Mitt Romney didn’t lose because of the GOP’s far-right agenda. That’s what’s scary.
Obama and His Enemies
by Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 428 pp.
Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America
by Dan Balz
Viking, 381 pp.
The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election
by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck
Princeton, 352 pp.
To those of us who wrote on a daily or weekly basis about the 2012 presidential campaign, it was a long, hard slog with countless significant moments that brought us to a conclusion that less attentive observers might have predicted (and often did predict) from the beginning: a decisive but not overwhelming victory for the incumbent president over the early front-runner among opposition-party candidates. In conjunction with a general backlash among journalists, political scientists, and even political practitioners against hyperventilating coverage of presidential campaigns (typified, it was often said, by the 2010 John Heilemann and Mark Halperin book Game Change), writers of 2012 postmortems have struggled to balance the drama we experienced and the determinism we perceived. This is evident in the two major conventional books on the campaign that have appeared so far: writer Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds and Collision 2012, by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. The discounting of campaign drama has more recently been taken to a new level by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck in The Gamble, which might have been subtitled Nothing to See Here, Folks.
All three of these books accept the premise that either party or candidate might have won last November, but none of them identifies the moment in which Barack Obama won and Mitt Romney lost. Alter focuses on Obama’s 2012 campaign as well as the post-election struggle with the GOP that ensued the moment he won in 2008 and continues today. Obama, suggests Alter, was saved by a superior campaign strategy and organization that effectively exploited the Romney campaign’s mistakes. Balz, who has written the traditional, balanced, and “granular” account of the campaign cycle from beginning to end, appears to believe that the delusions of the GOP and the Romney campaign lost the party a winnable election. Sides and Vavreck take the provocative but stimulating route of considering every explanation of the outcome other than the “fundamentals” (basically, the power of incumbency and acceptably positive economic trends and conditions) and exploding each with varying quantities of empirical dynamite.
All of these highly competent and readable (yes, even the political scientists) analysts are dealing with the same set of facts. There is Obama’s sizable 2008 victory and the even larger 2010 Republican midterm win; the 2011 fiscal battles that Obama probably “lost” but that also often depicted the GOP as a gang of irresponsible ideologues; an economic backdrop of painfully gradual but relatively steady growth from the slough of 2009, accompanied by stubbornly high unemployment rates; Romney’s navigation of a chaotic nomination process in which Republican enthusiasm for his campaign was never high; and then a general election campaign in which polls themselves became an issue, even as they showed a generally static competition characterized by unprecedented spending on both advertising and field operations, aimed at restive party bases and a vanishing number of swing voters. The books all evaluate what might be called the game-changing status, from Romney’s poor post-nomination positioning to the monthly “jobs” reports, Obama’s early ad blitz, Romney’s choice of a running mate, the conventions, the “47 percent” video, and the debates. To simplify (and perhaps oversimplify), Alter suggests that the 47 percent video should have ended the contest, so perfectly did it confirm the Obama campaign’s carefully constructed image of Mitt Romney, but Obama’s wretched performance in the Denver debate very nearly threw the game away. Balz emphasizes the Obama camp’s digitally driven field campaign and its superior understanding of both demographics and battlefield state dynamics as crucial. And, as noted earlier, Sides and Vavreck argue that the campaign events either didn’t matter or more or less canceled each other out, leaving the fundamentals as the decisive factor.
Some of the most rewarding variations in the three books’ approaches involve the stage of the contest most remote from its conclusion and least amenable to empirical analysis or historical precedent: the GOP nominating process. To Alter, a large part of the problem was the “clown car” of right-wing extremists that handicapped Romney, saddling him with extremist policy positions and pre-testing future Democratic attacks on his background and character. Balz looks at it more clinically and at greater length, declaring that the primaries were a testament to Romney’s superior campaign organization and tactical flexibility but also deprived the GOP front-runner of the time and resources he desperately needed for the main event.
The GOP contest is something of a challenge to Sides and Vavreck, since the main building blocks of their general election analysis—economic indicators, regular and reliable polling, and partisanship indices—are largely irrelevant. They choose to be counterintuitive, not only knocking down the overwrought hypothesis that Romney forced himself on an unwilling right-wing electorate, but also developing a plausible (if hardly dispositive) theory that primary voters conducted a “discovery, scrutiny, decline” analysis of the candidates before happily settling on the front-runner. They do not, however, test the idea that Romney was a weak candidate who prevailed over an even weaker field in a contest that saddled him with an extremist agenda that would have mattered in a Romney presidency, even if general election voters never quite grasped its radicalism (which is Alter’s contention).
While neither Alter nor Balz posits a “game-change” moment, both do consider the election momentous, though for somewhat different reasons. Alter, who is attuned to the broader partisan and ideological struggle that reached new levels of intensity once Obama took office, stresses (as I would) the real-world consequences that would have flowed from a Romney victory, particularly if it had been accompanied by a GOP Senate takeover. This is his compelling explanation for the state of denial that gripped the GOP on election night and immediately afterward: they believed they were on the brink of a historic breakthrough for conservative ideology, perhaps more momentous than Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide, to which they compulsively kept comparing the 2012 cycle. Balz views the entire polarized spectacle of 2012 as more bad news for effective governing, a perspective that has certainly been confirmed, as of this writing, by the events of 2013. Both writers end their books looking, without a great deal of hope, for signs that Republicans, in particular, might break what the president has called “the fever.”
Sides and Vavreck spend a good deal of time arguing that to win in 2016 Republicans need to do little more than run a competent campaign and hope the economy continues to struggle. In denying that there is any positive or negative ideological “mandate” from 2012, they place great emphasis on YouGov.com polling showing that voters perceived Romney as being closer to their own ideology than Obama. (That’s not to say, of course, that these perceptions were accurate.) They also shoot down arguments that GOP positioning on health care, immigration (even among Latinos), or abortion (even among women) had a material net impact on voters. Other social scientists may busily work to undermine these conclusions, along with those that consider Obama’s field operation as having at best a limited impact on the popular vote results (though possibly swinging two very important battleground states, Florida and Ohio). But advocates of any game-change theory must deal with the underlying reality that Obama’s 2012 performance among most demographic groups was very close to his performance in 2008, with a relatively uniform downward swing arguably attributable to fundamentals. If these allegiances hold, the demographic winds are blowing in a direction favorable to Democrats. But they don’t move mountains in four-year intervals.
Unlike Alter, and to a lesser extent Balz, Sides and Vavreck don’t make normative judgments about either party’s agenda, and thus don’t express alarm (as I do!) at their evidence that “moderate” Republicans can strongly support candidates committed to a full-on assault on the social safety net, progressive taxation, voting and collective bargaining rights, and other “consensus” legacies of the recent past. Nor are they worried that swing voters think the two parties are roughly equidistant from some mythical “centrist” norm. If unreflective partisanship and “false equivalence” are indeed the dominant filters through which Americans perceive political events, then we should all pay close attention to the intraparty dynamics that determine whether presidential candidates reflect median-voter versions of their party’s basic point of view, or something dangerously different. If it’s true that in 2012 marginally less robust economic indicators might have elected not only Mitt Romney but also a GOP candidate more openly and firmly extremist, then there’s some reason to think that, if the country experiences the kind of economic conditions congressional Republicans have every intention of producing, they might nominate such a candidate in 2016 and have a decent chance at victory. So when we see grassroots Republican activists in Iowa going wild with joy over Ted Cruz, we may be witnessing not another “clown car,” but a whole new circus coming to town.
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