difference, and if anything only added to the rally-around-Romney phenomenon in the GOP base. Able Republican candidates rise above media or use media to their advantage. Mainstream media from conservatives’ vantage point may be disreputable, but conservatives can take comfort — they aren’t that influential.