University of Southern California

Election 2012


Decision 2012: What Did We Learn?

November 9, 2012

mitt romney concession speech edited.jpg
On November 6, President Obama was reelected with roughly 100 electoral votes more than challenger Mitt Romney. What went wrong for Romney? Are there lessons the Republican Party should take away from the presidential and congressional outcomes?

“The Republican Party has two basic problems. One is that Romney and the top leadership implemented a winning election strategy... for 1980,” says Patrick James, professor of international relations in the USC Dornsife College. “If you look at the demographics and voting proportions, the Reagan coalition would not win a majority today. The libertarian wing of the Republican Party must reassert itself, or the GOP will face oblivion.

“The second, specific manifestation is the presence of political extremists as candidates,” James adds. “In the Democratic Party, loony leftists are kept on the sidelines and do not obtain nomination. It is one thing to have extremists in the party; it’s another entirely when they are candidates. Rep. Todd Akin is the epicenter of this problem. In sum, the GOP triad of national security, economic and social conservatives has tipped over, with the extreme elements on the far right taking control to the point where the party is about as relevant as the Democratic Party in the years immediately following the Civil War.”

Christian Grose, associate professor of political science in the USC Dornsife College, doesn’t believe the situation is that dire for the Republican Party. “In some ways, Romney did very well, as he got very, very close,” Grose says. “I think there is a tendency to overanalyze and overstate mandates from big electoral vote wins that are small popular vote wins. The 2012 election is much more like the 2004 election than 2008. In 2004, like Romney, Democrat John Kerry almost got there and ran a very good campaign — but George W. Bush ran an even better campaign and turned out more supporters.

“In 2012, Romney ran a very good campaign, but Obama ran an even better campaign,” Grose says. “Microtargeting of different voters in the swing states by the Obama campaign mattered a lot in Obama holding a 1- to 4-point lead in most of the key swing states.

“There has been a lot of talk of changing demographics, and how that hurt Romney. I think that is only partially true, as demographics have not shifted that much since 2010, when the Republicans did very well in the midterm elections,” Grose points out. “What mattered was that a coalition of minority voters and white voters supported Obama, and in particular Latino voters supported Obama at an extremely high rate in key states such as Colorado. In states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, Obama won because he persuaded and turned out more voters — and many of them were white voters who looked at the choice of Obama versus Romney and reluctantly chose Obama.”

The Congressional Races

“To me the biggest surprise of the night is how well the Democrats did in the Senate races. The Senate outcome is much more surprising than the presidential or House races,” Grose says. “The Democrats basically ran the table in almost all of the competitive races. Since the Senate has staggered elections, with only one-third of the membership up every two years, there are elections where one party has more seats exposed than others. The 2012 elections had 23 seats of senators who caucus with the Democratic Party up for reelection, but only 10 Republican seats up for reelection. Numerically, in a year in which the presidential election’s popular vote was so closely contested, I would have expected a few more Republican successes in more Republican-leaning states. Beating the numeric odds, all Democratic U.S. Senate seats were retained except one in Nebraska, while two Republican seats went to Democrats (in Indiana and Massachusetts) and a third former GOP seat in Maine was taken by an independent, Angus King, who may caucus with the Democrats once he is sworn in.
Grose adds: “The other overlooked story of the night is the growth in diversity among Democratic elected officials in the U.S. House. It looks likely that a majority of the U.S. House members affiliated with the Democratic Party will not be white males for the first time in history. This is a function of two things: 1) The Democratic Party lost a lot of moderate, competitive House seats in the 2010 GOP wave, and many of these seats had white men as representatives, and in 2012 the Democrats did not win many of these seats back and even lost a few more. 2) More women and minorities have run and won in new districts redrawn for 2012, and most of these districts are Democratic seats.”

Email Update

Sign up for a regular newsletter highlighting Election 2012’s new stories. See Sample


Browse the archives by: