Political Animal


November 03, 2012 11:32 AM Election 2012: what are the biggest/most intriguing unanswered questions?

By Kathleen Geier

Has this election season been running longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz, or what? It certainly seems to have been going on forever. The Republican primaries, featuring the clown car of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum (remember them?), definitely seems to have occurred ages ago. But fear not: our long national nightmare will be over soon, and Election Day is almost here. Believe it or not, it’s less than 72 hours away!

Given that we’re approaching the end game here, I thought I’d list of what I consider to be some of the most interesting and important questions that have arisen concerning the 2012 election. We should have preliminary answers to some of these questions by November 7, but others will take much longer to sort out.

Here are what I consider to be some of the more intriguing, and pressing, pre-election unknowns:

1. Obviously, the single most important question is who will be our next president, and by what margin will he defeat his opponent, in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Subsets of this question concern how accurately the various politial science models predict the outcome, and whether we should put our trust in the judgment of the likes of experts like Nate Silver on the one hand, or such revered and totally unbiased and un-self-interested authorities as Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Michael Barone on the other.

2. Also extremely important is what will happen in the down-ballot races, especially House and Senate Races. Right now, the Democrats are expected to hold on to the Senate, which is quite a feat considering how many vulnerable Democrats are running for re-election this year. Currently, the breakdown in the Senate is 53-47 Dems; Nate Silver’s projections have them losing about half a seat, so that the post-election breakdown would be about 52.5-47.5, with the Democrats remaining in the majority. As for the House, it appears that the Democrats will pick up some seats, but the Republicans will retain control.

3. What will the impact of Hurricane Sandy be, both in terms of the nuts and bolts of vote-counting and voter turnout (will voters in the affected regions face significant obstacles in casting their votes, and having them counted?) and in the much-more-difficult-to-determine sense of whether the storm, and the Obama administration’s reaction to it, changed any minds? I wrote about this question in my previous post. We should know right away about the ballot access questions, but it will probably take some time before we hear a more-or-less definitive answer from the pollsters and political scientists about Sandy’s impact on voting choices.

4. Another important question is, what is going on with the Latino vote? The question is not so much about which party Latinos will support — everyone knows Latino voters lean strongly Democratic. Rather, the issue is whether, and to what extent, election polls are missing Latino voters and underestimating Latino turnout. There are good reasons to believe this is the case, and if so, then, like Harry Reid in his upset victory over Sharron Angle in 2010, Obama and the Democrats in general will do better than the current polls predict.

5. Like the Latinos, women lean Democratic, albeit not nearly so heavily. Given the recrod number of abortion restrictions that have been making their way through various state legislatures; the Sandra Fluke/Obamacare contraception flap; the reaction against the Susan Komen Foundation when it announced it would no longer fund women’s health programs at Planned Parenthood; and the pro-rape comments made by Todd Akin and other Republican geniuses, it will be interesting to see whether these gender-related controversies end up creating a wider gender gap and electing more female candidates.

Something similar happened in 1991: when Anita Hill testified about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the insensitivity, cluelessness, and hostility with which she was treated by many pundits and elected officials outraged women across America. The next year, female candidates won a number of unexpected election victories, a phenomenon that was called “The Year of the Woman.” Will 2012 be a repeat? W0e will soon find out.

6. Another big question concerns the dog that (apparently) didn’t bark: that is, the huge push Republicans were supposed to get from the never-ending slush fund of Citizens United-type money. Yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote that “the failure of the great Rove/Citizens United juggernaut to materialize” is “one of the great mysteries of 2012.” I think it’s far too early to call the Citizens United-inspired efforts a “failure.” For one thing, the election results could be more favorable to Republicans than we think, and for another, the impact of money on elections has always been notoriously difficult to measure. But I have to admit it’s not looking good for the Citizens United-type funders; Obama is looking like the likely winner and Democrats across the country seem to be having a good year. If those trends hold up on Election Day, it will be interesting to try to figure out in what ways the Citizens United efforts failed, and why.

7. Another open question is whether the Christian right, which tends to be suspicious of Mormons, will turn out for Mitt Romney to the same extent they turned out for past Republican candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain. Romney has certainly bent over backwards to show support for the Christian right, and the major Christian right leaders have lined up behind Romney. I’m not expecting a drop-off in support, but even small declines in turn-out can make the difference in a closely fought election.

8. Finally, there’s the very important question of what happens concerning the various gay marriage referenda on the ballot in several states. The last I looked, the pro-gay position was ahead in the polls in three of the states (Washington, Maine, and Maryland), but as we’ve often seen, what voters tell pollsters about gay marriage and what they end up doing in the privacy of the ballot booth are two different things. Nevertheless, of the three states holding referenda on this issue, the smart money says that gay marriage will almost certainly triumph in Maine and is likely, albeit less certain, to win in Washington and Maryland as well.

Unlike the ballot measures in those three states, the referendum in the fourth state, Minnesota, would not legalize gay marriage; rather, it would define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. The last I checked, the Minnesota measure was tied in the polls.

The above questions mainly concern the immediate outcomes of the election. But there are a number of election-related questions that touch on the medium- and long-term as well. Here are a few of them:

1. It is my belief that the rise of polling experts like Nate Silver and the wider, internet-driven dissemination of insights derived from political science research has resulted in improved campaign journalism. Yes, there were plenty of silly stories about, for example, Mitt Romney’s supposed momentum, even when the great majority of opinion polls showed no such thing. But those stories were soon debunked, sometimes in the same outlets that ran them in the first place. At least a few of the more intelligent reporters and columnists seem to understand that fundamentals, rather than colorful but ultimately inconsequential campaign events, are what drive election results. By the next election cycle, will these insights be so widespread that the ratio of silly to smart campaign journalism is greatly decreased? We shall see.

2. Secondly, if Mitt Romney loses, and especially if he loses decisively, will the Republicans regroup, reconsider their extremist conservatism, and pull the party back to the center? That would seem like the most obvious move, but I thought they’d do that in 2008 as well, and instead they gifted us with the Tea Party.

Many times in the past I thought we’d hit peak wingnut, and yet the right just kept getting more and more outrageous and extreme. Right now, it looks like Republicans like Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie are making tentative steps toward gently pushing the party towards a saner, more moderate brand of Republicanism, but they may quickly retreat. The Southern base of the party is far more extreme than its Northeastern adherents. Still, things could be shaping up for an eventual showdown between leaders of the party establishment, who may want to push the party toward the mainstream, and conservative activists, who will no doubt argue that the problem with Mitt Romney, and the party, is that it has not been conservative enough. Pass the popcorn!

3. Finally, if Obama wins, there is the issue of what he will actually do with his victory. His options will be severely constrained, because he will almost certainly be facing a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate that falls short of being filibuster-proof. Obama and many other Democrats seem enthusiastic about a Grand Bargain that would cut Medicare and Social Security. This is of course a terrible idea that should be resisted, but given the political constraints, something along those lines is far more likely than a second stimulus. I sincerely hope I am wrong about that. I also sincerely hope Obama uses his presidential power to nominate some good Supreme Court justices and overhaul his economic team (the first to go, if I ran the zoo, would be Treasury-Secretary-for-Life Tim Geithner).

What unanswered questions do you expect the 2012 election to resolve … or not? Leave them in the comments.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Ronald on November 03, 2012 4:13 PM:

    Where the Republicans go from here if/when they lose this cycle.
    Have the moderates been so far driven away as to not be recoverable?
    Will they try the 'scorched earth' tactic again and go with 'do anything to make Obama fail'?
    I doubt the wingnuts will be silenced, though they're going to have a harder time winning primaries next time around.
    Its going to be quite the scene.

  • R on November 03, 2012 4:41 PM:

    Nate Silver has indeed raised the stakes for more intelligent reporting of polling data. But there are too many polls, of widely varying quality, and the MSM spend way too much time reporting on them, and not enough on what the candidates are actually offering. One could read my local Gannett rag (a redundancy, I know) and never know about the vast majority of Mitt's flip-flops and lies so carefully documented here and by Steve Benen. I don't know if it's (a) laziness, (b) innumeracy (how else could you take the R/R non-budget seriously?), (c) a desire for a horse race above all else, (d) a fear of being seen as "liberal" for not finding an Obama misstep to match every one of Romney's, even if there's no comparison, or (e) all of the above. But the MSM is not doing its job if it's just reporting on the leanings of voters, who tend to be underinformed, thanks in part to the MSM itself.

  • Anonymous on November 03, 2012 4:44 PM:

    My word-turd reponsese to your first 8 points:
    1. Nate Silver. Dick Morris can go and suck his toes! But Nate has too much class to even let that troll anywhere within breathing distance.
    2. Obama's Denver debate performance hurt Democrat's in House races.
    3. It "don' hoit" when Krispy Kreme basically does everything but endorse you.
    4. Having done poll calling, Latino's are reluctant to answer questions, if the even answer the phones - so, it probably will factor in Obama's favor.
    5. I think a more women than people think told pollers, will tell their husbands and signifigant others the same thing, and yet pull the lever, or fill-out the ballot, for D's.
    6. If Romney loses, and Im a Billionaire who invested a lot of my easily inherited and earned money in Super PACs to help him win, Id want to call in Karl Rove and have him in for a little talk about my atrocious ROI.
    Id have him walk out onto a bridge made of ice, over the shark tank, in my office.
    Id ask him to account for Romneys loss and what he did with the money?
    And how he plans on repaying me?
    A then, I'd watch the fat-boy sweat until it melts the bridge under him, he does his final belly-flop, and sleeps wid da fishes whats left of him, that is.
    7. The Dominionist Evangelicals WILL vote - they hate that N*gger more than Mormonism - just not as many of them as usual. Some may sit out - and it depends on where, and that may affect the election.
    8. See #7 above. If a lot of the Evangelicals show up, then the measures lose. If, or where, they don't, they pass.

    As for "Peak Wingnut," I think we have a few more elections cycles before the sad, old white people die off.
    My Mother is almost 81, and I call her, "My Obama lovin' Mama!" And she used to LOVE Nixon! If she can change, why can't some others?
    It doesn't matter. There are many, many young Conservative morons, but they can't replace a generation or two of the ones that will be going to their 'great reward.'

    My unanswered question is, "What do we propose to do about global warming, or global weirding, or climate change, or whatever you feckin' want to call it?"
    I don't have any children, and I seem more concerned than many who do.

  • N.Wells on November 03, 2012 4:51 PM:

    I want to know what Romney was hiding in the tax returns that he refused to believe.

    I'd like to know why the electorate and the media were ultimately willing to give him a pass on not releasing his tax returns.

    I'd also like to know why more voters and pundits weren't repulsed by pervasive Republican lying: Romney and Ryan certainly set a low standard, but lying seemed unusually common all the way up and down the R ticket. Ohio's own Josh Mandel has come across as someone who wouldn't tell the truth even if he wanted to.

  • sjw on November 03, 2012 4:53 PM:

    One big question I have is whether aggregate polling will indeed prove to be correct. The stakes are high for Silver, Wang, et al. If they're right, it changes the nature of political discussion as well as political practice in a fundamental way.

    Second big question: how does Obama use his mandate, especially with respect to taxes and the fiscal cliff.

    Which leads to a third question: whether Obama will finally give up on the false hopes of bipartisanship dashed again and again during his first term.

  • James E. Powell on November 03, 2012 4:58 PM:

    Since Reagan, the two central arguments of every Republican campaign have been: 1) Democrats are weak, possibly traitorous, and 2) Democrats will raise your taxes and give the money to the [insert racist epithet].

    I am curious whether this is the last federal campaign in which that will be the case. Particularly with respect to the race-based claim.

    If the Republicans continue to make the White America argument, will it ever work again? And if they abandon it, what will take its place?

  • Doug on November 03, 2012 5:48 PM:

    I tend to favor the idea that this will be a bigger Democratic victory than seems apparent at this moment. Mainly for such reasons as listed above; miscalculating the Latino vote, failure of "Citizens United" money to have the impact believed and, most importantly, the fact that the Republicans mask is off, thanks to Moudock et al.
    Merely looking at what has happened here in Indiana and in Missouri with Akin should give pause to anyone who follows politics. Mourdock WAS leading by double digits in a, basically, Republican state; he now trails by double digits. The same has occurred in Missouri, if not in a so extreme manner. Pence, running for Governor, WAS doing the same, now the race is all but tied.
    Non-batsh*t crazy Republicans, somewhere near a third of those who vote "R" in my estimation, now have incontravertible proof, from the mouths of the Republican candidates themselves, that at least some of what we Democrats have been saying for the past few years about the Republican Party is true. How many are saying to themselves "Can I now risk what Democrats have said about R/R not being true?"
    The only question is whether those Republicans will lose their Democratic "virginity" this year or whether they'll just not vote for anyone for those positions.
    I'd love it to be the former, but will happily settle for the latter...

  • PTate in MN on November 03, 2012 7:16 PM:

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

    Big questions for me if Obama wins a 2nd term:

    1) Has Obama figured out that he needs to listen to Paul Krugman on economics? Will he at least stop listening to the Republicans whinge about "deficits"?

    2) Climate change? Anyone? Hello? Anyone listening? I actually have no hope that Obama will fight for sustainable energy or infrastructure improvements but...will he surprise me?

    3) Will the under-30s turn out to vote? It's their future that is being decided right now and why are they not outraged?

    4) Things have gone downhill in the US ever since the Reagan years injected three toxins into the body politic: i. that the government is the problem, not the solution; ii. that the free market/competition will ALWAYS provide the best solutions; iii. that greed is good and cutting taxes on the rich will ignite economic growth. Will Obama help Americans re-envision that our government is of, by and for the people? That things like policies based on evidence not ideology, separation of church and state, everyone paying their fair share, public transparency, tolerance for differences, generosity to the weak and laws that apply to all people are the foundation of a complex modern nation?

    5) How long, if Obama wins, before Southern states start threatening to secede? Can we just let them go this time? Please?

    6) Will Michelle Bachmann eke out a win in the Minnesota 6th Congressional district and embarrass Minnesotans for another two years?

    7) Will the gap between women and men set a new record? Have women finally learned that inside every "right to lifer" is someone who thinks that rape is excusable and whose actual goal is to take away access to birth control?

    I'm sure there are more, but these are the ones on my mind if Obama wins.

    If Romney wins, I have just one question. How long do I have to learn parcour before the Zomney apocalyse?

  • Kurt Rex Cooper on November 03, 2012 7:28 PM:

    To me, the main question is will Bachmann and her cohorts of stupidity be tossed out of office. If they are then the GOP may rethink their anti-science anti-rational thinking strategy out of sheer survival. If they win game as usual.

    In either case, the Ds must get the message across that 1) hate and tolerance of hate are two sides of the same coin. 2) science brought us to this point of greatness and without it America becomes like Detroit, slowly crumbling away.

  • jsjiowa on November 03, 2012 7:30 PM:

    I'm concerned that, win or lose, Romney's level of lying will become the new norm for Republican campaigns. I don't think losing will communicate to Repubs that he failed to establish trust with voters -- they'll just blame other things (Sandy, moderate Mitt, etc.). I expect them to continue their purity purge, and head further to the right, rather than realizing the majority of Americans reject their platform. And each time they have a wave election like 2010, it only encourages them for awhile longer.

  • craigie on November 03, 2012 8:39 PM:

    The biggest question will still be: why are millions of Americans prepared to vote for their own economic destruction?

  • dweb on November 03, 2012 9:02 PM:

    For me the most intriguing question is the future path of the GOP. It is my contention that we will soon see a fairly brutal struggle for control of the party between the Tea Party/evangelical/wing nut branch and the so called "traditional" wing of the party...or frankly what little is left of it.

    If you look at Kansas, I think you see a clue of the possible outcome. Out there a group of traditional Republicans, concerned at the steady inroads being made by the conservatives in taking control of the party, publicly announced a campaign fund to help support centrist Republican candidates in legislative races. It managed to raise a measly 89,000 dollars and its candidates were all trounced in the next election.

    Thus, I suggest, the next phase of the GOP is going to be one even more right wing...insistent that the party lost 2012 simply because it did not have a truly conservative candidate for President and its platform was not sufficiently promoted (plus the usual charges that the media was biased, ACORN and busloads of Somalians at the polling places and just general voter fraud.)

    I think the GOP might have won this election if the party had managed to get a Christie or even Mitch Daniel to run on a more centrist platform, but the right simply would not allow that to happen, or the potential candidates decided not to run because they knew they would have to follow bat-s..t crazy platform planks they knew would not go over with the voters.

    Can the traditional wing win back control....and if they do, will the party be so split that 2012 is recorded as its high water mark? That is my big question.

  • beep52 on November 03, 2012 10:34 PM:

    Like jsjiowa, I wonder if the bald-faced lying in this campaign isn't the new Republican norm.

    It's not hard to imagine that a less awkward candidate without the Bain baggage and the 47% remark might well be in the lead right now -- even with the same degree of mendacity. And that is truly frightening.

    If voters are willing to follow a liar of this magnitude, what's to stop him from leading in some very dangerous directions.

  • spiny on November 03, 2012 11:28 PM:

    The sad truth is that if Obama wins, he won't have a mandate for much of anything. Democrats will be huge losers (not that Obama will care much about that) if they claim an austerity mandate and agree to a grand bargain that cuts Social Security. Obama might need a majority of Republicans to back him on it, and they might actually do it if they end up loosing a bunch of seats. Of course, getting Republican votes is what will make Obama happiest. And I wouldn't expect great supreme court nominees either- I think the bus is fired up and ready to roll over any and all left-of-center opposition as Obama remakes the Democratic party fully and irrevocably into the other party of business.

    If Romney wins, I expect he'll claim a mandate for cutting taxes and re-jiggering the ACA (reduce or eliminate subsidies...) Democrats will roll over and play nice most likely.

    If the electoral gods are upset, there is still the outside chance for a 269-269 tie giving us president Romney and Vice President... Biden? All bets are off if that happens. Most likely won't be pleasant.

  • castanea on November 04, 2012 12:28 AM:

    The truth is that if Obama wins, there will continue to be a fair number of spineless emoprogs who will whine that he STILL hasn't given them a pony, and that he STILL won't bring them milk and cookies when tucks them into bed each night.

    And if Romney wins, there will continue to be a fair number of spineless emoprogs who will blame their Democratic allies, but will never think to blame (1) the stupidity of the American middle class which will have continued to vote against its own self interest for bigoted reasons, and (2) their own political naivete that allows them to harp continually on ideologically impure but electable Democrats while not taking responsibility when those ideologically impure but electable Democrats are replaced with rightwing teabaggers.

  • FlipYrWhig on November 04, 2012 2:12 AM:

    "Grand bargain" doesn't mean cutting benefits. It means tying revenue increases to spending cuts. Not all spending cuts are benefit cuts. So be wary of what cuts get proposed, but don't presume it has to affect benefits.