Daily Archives: November 26, 2012
A whole bunch of elections – most significantly a presidential election – were held in the United States on November 6, 2012. Given the international interest in this election and considering how almost every political observer around the world knows at least a little about American politics and political history, I figured that I should approach the post-election coverage of these American elections in a slightly different way. We know the candidates, we know the background to this election and we know how the campaign went along. Rather than covering the results in my usual fashion, this post has a mish-mash of my observations about the results, the exit polls, the surprises, the trends and the geography of this all. This post is extremely long, but it has been divided into headers so you can pick and choose what interests you.
It must be noted that the results used in this post are not final; there are still tons of absentees and early votes yet to be counted. The final, hard results should only be known in December. I don’t really like talking about results when we are only dealing with unofficial and incomplete results, but it will have to do for now. Please keep in mind that the numbers used here are not the final results and that they will be different from the final results when they come out.
Some media sources have apparently been a bit lazy at updating their results with the full results from each state’s updated results, but the US Election Atlas appears to be the best at keeping up with results from each state. Fox News (sorry liberals!) has the best layout for presenting the results of the exit polls.
Barack Obama/Joe Biden (D) 50.79% winning 332 EVs
Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan (R) 47.49% winning 206 EVs
Gary Johnson/James Gray (L) 0.99%
Jill Stein/Cheri Honkala (G) 0.36%
All others winning less than 0.1%
Obama (D) +3.31%
Yes, I do not use the “blue Dem-red GOP” colour scheme (I use the opposite).
The status-quo and polarization prevails
The conclusion was, regardless of one’s feelings about the results themselves, fairly anti-climatic. After a grueling campaign which lasted for over a year in total, after tons of money spent, after bombarding every swing state vote with ads depicting the other candidate as the anti-Christ; the end was very anti-climatic, all over by 11:15 on election night (less than half an hour longer than in 2008). The results presented fairly few surprises, indicating that the polling averages were on the whole fairly correct in calling each state.
Ultimately, the status-quo prevailed: President Obama was reelected fairly comfortably (in the electoral college), the Democrats retained the Senate but the Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives. A lot of voters were thirsty for “change” of some kind, but in the end, what they got was, more or less, a return to square one, where they stood prior to November 6.
Obama’s victory was not inevitable. With sluggish economic growth, unemployment hovering at 8% for months (even if the economy is slowly improving) and rising concern over the United States’ huge public debt, Obama was not in an overly strong position. While it was certainly not a case of not scoring on an open goal, Obama’s reelection was not inevitable and the Republicans – with a better candidate – could have won this election. Romney’s failure speaks to his own problems as a candidate but also the problems the Republicans as a party face with the wider electorate.
Romney was not a good candidate, but despite the wild fantasies of some Democratic partisans, being a fairly bad candidate did not sink his candidacy. His image as an “elitist rich guy” who did not understand the problems of the “middle-class”, an image which he himself contributed to with comments such as “the 47%” did not help his case, but it did not sink him either. His past as a “flip-flopper” and the view that Romney did not really have any personal, deeply ingrained personal ideological convictions but rather opportunistically adopted the policy positions which would provide him with the most political benefits hurt his image as well. To a certain extent, the Democrats were able to define Romney before Romney defined himself; but they were unable to scuttle his candidacy (a la McGovern ’72 or Mondale ’84).
Romney had been able to significantly improve his image following the first debate, during which Obama sleepwalked and allowed Romney to walk all over him. If the polls were correct, Romney’s strong performance in the first debate narrowed the race down to a tie in the national popular vote (down from a major Obama advantage, post-DNC). In retrospect, looking at the results, it appears as if the first debate ultimately made little difference. Obama swept every swing state except North Carolina, including even Florida.
The first debate may have only rekindled Republican enthusiasm and motivation, which had been severely depressed by Romney’s terrible campaign in September (notably ‘47%’) and Bill Clinton at the DNC. While Romney, as it currently stands, actually won less raw votes that John McCain in 2008, he will probably end up with more votes than McCain when all the votes have been counted.
Romney’s debate victory narrowed the race, but it is possible that it would have narrowed anyway, only later in October, as conservatives got more motivated to vote as the election got closer. Therefore, Romney possibly surged too early and narrowed the race too early. He was unable to sustain his momentum, even if the race remained close.
If one agrees that Romney was a weak candidate and that relatively few of his own voters were overly, 100% enthusiastic about him; the fact that he still pulled 48% of the popular vote indicates two things: that American politics are extremely polarized and that the sluggish economy hurt Obama.
The weak economy of course precluded Obama from winning a landslide re-election, even against the worst imaginable candidates (of the Sarah Palin genre), but American politics has become so polarized since 2000 that it is extremely hard to imagine either Republicans or Democrats winning a presidential election with over 58-60% of the popular vote. Politics and the parties have changed since the days of Reagan’s 1984 landslide over Walter Mondale or Nixon’s 1973 shellacking of George McGovern, making a repeat of these elections near-impossible in the modern day.
Both parties have become less ideologically diverse: moderate or centrist Republicans (“Rockefeller Republicans” and the like) are very much a dying breed, chased out by conservatives hell-bent on ideological purity; while conservative/moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats and Southern white Democrats in general are also facing rapid extinction, while many liberals are increasingly hostile to these “Blue Dogs” who don’t necessarily abide to the Democratic agenda. Obama’s presidency has increased polarization, with the radicalization of the conservative movement (the Tea Party) while the Democrats continue their transition to some kind of “true progressivism”, notably with Obama endorsing gay marriage.
Romney was a flawed and poor candidate, but in the field of Republican contenders in 2012 he was likely one of their strongest, which can say a lot about how they stand as a party. Newt Gingrich turned into a weird crackpot during the primaries and would have lost by an even bigger margin; Rick Santorum might have played better with white working-class voters but his social conservatism and obsession with homosexuals would likely mean that he would still have lost (at least) by a similar margin as Mitt Romney. Ron Paul is harder to quantify, with some insisting that he would win a phenomenal landslide and others insisting he is totally unelectable. Jon Huntsman is similarly hard to quantify: more centrist, pragmatic and moderate he could have performed well in the general election, but at the same time he would probably have struggled with conservatives.
The fairly close finish in the popular vote (Obama has won by a margin a bit bigger than Bush’s 2004 2.7% PV margin over Kerry) and the electoral map confirms that American politics remain deeply polarized and divided along deep fault lines.
A nation divided by race
One of the biggest fault lines in American politics remains race/ethnicity. Whites made up 72% of the electorate according to the exit poll, down from 74% in 2008. Mitt Romney won whites by 20 points (59-39), whereas John McCain had won whites by 12 points in 2008. Obama’s victory in 2008, as in 2012, was dependent upon a strong coalition of ethnic minorities. Blacks still made up 13% of the electorate on November 6, the same percentage as four years ago, and Obama won them by 87 points (93-6), down slightly from a 91% advantage over McCain in 2008.
The most crucial part of Obama’s winning “rainbow” coalition were Hispanics/Latinos, who made up 10% of the electorate (up from 9% in 2008). In the 2008 election, Obama had won a decisive advantage over John McCain with Hispanics, carrying them by 36 points whereas John Kerry had won them by only 13 points over George W. Bush in 2004. This year, Obama actually increased his margins with Hispanic voters, carrying them by a huge 44 points (71 to 27) over Mitt Romney. The electoral weight of Hispanics proved decisive in the swing states of Nevada (19% of voters, Obama +47), Colorado (14% of voters, Obama +52), Florida (17% of voters, Obama +21) but also in other states such as California (where exit polls report that Romney won whites by 10). In Florida, the Republicans even lost their historic advantage with Cuban voters: the exit poll in Florida reveals that Cubans, who made up 6% of the electorate, voted for Obama by 2 points (49-47). This is the first time that Florida Cubans have backed a Democrat; Bill Clinton in 1996 lost them but likely came close to even.
Latino Decisions, a Hispanic-based pollster with a very good track record with Hispanic voters (they accurately predicted that Obama would increase his margin with Hispanics), had similar results in their exit poll. They found that Obama won them by 52 points (75-23), though they say that Cubans voted for Romney (in Florida, he supposedly won them by 29 – 64-35?; and by 10 nationally, 54-44). In contrast, they say that Mexicans voted 78-20 for Obama and Puerto Ricans backed him 88-14.
Asian-Americans made up 3% of the electorate, up from 2% in 2008. Here again, Obama actually increased his margin of victory; from 27 points to 47 points in 2012. We should be careful in interpreting this data, given that this year’s exit poll is a bit dodgy: only 31 states (rather than all 50) had a complete exit polls, and they called only enough people in the 19 other states to get a statistically significant sample. Therefore, the Asian sub-sample might be a bit heavy on California; but it is clear that there was a significant swing to Obama with Asian-Americans. Obama had won them by 29 in California in 2008, he won them by 58 (79-21) this year. Precinct-level results in predominantly Asian towns in the Bay Area and LA will confirm whether this is true or not, but I would be surprised if the exit polls were wildly off.
What might explain the swings to Obama with Hispanics and Asians? The Republican Party’s right-wing positions on immigration issues, most notably Arizona’s SB 1070 and Mitt Romney saying that illegals should “self-deport” before applying for citizenship did not help matters with Republicans. Even if some Hispanics like Puerto Ricans are natural-born US citizens, they might perceive the GOP’s policies and controversial laws such as SB 1070 as an attack on themselves. On the other hand, Obama has not followed through on his 2008 promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but his administration recently launched a program to allow young undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits.
Asian-Americans, highly educated, white-collar, affluent and in some cases fairly small-c conservative, could be expected to be Republicans. In fact, they used to be Republicans: Asians backed George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in 1992 and 1996; but since then the GOP’s share of the vote with Asian-Americans has declined election after election. However, the GOP’s shift to the right – particularly towards Christian conservatism/traditionalism, has been very poorly received by Asian-Americans, who tend to be secular (or whose religious values are different than those of traditional Abrahamic religions) and highly value education. In addition, the “anti-science” rhetoric of some Republicans is another big turn off for Asian voters. Finally, immigration likely played a role. While Hispanics are more directly affected by immigration policy, a lot of Asian-Americans are also recent immigrants and they are, as a result, allergic to some of the GOP’s quasi-nativist rhetoric on immigration.
Asian-Americans, similar to Asian societies, are less distrustful of prevailing institutions – notably government – than “white Americans” tend to be. As a result, Asians are very pro-incumbent and supportive of the existing order.
The Republicans have a clear demographic problem. Mitt Romney could have won the election with his 20 point margin over Obama, but it would have required a decrease in minority turnout since 2008. A lot of Republicans and those behind the “unskewed polls” hogwash were banking on whites increasing their share of the electorate, but minority turnout remained at 2008 heights. They should have read the trend lines: the share of white voters in the whole electorate has declined almost consistently since 1980, from nearly 90% of the electorate to barely over 70% of the electorate. Nothing in politics lasts forever, and Obama’s “rainbow coalition” could very well disintegrated somewhat by 2016, but one thing which seems fairly certain is that minorities will make up an increasingly large proportion of the electorate in upcoming elections. Therefore, the Republican Party’s overwhelmingly white electorate is, in the long term, unsustainable unless they win over even more whites (but at 60% of the vote, they will soon hit a ceiling).
It is urgent that the Republicans reach out to Hispanic and Asian voters, the two fastest-growing minorities in the US. Appealing to Hispanics does not mean merely packaging their current rhetoric and ideology differently, with a Hispanic candidate or running-mate. It means, in good part, taking a deep look at where they stand ideologically and re-evaluate their party’s political positioning – especially on issues such as immigration. It is not impossible, after all, George W. Bush lost them by only 13 points in 2004 in part because he emphasized more moderate positions on immigration reform. However, it probably requires moderation on issues such as immigration. While a lot of potential 2016 GOP candidates, most significantly former FL Governor Jeb Bush have moderate positions on immigration reform, it is easier said than done. The GOP primary electorate is conservative and (very) right-wing, it forced Mitt Romney to the right. Even if he returned to more centrist positions in the first debate, he was unable to shake off some of his baggage inherited from a grueling primary in which he needed to prove that he was not a “Massachusetts liberal”. In 2016, it is conceivable that even more “moderate” candidates like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie would be pushed to the right by the primary electorate if they were actively determined to win the nomination.
Appealing to Asian voters is not overly difficult – a lot of them are fairly fiscally conservative and would probably vote for a more moderate GOP which places emphasis on fiscal conservatism rather than arguing semantics of rape. However, in this case, again, it requires the GOP to re-evaluate where it stands and move in a more moderate direction.
That being said, the post-election talk about GOP collapse is likely overhyped. There was similar talk of the GOP being “doomed” after Obama’s victory in 2008, while observers had said the same thing for Democrats after the 2004. The GOP is not facing electoral oblivion or anything close to collapse, and no electoral coalition in the United States should be taken as permanent. However, the GOP does face long-term demographic and structural problems in winning elections.
Race remains the most salient divide in American politics. The exit polls confirm that race neutralizes some of the effect of age, gender and religion on vote choice. All white age groups, from 18-29 to 65+, voted for Romney with margins ranging from 7 points to 23 points. Both white men and women voted for Romney, even though there was still a major gender gap: white men backed Romney by 27, white women ‘only’ backed him by 14 points. Finally, even though Obama won Catholics (by 2), he lost non-Hispanic Catholics by a full 19 points (59-40).
Black and Hispanic men and women both backed Obama by huge margins, but it is interesting to point out that while Obama lost 8 points with black men and gained only 1 point with Hispanic men compared to 2008, he remained at those levels with black women and gained a full 8 points with Hispanic women. He lost the most ground with young (18-29) and middle-aged (45-64) blacks. With Hispanics, he gained the most with young adults (30-44) and middle-aged adults (45-64).
A gender gap
There was a stark gender gap in this election (10 points up from 7 in 2008; the difference between the men’s D-R margin and the women’s D-R margin is 18 points, up from 12 in 2008), as in the 2008 election, which is nothing new in American elections but which has become fairly rare in other Western democracies. Women backed Obama by 11 points, men backed Romney by 7 points; and even when race is taken into account, as noted above, the gender gap is not eliminated. In 2008, Obama had won women by 13 and males by a single point. As mentioned above, both white men and women voted for Romney, but white men backed him by 27 points and women backed him only by 14 points.
Obama lost 4 points with males, falling from 49% support in 2008 to 45% support this year. However, he only lost 1 point with women, falling from 56% to 55%. He lost a full 6 points with white men but shed a more modest 4 points with white women. Obama’s stable support with women voters nationwide is due in large part to a substantial increase in support (+8) with Hispanic women. There is now a stark 11-point gender gap with Hispanics, up from a small 4-point gender gap between Hispanic men and women in 2008. Latino Decisions did not find a sizable gender gap in their exit poll, however.
Democrats talked a lot about the GOP’s “war on women”, a term referring to the policies of various Republican governors (notably in Virginia and Pennsylvania) seeking to restrict access to abortion (mandatory ultrasounds, gestational limits on abortion). Obama’s campaign targeted women voters and placed a large emphasis on “women’s issues”, including notably pay equity and access to contraception. In contrast, Romney struggled with women and his answer on a pay equity question in the second presidential debate (“binders full of women”) became the butt of many jokes. The Democrats criticized Romney for wanting to defund Planned Parenthood and seeking to restrict women’s access to contraception. His position on pay equity and the Lilly Ledbetter Act was also very vague. The GOP’s precarious standing with women was further weakened with the rape comments from Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Tom Smith.
Marital status, as in 2008, had an impact on vote choice. The 60% of voters who were married backed Romney by 14 (56-42) and the 40% of voters who were not married backed Obama by 27 (62-35). Both married men and women backed Romney, but the gender gap was persistent: married men backed him by 22, married women only backed him by 7. Both unmarried men and women backed Obama, with another large gender gap: unmarried men backed the President by 16 but he had a huge 36 point margin over Romney with unmarried women.
Mothers backed Obama by 13 points (56-43), a larger margin than women without children (he won them by 9). Fathers backed Romney by 8, men without children backed him by 3.
In addition to his “rainbow coalition” of minorities and white liberals, Obama’s strong support with women – especially non-white women – was another major factor which contributed to his victory. The gender gap also helped Democrats in key Senate races.
Age and vote choice
As in 2008, Obama’s support decreased with age. He won 60% of the 18-24 vote, but lost the 65+ vote by 12 points (56-44). Obama hence retained his unusually high levels of support with younger voters (who, while traditionally Democratic, did not historically back Democrats with such margins) even though he did shed 6 points off his 2008 records with those 18-24 and 25-29. We need to remember that age categories change from election to election, a lot of those who were 18-24 in 2008 are now in the 25-29 category and so on and so forth. There was much less youth enthusiasm about Obama this year, although it remained high and he was succesful in mobilizing a large amount of younger voters.
Obama’s support with those 30-39 and 40-49 remained essentially stable: up 1 with the former, down 1 with the former. I am not sure what this may indicate, if anything, but is Obama’s very strong showing with those aged 30-39 a rare example of a cohort effect? It is noteworthy to point out that those aged 50-64 and 65 and over did not budge all that much either: Obama lost 3 with the former and and 1 with the latter. Paul Ryan and his “Ryan plan” did not scare seniors away, though they barely swung to Romney.
Therefore, Obama lost the most support with younger voters, including a sizable number of which are first-time voters. It is sometimes said that those who come of voting age during a recession tend to be more conservative, and this year’s result could indicate that. Was the weak economy, higher youth unemployment and fears about finding a job post-graduation of particular concern to younger voters, hence turning them away from Obama?
Keep in mind, as noted above, that Obama gained support with Hispanic young adults (30-44) and middle-aged adults (45-64).
The importance of income, class and education
Family income and the level of education had a significant impact on vote choice, as in previous elections. This year, Obama’s support ranged from 63% with the poorest 20% (a total family income under $30,000) to 42% with the “top 4%” (total family income over $250,000). However, as is traditionally the case, Obama’s support by income level formed a bit of a parabolic curve. He performed best with the poorest Americans, those earning under $30,000, beating Romney by 28 points (63-35) and his support decreased in each successive income level under $200,000: 57% and a 15 point win with those earning $30,000 to $49,999; 46% and a 6 point deficit with those earning $50,000 to $99,999 and 44% and a 10 point deficit with those earning $100,000 to $199,999. However, Obama’s support picked up with those earning $200,000 to $249,000 – he lost them, but only by 5 points (52-47). His support falls significantly with the top 4%, he lost them by 13 points and won only 42% of their vote.
Compared to the 2008 exit polls, Obama resisted better with lower-income groups while he lost more heavily with higher-income groups. His support with the lowest 20% did fall by a fairly significant amount, from 66.5% to 63% (-3.5); but he gained 2 points with the next level ($30,000-$49,999). Going up the income ladder, Obama’s losses become larger and larger: -3.5 with those earning $50k to $100k, -4 with those earning $100k to $200k and -7.5 with those earning over $200k. Looking at the results through larger categories, common to both the 2008 and 2012 exit polls (the decimals in the comparisons above are due to averaging two income categories in the 2008 exit polls) confirm that Obama shed the most support with the higher-income groups: he remained at 2008 levels with those earning under $50,000 but lost 4 points with those earning over that amount.
Obama’s stronger resistance with lower-income levels in general and his heavier loses with wealthier Americans, particularly those in the top 2 echelons, likely reflects Obama and Romney’s comparative appeal as candidates. Romney’s “elitist rich guy” image, combined with the “47%” probably hurt his image with lower-income Americans, but an observation of the results by counties reveals that he did not suffer much from that image problem in lower-income white areas. Obama’s more populist campaign and fears of higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans certainly hurt his standing with the upper middle-class and the top 4%, weakening his strong appeal, in 2008, to liberal/moderate upper middle-class suburbanites. That being said, it is unfortunate that the exit polls did not break down income groups by race, as they had done (to a limited extent) in 2008. It is clear that more affluent blacks and Hispanics are slightly less Democratic than their poorer counterparts, but it would be interesting to have some data on the white vote by income levels. To a large extent, Obama’s strong support with lower-income levels (and his strong resistance with them) reflects his strong support (and strong resistance) with blacks and Hispanics, who are poorer than the average white American.
Education level is correlated with income, and Obama’s support forms an even clearer parabolic curve (as in 2008 and previous elections). He beat Romney by 19 points (64-35) with those without a HS diploma, he won HS graduates by 3 (51-48), won those with some college by 1 (49-48) but lost college graduates by 4 (51-47) to Romney. He won those with a postgraduate degree by 13 points (55-42). Again, this parabolic curve reflects the modern Democratic coalition: lower-income minorities who tend to have more limited education combined with middle-class suburbanites and urban white liberals who are highly educated. It would be interesting to control for race in this question, as it would reveal a different story with white voters only (in the 2008 exit polls, Obama did far worse with non-college grad whites than white college grad whites).
Compared to the 2008 election, the education levels also reflect Obama’s resistance with lower-income groups (who tend to have less certifications) and his heavier loses with higher-income groups (who tend to be more educated). He gained 1 point with those 3% who have no HS diploma, but lost 3% with those with a postgrad degree.
A nation divided by religiosity (and religion)
Religion – more specifically the lack thereof and one’s religious practice (religiosity) – retained their strong influence on voting patterns in this election. At the headline level, Protestants backed Romney by 25 points (62-37) and Catholics backed Obama by 2 (50-48). Obama retained his strong hold on those with no religion (70-26), those with another religion (73-24) and Jews (69-30). He won “other Christians” by 1 (50-49). Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential candidate for a major party, won 78% of the Mormon vote (2% of the electorate), trouncing Obama by 57 points with his correligionists. However, these headline results hide many things.
When controlling for race, Obama lost both white Protestants/other Christians and white Catholics by large margins (39 points and 19 points respectively), while he won white Jews, ‘others’ and ‘none’ by big margins. Obama lost a significant amount of support with white Catholics, down 7 points from 47% in 2008 to 40% this year. His administration’s policy compelling religiously-affiliated employers to cover contraception and birth control costs led to a rift with the Catholic Church earlier this year and led Republicans to speak of a “war on religion”. Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage might have alienated some white Catholics, but it certainly had no effect on predominantly Catholic Hispanics.
Obama also lost significantly with Jewish voters, losing a full 9 points – from 78% to 69%. In this case, Obama’s fairly conflictual relationship with the Israeli government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have played a role. Some Jews might have seen Romney as more pro-Israeli than Obama (Israel is a major issue for Jewish-American voters).
Romney’s huge advantage with white Protestants hides something else: white evangelical Christians. Romney won white evangelical or born-again Christians by 57 points (78-21). Obama lost 3 points with these voters, and Romney regained George W. Bush’s 2004 level of support with these voters (despite the historical tension between Mormons and evangelicals). Their share of the electorate remained the same, at roughly 26% of all voters – indicating that Romney’s Mormon faith did not depress turnout with evangelicals. With non-evangelical Protestants, Romney beat Obama by about 10 points – the same amount by which McCain had beaten Obama with those voters in 2008.
It is interesting to point out that while Romney’s support with Mormons is huge, it is actually slightly smaller than Bush’s 2004 support with Mormons. In 2004, Bush won them by 61 points (80-19).
Religiosity/religious attendance remained major variables, especially with Protestants. Romney won Protestants who attend church weekly by 41 (70-29) but won those Protestants who do not attend weekly by 11. Obama won Catholics who do not attend church weekly, by 14, but lost those who do by 15. Therefore, there is a big gap between those voters who attend church on a weekly basis and those voters who either never attend church (Obama’s strongest demographics) or attend church less often.
A lot was said about ‘party ID’ (voter self-identification with a political party or as an independent) this year, especially in regards to polls. A lot of Republicans never bought into most polls showing Obama leading Romney because they doubted that Democrats had a significant edge over Republicans in party ID, leading a few of them to “unskew” the polls by removing the Democratic edge on party ID. Republicans insisted that their base was far more enthusiastic in 2012 than in 2008, while Democrats would be less motivated this year. Prominent Republican strategists, right-leaning pollsters (Rasmussen) and conservative pundits (notably the huge airhead Dick Morris) used models with a tied party ID to predict a Romney victory.
Their delusions were proven wrong. According to the exit poll, the electorate was “D+6” (meaning that there were 6% more Democrats than Republicans in the electorate), which is in line with what other pollsters (PPP among others) had usually predicted and similar to the partisan ID of the 2008 electorate (D+7). Democrats made up 38% of the electorate, down 1% from 2008, and Obama won them 92-7 (up from 89-10 in 2008); Republicans made up 32% of voters, and Romney won them 93-6 (up from 90-9 in 2008). Independents made up 29% of the electorate, and Romney won them by 5 points (50-45), whereas Obama had won them by 8 in 2008. The “independents” have shifted to the right since 2008, in good part because a fair number of Republicans and a lot of Tea Party activists identify as independents rather than Republicans.
The share of both self-identified liberals and conservatives in the electorate increased at the expense of self-identified moderates. Liberals grew from 22% to 25%, conservatives grew from 34% to 35% while moderates went from 44% to 41% of voters. Moderates backed Obama 56-41.
Issues and Candidates
Unsurprisingly, 59% of voters identified the economy as the most important issue facing the US, out of a choice of four issues (foreign policy, federal deficit and health care were the other issues). Romney actually narrowly won those who identified the economy as their top concern, by 4 (51-47). The 18% who said health care was the most important issue heavily supported Obama, by 51 points (75-24) and the 15% who were most concerned by the deficit backed Romney by 34.
In terms of economic problems, an equal number of respondents cited unemployment and rising prices as the biggest economic problems (38% and 37% respectively, 14% said taxes and 8% said the housing market). Obama won those most concerned by unemployment (by 10) and both Obama and Romney tied with those concerned about rising prices. Unsurprisingly, the small minority who cited taxes as the biggest economic problem backed Romney by 34 points.
The exit poll also asked for voters’ views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, Obamacare, taxes, the economy and government intervention. On abortion, 59% of voters agreed that it should be legal either in all cases or most cases with 36% who felt it should be illegal in all or most cases. Not surprisingly, each candidate’s electorate diverged significantly on abortion: 67% of those who said it should be legal backed Obama, 77% of those who said it should be illegal backed Romney.
Obamacare polarized both candidate’s supporters while the overall electorate was split on the issue, a narrow plurality (49%) wanting to repeal parts of it or all of it (44% wanted to either expand it or keep it as is). Only 11% of Americans who want to keep Obamacare (or expand it) backed Romney and only 15% of those who want to repeal parts/all of it backed Obama.
On the issue of tax rates, 47% of voters want tax increases only on those earning over $250,000 but a sizable 35% do not want any increases in taxes, for anyone. 70% of those who agreed with the first statement voted Obama, while 75% of those who agreed with the latter statement voted for Romney. Interestingly, among the small 13% who want tax increases for all, the two candidates were more closely matched (52-44 for Obama).
Americans remain pessimistic about the current economy but a bit more optimistic about the future. While only 23% thought the economy was excellent or good, 39% said the economy was getting better. Then again, 30% said the economy was getting worse. Those whose view of the current economy is the bleakest and who are the most pessimistic about the future backed Romney: 85% of those who said the economy’s condition was “poor” (31% of voters) backed him as did 90% of the 30% who thought it was getting worse. This is, unsurprisingly, the reverse of 2008, when Obama was the challenger to the incumbent party. Obama was able to beat Romney by 13 (55-42) with the 45% of Americans who said the economy’s condition wasn’t so good.
Likewise, those who said that their family’s financial situation improved since 2008 (25%) backed Obama heavily (84-15) and those who said their family’s financial situation got worse since 2008 (33%) backed Romney (80-18). The 52% of Americans who said that things in the US were off on the wrong track backed Romney 84-13, Obama won with the 46% who though things were in the right direction (93-6).
Luckily for Obama, 53% of voters blamed George W. Bush more for the country’s current economic problems and only 38% blamed him more.
On government intervention, most voters (51%) said that government is doing too many things that are better left to businesses and individuals while 43% said it should do more. Obama did manage 24% of the vote with the 51% who said government is doing too much, Romney won only 17% with those who said it should do more.
On gay marriage, 49% of respondents felt that their state should ‘recognize’ gay marriager and 46% said it should not. Obama won the former group by 48, Romney won the latter by 49. The exit poll, for the first time, asked respondents if they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. 5% said that they were, these voters backed Obama by 54 points (76-22) while the two tied with the 95% who identified as heterosexual.
On “candidate qualities” which mattered most, no one category dominated though “has a vision for the future” and “share my values” were the top two qualities. In both cases, Romney won voters who said that either of these qualities mattered most to them, in both cases by roughly 10 points. However, 21% of voters said that a candidate who “cares about people like me” was the most important quality in a candidate, and Obama crushed Romney with those voters – 81 to 18. Romney beat him 61-38 with the 18% who said being a “strong leader” was the most important quality for them.
For the two in ten voters whose candidate choice was made, in part, on empathy, Obama trounced Romney. However, asked of all voters, 43% said that Romney was most in touch with people like them (against 53% for Obama).
Romney won a one-point edge over Obama on handling the economy (and a two-point edge on the deficit), but Obama had a 8-point advantage on handling Medicare. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s strongest suit was foreign policy and handling an international crisis. 57% of voters trusted him to handle an international crisis, against 50% who said the same of Mitt Romney.
With the electorate on November 6, Obama’s approval rating spread was +9 (54 approve, 45 disapprove). That being, those who disapprove of Obama strongly disapprove: 33% strongly disapproved against only 13% who somewhat disapproved of his job as President. Obama had a +7 favourability rating, while Romney’s favourable rating with the electorate was underwater, slightly (-3). Obama had an edge, but America remains closely polarized. A final example: voters split 49-49 on their opinions of Obama’s administration.
Obama’s Swing State sweep
Even as the race tightened up seriously after Romney’s victory in the first debate, Obama remained an edge in what really matters in American elections – the electoral college map. His campaign had been able to build up a “firewall” in the electoral college, giving the President an advantage over Romney in the case of a tied popular vote (or even a narrow Romney victory in the popular vote). Obama’s firewall included, in the Midwest, the key swing state of Ohio (the tipping state of 2004) where Obama maintained a narrow but consistent lead in nearly every single opinion poll throughout the 2012 campaign. In the west, Obama’s firewall included Colorado and Nevada while New Mexico – a swing state as late as 2004 – was safely in Obama’s column. Romney’s campaign hoped that the Paul Ryan pick would swing Wisconsin in their direction, and while it did tighten a bit after the Ryan pick and after the first debate, it remained out of reach for Republicans. Similarly, as in 2008, Republicans got tempted by fool’s gold in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota – feeling that those three traditionally Democratic but not overwhelmingly so states were within reach.
There’s not much point in reiterating what was said during the campaign, but Obama’s firewall was solid. Obama could have won with all the Kerry 2004 states, plus Ohio and Nevada. In contrast, while Romney could do without Bush 2004 states such as Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada; Ohio and Florida were basically must-win states for him.
Going into November 6, Obama had the lead in every state he won back in 2008 except Indiana (a repeat of Obama’s spectacular 2008 victory in traditionally solidly Republican Indiana was never a real possibility), North Carolina (the second tightest of the Obama 2008 states) and Florida. On election night, Obama successfully swept every single swing state – including Florida – except North Carolina.
What is more, Obama outperformed his polling average in almost every single swing state. RealClearPolitics (RCP) had him up 1.7 in Colorado (won by 5.5), down 1.5 in Florida (won by 0.9), up 2.4 in Iowa (won by 5.8), up 4 in Michigan (won by 9.5), up 2.8 in Nevada (won by 6.6), up 2 in New Hampshire (won by 5.6), down 3 in North Carolina (lost by 2.1), up 3.8 in Pennsylvania (won by 5), up 0.3 in Virginia (won by 3.7) and up 4.2 in Wisconsin (won by 6.7).
The only state where Obama did not outperform his polling was in Ohio – yes, Ohio. RCP had him up by 2.9 in Ohio, but he only won the state by 2. As more votes get counted in Ohio – largely votes from Democratic counties – that may change, but Obama’s result in Ohio is still slightly underwhelming. What happened in Ohio? Was the result in Ohio one of the very, very rare incidences of the “Bradley effect”? For example, PPP’s last poll out of Ohio, showing Obama up 5, had him losing the white vote by 4 when the exit polls indicate that he lost the white vote in Ohio by 17.
Ultimately, Ohio did not end up as the crucial state – the so-called “tipping point state” (the state which puts a candidate over 270). Instead, Pennsylvania was the tipping point state which placed Obama over 270; while Ohio was less Democratic than the nation (as of now) and would have gone to Romney in a tied race (assuming a UNS).
On the other hand, Obama did outperform his polling in every other swing state. The best explanation is that undecided voters and late-deciders broke in his favour by a relatively solid margin, an explanation confirmed by the exit polls. They found that 3% of voters decided on election day, and Obama won them by 7 points over Romney. He also won the other 6% who said that they had decided “in the last few days”, this time by 5 points over Romney.
The conventional wisdom is that undecided voters end up breaking heavily against the incumbent, in favour of the challenger; the so-called “incumbent rule”. If an incumbent is polling below 50%, the rule argues, it is a bad omen for him/her, because undecided voters tend(ed) to break heavily against the incumbent. The veracity of this so-called ‘rule’ has not held true in recent elections, specifically the last direct incumbent-challenger battle – the 2004 election between Bush and Kerry. Bush held a 2 point lead over Kerry going into election day but was consistently below 50%, leading some to speculate that Kerry could win the election if undecideds decided heavily in his favour. Unfortunately for him and the “incumbent rule”, they did not. Kerry did not get any “undecided boost” on election day, and lost the PV by roughly 2 points. Earlier this year, polling God Nate Silver found no evidence that most undecided voters broke against the incumbent.
Ultimately, the “incumbent rule” was proven wrong in this election, as it had been in a few previous elections. In fact, Obama seemingly outperformed his final polling numbers, especially in the swing states (especially Ohio). This can either mean that undecided voters broke for him, which seems likely, and that some pollsters were simply wrong, another good possibility. In states with a large Hispanic population such as Nevada, Democrats tend to underpoll because pollsters have a notoriously hard time with their Hispanic samples – some Hispanics do not speak English or don’t speak it well.
Geography of the Vote: Obama’s Rainbow Coalition
In my discussion of the exit polls, I referred to Obama’s “rainbow coalition” of minorities, women, the youth and white liberals and how this broad and heterogeneous coalition ensured his victory. A geographical view of the results, for now at a county level, illustrates the nature of this coalition and confirm its importance not only for Obama but also the Democratic Party. At the same time, the electoral map also confirms that some of the last vestiges of the old Democratic coalition, the New Deal coalition, have completely disappeared.
The shape of this new Democratic coalition was first seen in the 2000 election and confirmed in subsequent elections. In 2008, Obama was able to expand this coalition and turn it into a winning coalition by motivating unprecedented minority and youth turnout all while reaching out to new constituencies with his unique appeal. In 2012, some parts of the Obama ’08 coalition have fallen off, but the core remains: racial/ethnic minorities, complemented by what we can call “white liberals”.Minorities were crucial to Obama’s victory in almost every single swing state and beyond, considering that the general view seems to be that Obama lost the white vote to Mitt Romney in basically every state outside New England, the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington) and parts of the Upper Midwest (Iowa/Minnesota). Even in California, the exit polls say that Romney won whites by 10 (54-44) after Obama had won them by 6 in 2008. While Romney winning whites in California (only 55% of the electorate) can make sense, a 10-point gap and an 8 point improvement over McCain’s performance is still a bit doubtful.
The county map allows us to see the key elements in Obama’s coalition. First and perhaps foremost, Democratic support is predominantly urban rather than suburban or rural. This is certainly not a recent development, but Obama has been able to strengthen the Democrats’ stranglehold on major urban areas but also expand into other urban areas which had historically been Republican. In major cities, ethnic minorities have played a major role in entrenching or strengthening . Almost all major cities in the United States are either majority-minority or have a large non-white population. Growing minority populations, specifically Hispanics, have shifted historically Republican urban areas such as Harris and Dallas Counties (Houston and Dallas, TX) into the Democratic column.
Furthermore, white voters in urban areas – young professionals, artists, students/academia, unmarried young men and women, LGBT – tend to be cosmopolitan, socially liberal and hence strongly Democratic. Obama, especially in 2008 but again in 2012, had a particularly strong appeal to these type of voters, who are, alongside minorities, a key element in the new Democratic coalition.
Obama carried basically every major urban county in the United States. While they are reliably Democratic, their large population and the large number of votes they provide for Democrats means that the Democrats cannot afford to do without strong turnout and maximized support in these urban stronghlolds. Obama’s campaign was able to mobilize the base in its urban bases very effectively, as it had been able to do in 2008.
Obama won 77.6% in Suffolk County, MA (Boston); between 79% and 91% in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (NYC; 85% in Philadelphia County, PA (Philadelphia); 87% in Baltimore City; 91% in Washington DC; 54.5% in Wake County, NC (Raleigh); 60.8% in Mecklenburg County, SC (Charlotte); 64.2% in Fulton County, GA (Atlanta); 61.6% in Miami-Dade County, FL (Miami); 52.8% in Hillsborough County, FL (Tampa); 58.7% in Orange County, FL (Orlando); 62.6% in Shelby County, TN (Memphis); 68.8% in Cuyahoga County, OH (Cleveland); 51.8% in Hamilton County, OH (Cincinnati); 73.1% in Wayne County, MI (Detroit); 74% in Cook County, IL (Chicago); 66.8% in Milwaukee County, WI; 62.5% in Hennepin County, MN (Minneapolis); 82.7% in St. Louis City, MO; 49.4% in Harris County, TX (Houston), 57.1% in Dallas County, TX (Dallas); 73.5% in Denver County, CO; 56.4% in Clark County, NV (Las Vegas); 68.6% in Los Angeles County, CA; 83.4% in San Francisco County, CA and 68.8% in King County, WA (Seattle).
Many of these cities – NYC, Philly, DC, Atlanta, Miami, Memphis, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Vegas or LA – have very large minority populations which are heavily Democratic; their voting Democratic is not surprising so Obama’s success is more his ability to mobilize turnout and maximize Democratic support. In other urban areas which are more politically diverse and which had helped Obama carry the White House in 2008, the Democrats usually resisted very well this year. They were able to mobilize their base – generally Hispanics, blacks or younger “white liberals” – as they had done in 2008.
Outside of urban areas, the Democrats find very strong support in more rural (or suburban) areas with a large minority population. The old Black Belt in the South, but also the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley (Texas), native American counties in the Dakotas or Montana and the old Spanish country in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are quite perceptible. The Black Belt in Alabama or Mississippi are not of strategic importance in the Democratic strategy, because they cannot ‘swing’ the state, but again, minorities – particularly Hispanics – proved crucial in swing states. We will come back, for example, to the key role played by Hispanics in Obama’s surprise victory in Florida.
In 2008, Obama, with an appealing brand of consensual, cosmopolitan moderate liberalism, had been able to make major inroads into affluent, politically moderate suburban counties across the country which had historically been Republican strongholds. He was the first Democrat since LBJ in 1964 to carry affluent suburban counties such as Loudoun (VA), Prince William (VA), Arapahoe (CO), Jefferson (CO), Somerset (NJ) and Chester (PA); only the second since LBJ to carry Lake County (IL) and the first Democrat since Franklin Pierce (in 1852) to carry DuPage County (IL). At the same time, he also performed very well in other affluent counties which had already been in the Democratic column such as Fairfield (CT), Westchester (NY), Montgomery (PA), Fairfax (VA), Marin (CA) or San Mateo (CA).
While growing minority populations in these counties can serve to explain part of these shifts, the major story in all of these major suburban counties is the shift of well-educated, middle-class professionals in suburban areas from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party as a result of the GOP’s shift to the right and towards socially conservative “culture wars” politics.
Romney with his businessman image not overly concerned by the culture wars, in addition to Obama’s more populist rhetoric in 2012, was presumed to be a good match for these counties. Ultimately, however, Obama was able to hold all of the aforementioned counties except Chester County, PA which he lost by a very close margin. There was no major swing, as we will see, in these counties where many had assume Romney’s businessman reputation would play well with swing voters.
At the same time, the Republicans fortified their hold on the “heartland” – white rural areas and small towns across most of the United States. There are, to be sure, still a good number of Democratic-leaning “white” rural areas – New England and the Driftless Area in Iowa/Wisconsin/Minnesota – but, by and large, the Republicans are dominant in (white) rural and small-town America. Any old Democratic tradition have almost completely died out, especially in the South but also in other parts of the country.
The urban-rural widened this year. The difference between the Obama vote in the largest areas (cities over 50k) and the smallest areas (small cities/rural) grew from 18 points to 23 points. Obama’s support remained stable in the largest cities, losing only one point in the cities over 50k. In cities over 500k, he won 69-29 and won 58-40 in cities with a population between 50k and 500k. The suburbs voted for Obama in 2008 (50-48), he lost two points there this year as they switched back to the GOP (Romney won them 50-48). Mitt Romney’s strongest gains came in small city and rural areas, which McCain had won by 8 (53-45) but which he won by 20 this year (59-39). He killed 61-37 in rural areas and won by 14 (56-42) in cities with 10k to 50k inhabitants.
Southern white Democrats are very much a dying breed outside of major urban areas. States such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia but also Alabama or Oklahoma had large pockets of (white) Democratic support at the presidential level until the 1990s and early 2000s, and while their shift to the right predates the Obama presidency – it began in 2000 and sped up in 2004 – his presidency has seen a near-annihilation of these remnants of support.
In other regions of the country, white working-class (WWC) voters – a core component of the old New Deal coalition, have swung to the right. Urban, heavily industrialized and traditionally unionized working-class areas – a lot of them with a large non-white population – remain solidly Democratic; but smaller white working-class areas which had traditionally been Democratic-leaning have shifted to the right.
The Democratic Party moved further to the left, towards a brand of progressive social liberalism embodied by the likes of Gore, Kerry and especially Obama. Traditionally conservative white Democrats in the South and throughout the country have felt, since 2000, that the Democratic Party has abandoned them and has become too liberal. At the same time, starting with George W. Bush, Republicans have been successful at reaching out to lower-income/working-class white voters, primarily in the South and the Midwest, by playing up “culture war” rhetoric and using “wedge” issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control to motivate and mobilize religious and conservative lower-income whites.
As a result, these voters have drifted further and further away from the Democratic Party – especially at the presidential level – while the Democratic Party has itself slowly drifted away from these voters towards their new “rainbow coalition”.
Democratic support in predominantly white rural areas in the South, Appalachia and the Plains has really dried up. In 2008, Arkansas and Tennessee – two states where white voters had remained Obama was never a good candidate for these voters. Already in the Democratic primary battle in 2008 he had done terribly with WWC voters and Southern whites; in the general election, there was a major countercyclical swing towards the GOP in wide swathes of heavily white rural counties in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky and parts of West Virginia (see the maps under ‘voting shifts’). Kerry had already done quite poorly in those areas in 2004 and their rightward trend predates Obama, but white support for Democratic presidential candidates had been holding up better in those Upper South states with fewer blacks (and hence lesser racial polarization and tensions) than in Deep South states such as Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. The 2008 and 2012 results show that these states are “catching up” with other states where the realignment, at the presidential level, had come with Reagan in 1980/1984.
Rural whites, lower-income whites (especially in the South) and most of the non-urban WWC have abandoned Democrats in drove, and this election – like 2004 and 2008 – only fortified the GOP hold on these voters. The novelty since 2010 (a bit earlier in some states), confirmed again this year, is that the realignment is extending to the congressional and state level. Blue Dog and white Democrats in the South are a dying breed, at all levels. The GOP gained Alabama and North Carolina’s state legislatures for the first time since Reconstruction in 2010, followed by Mississippi and Louisiana. Even in Arkansas, where the state Republican Party was in shambles until recently, Democrats are being swept out of office at the state level: the GOP gained the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction this year. In West Virginia, it is only a matter of time before the Republicans gain the state legislature, in Democratic hands since the Great Depression.
The question remains whether this GOP coalition is sustainable in the long-term without significant Republican inroads with non-white (primarily Hispanic and Asian) voters. If the Republicans can continue to peel off more and more white working-class voters, historically Democratic white “ethnics” (Irish, Polish, Italian etc) from the Democratic Party, then Rust Belt states could become more Republican. The GOP coalition as it presently stands will have a hard time winning presidential elections (where turnout is higher) unless future Democratic candidates cannot mobilize their electorate as efficiently as Obama. Any winning GOP coalition will need to make gains where they are most needed: middle-class, moderate suburban voters; Hispanic and Asian voters and younger voters.
The Shifts since 2008
The raw results of any election must be put into perspective – historical perspective – to be better understood. It is always quite instructive to look at how the different states and counties swung compared to the last election.
This map (a bit outdated), based on individual state county maps from the aforementioned US Election Atlas (under each state, rollover the ‘swing’ and ‘trend’ buttons) shows the “swing” from the last election. In this case, the “swing” refers to the change in the D-R margin compared to the 2008 election. For example, the United States as a whole had a +7.26% margin for Obama in 2008 and this year it had a +2.96% margin – the US swung by 4.3% towards the Republicans. The “trend” map is the change in the D-R margin relative to the change in the national margin (states which swung by less than 4.3% in the Republican direction “trended” Democratic). The New York Times, with even more outdated results, shows the shift since 2008 using some annoying arrows. I’m not sure what methodology the NYT used, but the results seem basically identical to the swing maps.
Utah, West Virginia, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota had the five biggest swings against Obama in the country, all five states registering a swing of over 10% (nearly 20% in Utah’s case). Mississippi, New Jersey, Louisiana, Maryland and Alaska are the only four states which swung to Obama this year.
Utah is unsurprising. Romney won 72.8% of the vote in the state, the biggest percentage of the vote for a Republican in Utah since Ronald Reagan in 1980. As the first major party Mormon nominee, Romney received a very big “favourite son” vote from his correligionists. Obama must have done fairly decently with the Mormon vote in the 2008 election, winning 34% of the vote in Utah – which was the best showing for a Democrat since 1968. Obama had even won Salt Lake County, home to Salt Lake City, by a narrow margin. The Mormon vote swung heavily in Romney’s direction this year.
This swing is, of course, most perceptible in Utah but it also shows up in eastern Nevada and some counties in Wyoming. However, the swing in heavily Mormon and solidly Republican eastern Idaho was fairly small, with the exception of three counties directly bordering Utah. Eastern Idaho, known for being extremely conservative (perhaps moreso than Utah), had already been voting Republican by huge margins (over 70% of the vote), so the GOP was perhaps already hovering close to the ceiling (unlike in Utah).
West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian coal country, used to be a Democratic stronghold at all levels because of its large unionized working-class (coal miners) population. After the New Deal and the rise of unions such as the UMW, West Virginia voted for Democratic presidential candidates between 1932 and 2000 with the exception of 1956, 1972 and 1984. Democratic candidates usually polled over 60%, sometimes over 70%, of the vote in the “coal counties” of southern West Virginia. After Clinton had won the state by nearly 15 points in his two elections, George W. Bush won the state by a 6 point margin over Al Gore in the 2000 election. John Kerry lost the state by 12.9, Obama lost it by 13.1 points in 2008. This year, he lost by a massive 26.9 point margin, and failed to carry a single county in the state (the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has failed to carry even a single county in WV).
Environmental policies combined with the national Democrats’ shift towards socially liberal policies (including abortion, gay marriage but also gun control). West Virginia’s struggling economy is still fairly dependent on coal (including mountaintop removal mining), which has been targeted by environmental policies as being particularly “dirty” and environmentally damaging. Gore’s strong stance on environmental issues in the 2000 election, along with the salient issue of gun control in that election, explains the definitive shift away from the national Democrats in 2000. Since then, national Democrats have pursued policies which have alienated traditionally conservative and religious West Virginians from the national Democratic Party. Once again, Obama was never a good fit for the white working-class in Appalachia. At the base, race likely plays a role, but Obama is perceived in these milieus as a liberal “big city” politician (from Chicago and its “machine politics”, no less) similarly to how Kerry had been perceived and painted in the ‘heartland’ as an “elitist east coast liberal”. Furthermore, Obama’s 2008 rhetoric of “change” and “bipartisanship” was far more appealing to affluent middle-class (and white-collar) professionals, minorities or “white liberals” – not WWC voters who have been struggling economically for years.
Since 2008, the coal industry has been having a really hard time. The White House’s environmental policies (cap-and-trade, EPA regulations) and the natural gas boom (due to hydraulic fracking) have badly hurt the coal industry, which is facing terminal decline. Given that WV’s economy is still largely dependent on “dirty” coal (it is also by far the state’s main source of energy), these troubles have been hurting voters directly and they have resented that the administration is abandoning coal in favour of renewable energies or coal. The swing in coal country is the last stand of economically deprived voters who feel sidelined in the modern economy and swept up and away by new energies and the post-industrial economy.
Romney’s best congressional district – the 3rd – in which he won 65% (62.4% statewide) is ironically the most Democratic district in the state, encompassing most of the “coal counties” of southern WV. The swing against Obama had already been huge in those counties in 2008, but he had managed to narrowly carry two coal counties – Boone and McDowell. This year again, the swing was heaviest in the southern “coal counties”. Romney won 70.1% in Mingo County (Democratic between 1928 and 2008 except for 1972), 68.8% in Logan County (Democratic between 1928 and 2008), 64.2% in Bonne County (Democratic since 1920 save for 1972) and 64.1% in McDowell (Democratic since 1936 save for 1972). These are massive swings: from 54% Obama in Boone County back in 2008 to only 32.9% this year. In 2008, Obama had managed over 53% in the latter two counties and McCain had won roughly 55% in the first two counties.
He also lost Webster County, which had voted Democratic since 1868 (with the exception of 1972). In 2008, he won 51% there, this year he won only 34% in a county with a history of coal mining and salt sulfur wells. Nicholas County, a coal mining county, had given him over 46% in 2008 but only 30.4% this year!
At the congressional and state level, the state Democrats – many of whom, including popular Senator Joe Manchin, have moved away from the toxic national party to the point of disavowing Obama (Manchin did not attend the DNC) and his policies – proved more resilient. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin defeated his Republican rival by about 5 points, while Joe Manchin took nearly 60% of the vote against John Raese (who is a terrible candidate). That being said, the writing is on the wall even for the very right-wing state Democrats. The Republicans gained 11 seats in the state’s House of Delegates and are within reach of taking control by the next election. Nick Rahall, the Democratic congressman for the 3rd CD (the last WV Democratic congressman) since 1977, won reelection but with one of his narrowest margins in his career.
Nonetheless, the extent of ticket-splitting in WV this year is quite remarkable. In some counties in southern WV, most voters probably voted for Romney (R) and Manchin (D)! In addition, the results of the presidential race and the state-level races (governor, senate) in WV show two different bases for the Democrats: the national Democratic Party base, which reflects the new nature of the party’s coalition, and the traditional working-class base of the WV Democratic Party. Obama performed best in places where WV Democrats had historically not performed extremely well. He won 46.9% in Jefferson County (he had won it in 2008), a rapidly growing DC exurb which has been trending towards the Democrats (Dukakis lost it in 1988 while winning the state…). He won 43.9% in Monongalia County, the heart of a smaller mining basin abutting on Pennsylvania, but also home to a major college town (WVU in Morgantown). He had also won it in 2008. Finally, Obama took 43.2% in Kanawha County, where Charleston is located. Obama’s performance does not correlate very much with Tomblin or Manchin’s performance, which is more reflective of the traditional support of the state Democrats – strongest in the southern “coal counties” where Romney obliterated Obama.
Coal country’s swing against the President is also very noticeable in Kentucky and western Virginia, the extensions of the Appalachian mining basin. The swings were huge in Kentucky’s Eastern Coal Fields, historically a working-class Democratic stronghold very similar to West Virginia (with the exceptions of some counties on the southwestern ends of the coal fields, which fall in the Unionist Republican strongholds dating back to the Civil War). Obama had already performed horribly in the Democratic counties of the Eastern Coal Fields, for example becoming the first Democrat since the 1880s to lose Knott and Floyd Counties. This year, he lost three other coal field counties he had narrowly taken in 2008 (Rowan, Bath, Menifee counties) and there were more huge swings against Obama in other coal field counties. He managed to win Elliott County, which has voted Democratic since time immemorial, by a hair. But he was, basically, eaten alive in the rest of the state.Like in WV, this shift predates Obama – Kerry had lost Harlan County, an old unionized Democratic stronghold which had been voting Democratic since FDR – but it got very pronounced under Obama. Race (and racism) likely plays a role, sadly, in this case – it’s not like McCain or Romney are particularly perfect candidates for impoverished, isolated and very religious/conservative mining counties in either WV or KY. This year, however, race was not the main factor: the coal industry’s collapse since 2008 was likely a much more salient factor.In the realm of specific examples, here are a few coal counties from KY: Obama won 48.1% in Floyd in 2008, he won 31.8% this year; in Knott he fell from 44.9% to 24.9%; from 43.8% in Breathitt County he won only 31.2% this year; from an already horrible 26.1% in Harlan County in 2008, he collapsed even further to 17.2% (Clinton won 58% there in 1996!); in Pike County he won 42.1% in 2008 and 23.9% this year; finally in Magoffin County, Obama went from 45.3% to 29.2%. These are some massive shifts.
In western Virginia, finally, Obama collapsed in the small extension of the historically Democratic coal basin. Again, this is a continuation of a 2008 countercyclical swing against Obama. The swings were biggest in Buchanan and Dickenson counties, two counties bordering KY or WV. Obama fell from 46.5% to 32% in Buchanan, and from 48.5% to 35.9% in Dickenson. There were also big swings in surrounding counties in the Virginian Appalachian Plateau.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, following a large countercyclical swing towards the GOP in a region which had been a working-class (mining/steelworks/manufacturing) Democratic stronghold for decades, there were more, albeit smaller, swings towards the GOP this year. The Democratic base in Pennsylvania has shifted dramatically; the Democrats have scored impressive gains in Philly’s middle-class moderate suburbs (which are growing increasingly diverse) while the GOP has destroyed the old Democratic blue-collar/WWC base in southwestern Pennsylvania (though the other blue-collar Democratic base, in Scranton and Allentown/Bethlehem has held tight; largely because mining and industry has been dead for years in Scranton).
Back in Kentucky, the “coal swing” wasn’t limited to the Eastern Coal Fields. Looking at the county swing map, while there were massive swings in the Eastern Coal Fields, the swings were more limited in central Kentucky (Bluegrass region, Pennyroyal Plateau) – including the old Unionist Republican country dating back to the Civil War. However, in the Western Coal Fields – another major coal mining region – the swings were pretty big; for example, from 46.5% to 32.5% in Union County, from 43.1% to 32.3% in Webster County and 48.3% to 37.5% in Muhlenberg County.
Indiana was the surprise of the 2008 election. The state had been a Republican bastion, voting Republican since 1940 with the exception of 1964, and giving George W. Bush a crushing 20.7% margin over John Kerry. Then, to the surprise of most people, Obama won the state by 1 point over McCain. Obama’s remarkable victory in Indiana was the product of some ephemeral demographic shifts but especially to strategic choices made by both campaigns. Obama set up camp in Indiana during the Democratic primaries, which extended into Indiana’s late contest; and after the primaries, Obama’s campaign decided to remain on the ground and seriously compete in the state (which no Democrat had done in years). On the other hand, McCain’s campaign likely took the state for granted and largely ignored the state (despite close polling) until the end of this campaign, allowing Obama to blast the airwaves in the state.
The victory in Indiana was a one-shot deal, because the state remains, fundamentally, a Republican state. Obama’s campaign basically conceded Indiana early in the campaign and did not spend much money in the state. Romney won the state by 10.6 points, with 54.3% against Obama’s 43.7%. This is a respectable performance by Obama, much stronger than Kerry’s disastrous showing and the best showing in the state since 1976 (excluding 2008). Compared to the 2004 rout, Obama performed much better than Kerry in Marion County (Indianapolis) which he won with 60.2% against only 50.6% for Kerry in 2004. He also made some further gains in the state’s oldest Democratic stronghold, Lake County (Gary). Both counties have large black populations. However, Obama also outperformed Kerry in other counties in northern Indiana, including St. Joseph County (South Bend, a blue-collar town with a large university).
The Gary (Chicagoland) area and some Ohio Valley counties in the south did not swing much – perhaps an effect of media markets – but there were heavy swings towards the GOP in the rest of rural, small/medium-towns and suburban Indiana.
In 2008, Obama had performed particularly (unusually) well for a Democrat in areas of the Midwest that are manufacturing-oriented but have a Republican tradition and have more medium-sized manufacturers that lack the mass union tradition of the big auto and steelmakers. Indiana is a blue-collar Rust Belt manufacturing-driven state; but it has few large, unionized working-class urban centres (like Cleveland or Detroit) and more small manufacturing centres (Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Evansville, Columbus etc) which are traditionally Republican-leaning (even if some of these towns have significant black populations or colleges).
In 2008, because of the economic crisis and the high unemployment rates in these areas, Obama carried a particular appeal to blue-collar (often white) voters in these conservative regions. In 2008, there were significant swings towards Obama in Indiana but also northwestern Ohio, parts of Michigan, southern Illinois and the Fox River Valley/Northern Highlands in Wisconsin – other regions with a history of smaller manufactures lacking a strong union history.
These trends were transitory, especially because Obama is now the incumbent and the economy is still struggling in these regions. The Fox River Valley, northwestern Indiana, downstate Illinois and Michigan all swung heavily towards the GOP in 2010. This year, there were sizable swings towards the GOP in northern Wisconsin, downstate Illinois and northwestern Ohio.
Montana and North Dakota had particularly large swings against Obama (over 10% by the Atlas defintion); Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas also all had swings above the national average. Obama had done quite well in the Dakotas and Montana back in 2008, losing Montana by only 2.4 points and both Dakotas by a bit more than 8 (Kerry had lost them by much wider margins). This year, he lost Montana by 13.7 and both Dakotas by 18-19 points.
The northern Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain west are both fairly elastic and anti-incumbent regions noted for their strong independent streak and a habit of ticket-splitting. Montana in particular is often considered a “libertarian” state, and Montana Democrats like outgoing Governor Brian Schweitzer or Senator Jon Tester are often fairly independent and somewhat libertarian in their politics. Montana and both Dakotas, for example, had swung to John Kerry in 2004.
Obama, with his consensual image and the centre-leftist rhetoric of “change”, was a good fit for these states in 2008. The war in Iraq – these states had a reputation as being anti-war by then – likely hurt McCain somewhat as well. There were major swings towards the Democrats in most of Montana (where Obama had an active campaign) and the eastern parts of North and South Dakota – the most populous regions of these states (with cities such as Sioux Falls, Grand Forks and Fargo), and also places where Obama had a fairly active campaign in 2008 (the effect of Obama’s strong presence and spending in eastern ND is visible by the similarly heavy swings in his favour in northwestern Minnesota).
This year, the anti-incumbency of these right-leaning but independent regions explains – in part – why Obama did poorly. The county map shows that the biggest swings were in the farmlands of Montana’s eastern plains and the sparsely populated Badlands and Black Hills of the Dakotas; the most Republican regions of these states. In Montana, western mountainous counties – including solidly Republican fast-growing Flathead County (Kalispell), also had heavy swings.
Given the libertarian and independent reputation of Montana and parts of the Dakotas, perhaps some of the administration’s policies which have been perceived by libertarians/the right as “big government” (Obamacare, cap-and-trade, environmental regulations etc) explain the big swings in these regions. The economy of the Dakotas are doing particularly well, with very low unemployment, because of the natural gas boom in these states (concentrated, as far as I know, in the aforementioned western parts of ND/SD). Perhaps the big swing back this year is a response to some of the administration’s environmental regulations/policies?
President Obama’s home state of Illinois had a particularly heavy swing as well. Obama had won his home state by 25 points in 2008, the largest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state. This state, he won it by a still very comfortable but far narrower 16.7 points. The county swing map is particularly interesting. The largest swings were recorded in southern (downstate) Illinois, a conservative and Southern-influenced region which had historically been a Democratic stronghold before shifting towards the GOP in the past decades.
Illinois politics usually features a stark dichotomy between conservative downstate and liberal Cook County (Chicago), the Democratic stronghold by excellence in Illinois. Cook County’s huge population and hefty Democratic margins every election can usually allow Democrats to win narrowly statewide even if they lose handily downstate and even in Chicagoland suburbs (see Pat Quinn in 2010). In 2008, the biggest swings towards Obama had actually been in northern Illinois – particularly the affluent Chicago suburbs which used to be GOP strongholds (even in 1964…) but have been trending hard towards the Democrats. But he had also performed well in many downstate counties, particularly those with small manufacturing centres or counties bordering Indiana (spillover from ad spending in southern IN media markets?).
Sitting Presidents usually lose their “favourite son” appeal in their home state – in 2004, 1996 and 1984 for example, the incumbent’s home state either swung to their opponent or at least “trended” to the opponent (swing below average). By having been in Washington for four (or more) years they usually lose their strong ties with their home state and are less perceived as being a “favourite son” candidate. This is part of the explanation as to why Illinois swung particularly heavily against the President; it is also a “correction” of the 2008 result which was clearly unusually huge, even for a Democrat in a “blue state” like Illinois.
Southern Illinois is a fairly working-class and coal mining region. The heaviest shifts – where Republicans gained roughly 10-15% since 2008 – came in southern Illinois’ mining basin which borders southern Indiana and KY’s Western Coal Fields. That being said, there were also some fairly large swings throughout the quasi-entirety of the state (with two major exceptions), from north to south. Romney improved on McCain’s performance by over 5 points in most of the state’s counties. This shift is similar to what happened in Indiana, northwestern Ohio or Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley: those smaller, non-unionized manufacturing centres where Obama did unusually well in 2008 because of the crisis shifted back to their natural Republican roots.
Chicago did not swing much, Romney only gained 2 points off of McCain’s 2008 performance in Cook County; though its suburbs did show some more significant swings. This fits in with a general pattern which we will come back to.
On the other hand, there were only small swings – usually less than 3% more GOP than in ’08 – in northwestern Illinois (the Rock Island/Davenport area). This result shows the importance of ads and campaign strategy on the results. Almost all of the counties in NW Illinois where Obama held up better than in the rest of the state are part of the Davenport media market, centered around Davenport, Iowa. As a swing state, Iowa – Davenport’s media market included – was barraged with thousands of ads from both sides. There were barely any Dem or GOP ads in IL’s other media markets. In this particular case, it appears as if because those particular voters had more audiovisual exposure to the President and Romney because of ad spending.
This WaPo feature includes a handy map of ad spending by media market, on which you can see the very heavy ad spending in Davenport, IA (and in all other swing state media markets). A media market means those regions where cable providers are required to carry all local stations, but a media market does not prevent a cable provider from carrying stations from other areas/media markets.
The Illinois case is the most visible example of media market “spillover” on the election map. It is harder to find other examples. There are a few WV counties which border Ohio across the Ohio River, but in this case they are part of the Charleston, WV media market (which had lots of ads too). The Denver media market, which extends into some sparsely populated plains counties in Nebraska and Wyoming, seems to have limited the swing towards the GOP in far-western Nebraska. In Pennsylvania, finally, there were large swings towards Romney in the centre of the state; and while I would privilege the demographic explanation (shift of the WWC away from the Democrats, which had begun in 2008; GOP rebound in smaller manufacturing centres) the WaPo map indicates that Romney outspent Obama in the Johnstown-Altoona media market (he also beat him in Pittsburgh’s media market, like McCain in 2008).
That being said, there is an amusing counterexample to all these hypotheticals: Minnesota. Mitt Romney’s campaign was led into believing that the state might be in play, and they spent a lot in the Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior media markets (and somewhat less on the cross-border Fargo-Valley City media market). The swing map in Minnesota shows that the heaviest swings towards the Republicans came from those northwestern counties in the Fargo-Valley City market (the region which had swung the hardest towards Obama in 2008). This swing seems to be a “correction” of the 2008 result, Obama had done quite well in northwestern Minnesota. On the other hand, swings in the heavily-targeted Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior media markets hardly budged. To be fair, however, the Obama swing in those parts of Minnesota in 2008 had been fairly underwhelming – again because McCain’s campaign had gone for a futile attempt at targeting Minnesota and blew Obama out of the water with ad spending in the state.
Missouri, especially rural and now solidly Republican exurban/small-town/rural Missouri, had heavy swings towards the Republicans (their vote share increased by over 5% in most counties). Unlike in 2008, the former bellwether state was not contested by either side, Obama conceding the presidential race in MO to Romney while Democrats focused all their efforts on the McCaskill/Akin senatorial race. Missouri, a border state, has had conflicting northern and southern influences – solidly Unionist Republican tendencies in the Ozarks or the Missouri Rhineland clashing with Dixiecrats in MO’s Little Dixie or the Missouri Bootheel and working-class Democrats in the St. Louis and the Lead Belt. Like in other border states and the Upper South, white voters have become ever more firmly Republican. This year, Obama saw his support drop fairly dramatically in the Lead Belt, a mining area south of St. Louis (Iron County, Washington County, Ste. Genevieve County) which was historically a Democratic stronghold- but again of the conservative and traditionalistic WWC variety.
The collapse of the last remnants of substantial Democratic support outside of St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City has transformed Missouri – at least at the presidential level – from a perfect bellwether into a lean-GOP state.
Arizona was quite disappointing for Democrats, who had hoped that they would make gains in the state because of the growing Hispanic minority and John McCain’s “favourite son” effect in the state in 2008 (it had barely swung). Romney won the state with 53.48% against 44.45% for Obama, a 9.03% margin which is slightly larger than McCain’s 8.48% margin in the state in 2008 (Bush had won by 10.5 in 2004). Obama won the Hispanic vote, whose share of the electorate increased from 16% to 18%, by a large margin: 74 to 25 (+49), whereas he had only won them by 15 (56-41) against McCain in 2008. However, while he had lost whites by 19 in 2008, he lost them by a huge 34 point margin this year (66-32). These exit poll numbers might be off some, but they make sense. White voters in Arizona approved Governor Jan Brewer’s controversial illegal immigration crackdown (SB 1070) even though it has seriously damaged GOP support with Hispanics.
Obama made gains in Apache and Navajo counties, two counties with a large Native American population. Along the Mexican border, he also gained in Santa Cruz, Pima (Tucson) and Yuma counties; all of which have large Hispanic populations. Santa Cruz County is 83% Hispanic according to the census, and voted 68.2% for Obama – up from 65% support for the President in 2008. Greenlee, Graham and Gila counties also swung to Obama.
In decisive and very populous Maricopa County (Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale), however, Obama fell back a bit – from 43.9% to 43.6%. It is clear that Democrats who want to win statewide need to make major inroads in Maricopa County, which is 59% white and 30% Hispanic. Heavily white Yavapai County (Prescott) swung even more, from 61.1% McCain in 2008 to 64% for Romney this year.
Arizona’s electorate was 18% Hispanic, but the census showed that Hispanics made up 30% of the electorate. The Hispanic share of the VAP (18+) is likely lower, but as in other states, notably Texas (another long-shot Dem target) or California, many Hispanics do not vote because they are not registered (often because they are not citizens) or, in the past more than today, due to apathy. Until they make up a larger share of the electorate in both AZ and TX, both states which many Democrats dream of “turning blue” in the next few elections, the Democrats’ attempts to make gains in those states will remain frustrated by their low and declining support with the white majority.
Five states swung to Obama, which means that Obama’s margin of victory or defeat in those states was bigger/smaller than in 2008. Alaska had the biggest swing towards Obama, going to Romney by 14 points after having gone to McCain by 21.5 points in 2008. Obama increased his share of the vote from 37.9% to 40.8%, in the process becoming the first Democrat since Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to win over 40% of the vote in Alaska. Romney won 54.8%, down significantly from McCain’s 59.4%.
The state, in which oil, energy and land use issues have almost always been at the forefront of local elections, is solidly Republican. In 2008, early polls had shown Obama polling strongly in Alaska, pulling within single digits of McCain. However, after McCain picked the state’s popular governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, the state was never competitive. In 2008, Palin – in office since January 2007 – was still phenomenally popular in Alaska with the success of her administration’s natural gas pipeline (AGIA). If she turned out to be a major hindrance to the McCain campaign in the rest of the country, her selection did shore up Alaska’s hefty 3 EVs for John McCain. The state barely swung towards Obama, McCain performing only a bit worse than Bush in 2004.
The heavy swing this year is probably, in large part, a correction of the Palin “favourite daughter” effect in the state. But it is still fairly bizarre for Alaska, similar in many ways to Montana (with the addition of a huge and politically influential oil industry), to swing towards Obama while Montana swung heavily in the other direction.
Alaska reports results by state house district rather than by borough, which explains why media sources never give Alaskan results at a more micro level than the state. The map to the right shows the results by house district, you can find the data on OurCampaigns (which also has a map of the 2008 results, here). State house districts changed a lot with the redistricting, making comparisons harder, but the biggest pro-Obama swings were in the “bush” – the North Slope, western and southwestern Alaska, Bristol Bay and the Aleutians; with some shifts in the Panhandle region as well. These regions are predominantly Native, extremely sparsely populated and barely connected with one another. The North Slope is also the centre of Alaskan oil and gas production.
Alaska Natives are not as solidly Democratic as other Native Americans; owing largely to a different form of self-government and oil revenues. While they usually lean Democratic more often than not, a strong Republican can win them over. In the 2010 senate race, Native support was crucial to GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski’s write-in victory over Joe Miller (R). In the 2008 presidential election, Obama performed well in some predominantly Native districts (Nome, Bethel) but the McCain/Palin ticket held up well.
This year, Obama basically swept the “bush”, including the North Slope. HD40, which covers the North Slope, gave 66.5% to Obama against only 29.3% for Romney. In 2008, the same district (which did not change much in terms of boundaries) had voted 53.7-42.7 for McCain. He won over 60% in almost every other “bush” house district. On the other hand, the MatSu valley – Alaska’s conservative Republican heartland – did not move all that much (though redistricting makes it hard to quantify). Romney still won over 65% of the vote in most of the MatSu, even taking over 70% of the vote in Wasilla, Palmer (Anchorage exurbs and Palinland) and rabidly conservative North Pole (Fairbanks exurb). McCain had done extremely well in the MatSu in 2008, likely the Palin effect; even better than Bush in 2004. It appears as if the Alaska swing is predominantly due to the Natives in the bush and some more moderate voters in the Panhandle, which, outside of Juneau, is a more moderate GOP-leaning region. The MatSu valley and its profoundly conservative “rugged individualism” stayed the same.
Romney did worse than McCain and Obama improved on his 2008 results in Mississippi and Louisiana. Mississippi is the most racially polarized state, with likely the lowest white vote for Obama of any state. On the other hand, Louisiana – while a Deep South state like MS or AL – was historically less racially polarized. The Democrats polled particularly well with the French Catholic Cajuns in Acadiana, and some strong local Democrats still do well in Acadiana. Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996 (while losing MS and AL), but like AR or TN it has progressively abandoned Democrats, first at the presidential level and now at the state level (Democrats recently lost the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction). Gore lost the state by 7.7%, Kerry lost by 14.5% and Obama lost it by 18.6% in 2008. There were substantial countercyclical swings towards McCain, primarily in Cajun country/Acadiana.
The swing towards Romney was below the national average throughout the South, Alabama barely swung and AR, GA, SC and NC all “trended” towards the Democrats (swing below the national average). This indicates that, in large part, the realignment of 80-90% of Southern whites with the GOP at the presidential level throughout both the Deep South and Upper South is almost complete, after large swings against Obama in 2008.
On the national swing map, the Southern swing towards Obama stems from black-majority counties (or those with a large black minority) – the Mississippi Valley (AR, LA, MS) and the Black Belt (MS, AL, GA, SC, NC). There had already been substantial swings towards Obama in those counties in 2008, indicating primarily his ability to motivate and mobilized black voters like no candidate before him had done. How could they swing towards him again, after nearly maximizing turnout and support in 2008?
We can exclude the hypothesis that Southern whites swung to Obama. The exit polls do say that Obama’s performance with Alabama whites was 5% better than in 2008 (from 10% to 15%) while he lost 1 point with MS whites (taking 10%); there were no exit polls in AR, LA, GA or SC. More likely, white turnout declined somewhat and black turnout increased or at least stabilized. In Mississippi, the white share of the electorate fell by 3 (from 62% to 59%) and the black share of the electore increased by 3 (from 33% to 36%).
Some Southern white evangelicals were uneasy with Romney – either because of his faith (a lot of evangelicals do not consider Mormons to be Christian), his old image as a Massachusetts moderate who was insufficiently conservative or because of his wealth. There was no chance that they would back Obama, but the real threat was that they would not turn out. States like MS, AL or LA would have been ground zero for lower Southern white turnout; and while there was no catastrophic decline in turnout, there appears to have been some decline in white turnout combined with stable (or slightly higher) black turnout.
In Louisiana, the swings towards Obama were concentrated along the shores of the Mississippi – from New Orleans and upwards – the region of the state with the largest black population. There was a huge swing in St. Bernard Parish, where Obama gained 10% from his 2008 result (from 25.8% to 36.2%). The population in this coastal county declined because of Katrina, but there seems to have been an increase in the share of the black population in the county – probably blacks moving from Orleans Parish. On the other hand, Acadiana continued to swing towards the GOP (though not by a lot).
In Arkansas, Mississippi or Alabama, the Obama swings came from counties with large black populations. In Alabama, for example, Obama picked up two McCain counties (Conecuh and Barbour) which are very closely divided between whites and blacks. On the other hand, counties with white supermajorities generally swung towards the GOP. This was notably the case in Georgia, which saw some fairly substantial swings against Obama in heavily white northern counties (exurban Atlanta) but some swings to Obama in the racially divided Piedmont and coastal plains.
Atlanta suburbia remains promising for the Democrats. The black population in Georgia is growing, especially in Atlanta suburbs. Inner suburban Clayton and DeKalb counties, heavily black, are now more Democratic than Fulton County (Atlanta) where the black population is stagnating/declining. Obama held Douglas, Rockdale and Newton counties which he picked up in 2008, thanks to a rapidly growing black population. This year, Fulton and DeKalb counties swung towards Romney; but there were pro-Obama swings in Douglas, Rockdale, Henry and Gwinnett counties – which all have booming black (or even Hispanic) populations. These trends mean that Georgia is a long shot target for Democrats, despite historic lows in white support for Democrats in the state.
Other minority counties also swung towards Obama. This was the case in a lot of heavily Hispanic counties in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, some Hispanic areas in Colorado and New Mexico but also Native American rez counties in South Dakota and Arizona. We will come back to Florida swings in more detail later (assuming you are not dead from this verbal diarrhea by then!).
New Jersey swung towards Obama, his margin of victory grew from 15.5 to 16.9. The main cause is probably Hurricane Sandy, whose primary effect was to severely depress turnout in NJ and NY but whose secondary effect was beneficiary to Obama. The President and Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ)’s response to the hurricane was lauded, and in a way the hurricane froze Romney’s momentum by allowing Obama to act presidential and post-partisan while Romney languished doing awkward events in Ohio and Florida. In NJ, the exit polls reported that 53% of respondents said that Obama’s hurricane response was an important factor in their vote (42% nationally).
That being said, while Sandy’s ground zero – Atlantic County (Atlantic City) – did swing towards Obama, it was not by a very big margin. The big swings came in solidly Democratic North Jersey – the heavily urbanized and ethnically diverse NYC suburbia in Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Union and Bergen counties. Obama’s share of the vote increased by over 2% in Middlesex, Union, Hudson and Passaic counties. These counties have large and oftentimes growing Asian, black and Hispanic populations.
In New York City, all boroughs except for Manhattan swung towards Obama. Obama even picked up Staten Island, gaining over 2% since 2008. In Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx the Obama vote increased by over 2%. These boroughs are also, of course, very ethnically diverse with large black, Hispanic and Asian populations. Obama won Staten Island (Richmond County), which had gone to Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008. There was a huge drop in turnout in Staten Island, but those who voted where likely influenced by the “Sandy effect.”
Urban centres throughout the country either swung to Obama or had only small swings towards Romney. Growing minority populations in these urban centres, mobilized and motivated by the Obama machine, have further entrenched Democrats in these counties. Suffolk County (Boston), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami-Dade County (Miami), Jefferson County (Birmingham, AL), Orleans Parish (New Orleans, LA), Dallas County (Dallas) and Ramsey County (St. Paul, MN) all swung towards Obama. Los Angeles County (Los Angeles) barely swung; Harris County (Houston, TX), Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Cook County (Chicago), Wayne County (Detroit), Richmond (Virginia), Denver, King County (Seattle) – to name only a few – all swung below the national average.
Maryland swung to Obama by a tiny bit – his margin increased from 25.4 to 25.6. The state has been getting even more Democratic in recent years: federal government employees and growing minority (Hispanic, Asian, black) populations in Democratic strongholds including Prince George’s, Charles, Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties.
The pro-Obama swing in upstate New York is rather bizarre. With central Ohio, it is the only large area to swing towards Obama which does not have a substantial minority population. Is the region particularly pro-incumbent?
This map shows the swing since the 2000 election, 12 years ago. The evaporation of white Democratic support in the South and Appalachia is immediately visible: notice the Democratic collapse in Little Dixie (Oklahoma – an old Socialist Party stronghold!), Arkansas, eastern Texas (historically the most Dixiecratic and Southern region of Texas), Acadiana (Louisiana), the Upland region in Alabama, Tennessee, the Florida Panhandle, northern Georgia and – of course – the Appalachian mining basin. Support also dropped in Missouri and downstate Illinois, two regions with a political culture similar to that of the South. In southwestern Pennsylvania – old coal and steel country – we see the decline of Democratic support in a working-class region, with conservative values on moral issues (this was the region Obama was referring to in 2008 with the infamous “clinging to guns and religion” comment, and the region’s long-time now-deceased congressman John Murtha suggested a lot of his constituents were racist).
In the South, the heavy swings towards Democrats in racially divided or predominantly black areas is also quite visible in MS, AL, Atlanta’s suburbs, SC, NC and parts of southern Virginia. Counties with a large Hispanic population – Rio Grande Valley, Orlando, New Mexico, parts of Colorado, California and so forth also swung towards the Democrats.
Places were Ralph Nader had done very well in 2000, depressing Al Gore’s vote share, show up in deep red: northern coastal California, college towns, ski resorts (San Miguel County in Colorado or Blaine County in Idaho), the Berkshires in western MA or Vermont.
The GOP’s decline in affluent, middle-class suburbs – a victim of its own shift to the right and the demographic shift of moderate, formerly Republican-leaning, educated professionals away from the GOP; but also of the increasing minority population in some of these counties. Notice the heavy swings towards the Democrats in NoVA, the DC burbs in Maryland, the Philly burbs (besides Bucks), Chicago’s suburbs or Denver’s suburbs. The exception is suburban NYC (both in NY and NJ) and Boston, where Gore overperformed in 2000 because of the gun control issue. The shift is not universal; more conservative suburban and exurban counties (most often white flight counties) in the South but also outside Milwaukee (notoriously right-wing Waukesha County) and Minneapolis swung to the GOP in 12 years.
In 12 years, the rural-urban divide in American politics has deepened and racial polarization of politics has increased; with the evaporation of white support for Democrats in the South and the solidification of big city Democratic bastions.
The Contrasted Results of Suburbia
During the campaign, there was much talk about how Mitt Romney’s image as a “businessman” with a platform focused on lower taxes, smaller government and job creation would appeal to white middle-class suburbanites, a demographic group which Obama had integrated into the Democratic coalition in the 2008 election. In contrast, observers felt that Obama’s populist campaign this year (Republicans claiming he was sparking class warfare); a shift from his “hope ‘n change” style of 2008; would turn off some of these affluent suburban voters. The elite backlash against his attacks on Bain Capital and his trouble with Wall Street donors gave credence to the idea that there would be a significant swing towards Romney with the very rich and even middle-class suburbs as a whole.
We looked at the exit polls, but what do the raw results tell us? They paint a contrasted image, but one which is still surprisingly favourable to Obama.
Obama had performed extremely well where the famed “1%ers” tend to live in 2008. In New Canaan, CT he lost by 6 points; in Darien, CT, he lost by 9 points and in Greenwich, CT he won by nearly 8. In 2004, Kerry had lost by 26 in Darien and 22 in New Canaan. This year, Obama lost heavily in these three towns which are among the wealthiest in the US. He lost by 32 in Darien, 29 in New Canaan and by 13 in Greenwich.
In Weston, MA – a town where over 40% make over 200k – Obama won 51-48 after he had won 60-38 in 2008. Next door, in slightly less affluent but still extremely well-off Wellesley he won 57-42 (down from 64-34 in 2008). Scott Brown won by 10 points in Weston against Elizabeth Warren, actually doing better than he had against Coakley in the 2010 special. However, in the 2002 gubernatorial election, Mitt Romney had won 63% in Weston and 58.5% in Wellesley.
In New Trier township in Cook County, IL – which includes extremely affluent Winnetka – Obama won 54.3% to 44.5%, in 2008 he had won 63.3% to 35.8% (so a substantial drop). New Trier township’s heavy Democratic lean (like that of Highland Park in Lake County) is due to a very large Reform Jewish population.
In Atherton, CA – a very wealthy town in solidly Democratic San Mateo County (Bay Area); Romney seems to have won by patching together precinct results, in 2008, Obama beat McCain by a small margin in Atherton. In the absence of precinct results in NY or other states, we cannot evaluate the other 1%er enclaves very well. The Orange County Register had a very interesting map of the results in the OC; the Vietnamese vote in Westminster and Garden Grove swung big-time to Obama (from roughly 55-60% McCain to 55-60% Obama this year) while Romney scored the biggest gains in very wealthy places such as Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano or Mission Viejo.
Ski resort counties – most of which are extremely affluent and highly educated but also very solidly Democratic (part of it stems from the tourism industry workers but also environmental consciousness and ‘latte liberalism’ of the local ski bunnies) – remained solidly Democratic but did show a fairly significant swing towards Romney. In San Miguel County, CO (Telluride) Romney won 27.1%, up from 21.4% for McCain. In Pitkin County, CO (Aspen) Romney from 30.1% against 24.9% for McCain in 2008. In Teton County, WY (Jackson Hole) he won 42.4% whereas McCain had polled only 37%. In Blaine County, ID (Ketchum/Sun Valley) he took 38.6% while McCain had taken only 32.5%. The swing in Summit County, UT (Park City) was large – Obama had won 56% there in 2008 but won only 46% this year; the swing largely exaggerated by the Mormon effect (even though Summit County is one of the least LDS counties in Utah).
The results from the wealthiest places in America – particularly Darien and New Canaan in Connecticut (home to many Wall Street financiers and the like) – indicate a fairly big swing towards the GOP, certainly related to Obama’s different style and some of his policies (Dodd-Franks). But in these highly educated places (and in the ski resorts) McCain became a very bad candidate by November 2008 because of Sarah Palin, whose raw populism and general image as an uneducated hick, was a major turnoff to voters who like the GOP’s position on taxes but can get turned off by excessive conservative populism a la Palin. The biggest swings, it seems, came in traditionally Republican towns where Palin had turned off a lot of more moderately-inclined but still loyally Republican voters. They returned to the fold this year.
However, Obama’s performance in other affluent counties – not the homes of the 1%ers but still educated, white-collar, middle-class and wealthy – was strong. In 2008, he won historic victories in historically Republican suburban counties such as Loudoun (VA), Prince William (VA), Arapahoe (CO), Jefferson (CO), Somerset (NJ), Chester (PA), Lake (IL) and DuPage County (IL). This year, he held all of these counties except for Chester. In Virginia and Colorado, his resistance in these counties proved crucial. As aforementioned, some of the Democratic inroads in these counties are due to growing minority populations – this is the case in some Chicagoland suburban counties including Kane County (large Hispanic populations in Elgin and Aurora) – but Obama’s 2008 inroads and 2012 resistance would have been impossible without strong numbers in predominantly white, highly educated middle-class suburbs.
For example, in Lake County (Illinois), Obama’s standing is boosted by heavy support in blue-collar multiethnic Waukegan, he also performed quite well in white middle-class/upper middle-class suburbia (even taking out Waukegan township, he still carried the county by a fair margin). The Lake County results page has a precinct map here, showing strong support not only in Waukegan but also in Highland Park, a very affluent liberal suburb north of Chicago with a large Jewish population. In Lake County, the biggest swings towards Romney occured in the wealthiest townships (as measured by the percentage of households earning over 200k) – a big 8.4% gain for the GOP in Shields township – which includes some very affluent and traditionally Republican precincts around Lake Forest. West Deerfield (+7.9%), Ela (+7.5%), Moraine (+6.9%), Vernon (+6.8%), Fremont (+6.6%), Cuba (+6.5%), Libertyville (+6.3%) and Wauconda (+5.9%) townships all had GOP gains above the county average (+5.5%); all of these townships (besides the more exurban Wauconda) all include some very affluent households. On the other hand, Romney only improved on McCain’s showing in solidly Democratic Waukegan by 0.5% and in Zion township by 1.3%, both towns are blue-collar and lower-income towns – Waukegan itself is also heavily Hispanic. Lake County is but one example, but it showcases larger swings to the GOP in the most affluent areas – likely the product of some Republicans returning to the fold after the Palin-induced bleeding in 2008 (and in Illinois, the normalization after Obama’s favourite son overperformance in 2008). It would be interesting to compare these results to 2004 results, but it would not be surprising if despite these GOP swings, Romney’s performance remained lower than President Bush’s 2004 performance.
Oakland County – Mitt Romney’s native county and Detroit’s affluent suburban county (though not by any means a purely affluent county) – swung to Romney, who won 45.4% after McCain had won a horrible 41.9% in a county which had, until the 1990s, been a Republican stronghold. Romney won 66.5% in his native Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest towns in America; this is up from a weak 58% for McCain in 2008. Even if Romney did make gains in affluent suburban communities such as Troy and Birmingham; Obama still won affluent and historically Republican areas such as Farmington Hills (59%), Huntington Woods (70%) and West Bloomfield (56%). The President won over 80% of the vote in majority-black Pontiac, Southfield and Oak Park. But even in Oakland County, Romney is not even at Bush’s 2004 levels (49.3%).
Romney performed better (47.6%) in Macomb County, Detroit’s traditionally white working-class suburban county which had been a Democratic stronghold before becoming the typical example of a “Reagan Democrats” county in the 1980s.
Here is a township map for southeastern Pennsylvania (suburban Philly). Obama resisted particularly well in MontCo, which includes some very affluent Democratic-leaning areas (Lower Merion township). The swing map, does, however, show substantial swings towards the GOP in affluent suburban townships in Chester County, some of which had voted for Obama in 2008. In Chester, Obama resisted better in the Main Line suburbs, slightly less affluent than their surroundings but still generally well-off. There were also substantial swings towards the GOP in more exurban areas (which we can define by fewer households earning over 200k but nevertheless high earnings, and less people with postgrad degrees); Lake County’s suburban townships did swing, though by less than the wealthiest townships. Lower-income – often old working-class towns which now have large minority populations – had very low swings or even swung to Obama (as is the case in predominantly black areas in DelCo on the border with Philly).
The WaPo had a really nice map of the results in the DC area, including NoVA and Maryland. One could have expected Romney to get hard swings in NoVA, but he did not. In Prince William County, Romney actually did slightly worse than McCain (41.3% vs 41.6%). In Loudoun County, he improved by a bit – but not by much: from 45.4% to 47%. Like McCain, he failed to break 40% in Fairfax County. In 2004, Bush had received 52.8% in Prince William, 55.7% in Loudoun and 45.9% in Fairfax counties; those numbers had already been on the low side of GOP results. In Maryland, super-majority black suburban Prince George’s County actually swung to Obama (from 88.9% to 89.6%) and Carroll County, which has a rapidly growing black population saw an even larger pro-Obama swing (from 62.2% to 64.8%). Romney barely improved in Montgomery County, winning only 27.3%. He lost a bit compared to McCain in Howard County.
The WaPo did some precinct analysis, apparently, and found that Obama’s support dropped off the most in precincts with income over $180k while remaining stable in the poorest precincts. Nevertheless, Obama performed well, often very well, in white middle-class suburbs. His performance, especially in Maryland, in these suburban areas is of course “exaggerated” because a large number of voters work for the federal government. Romney generally won NoVA’s most affluent precincts – those with a large percentage of households earning over 200k; but Democratic support in these suburban counties stem not from the 200k+ precincts but rather from more middle-class precincts, with young families or young professionals, often with lots of condos or smaller houses. Romney could have played well there, given Bush’s performance in 2004, but he did not. He regained those Republicans who had temporarily fled because of Palin in 2008, but did not make substantial inroads.
In affluent counties which are more firmly entrenched in the Democratic column such as Westchester (NY), Montgomery (PA), Fairfax (VA), Marin (CA) or San Mateo (CA); Obama resisted very well. In the Bay Area’s very affluent but also liberal white suburbs, Romney made some gains but he failed to match even Bush’s very paltry 2004 results. Furthermore, in fairly affluent but ethnically diverse (largely Asian) Santa Clara County, he did worse than McCain. He gained only 1% over McCain in San Mateo County, a bit less than 2% in Contra Costa County and about 3% in Marin County. Romney was never really expected to play well in these counties, whose shift away from the GOP is older.
The LA Times has a very cool map of the precinct results in LA County. I didn’t do tons of analysis, but my impression is that the wealthiest areas – both the solidly Republican gated communities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the more Democratic liberal areas around Malibu, Brentwood, Beverly Hills and so forth – swung to Romney (not necessarily by all that much) while Obama solidified his margins in the Hispanic precincts and scored some fairly nice gains in Asian areas.
Westchester County (NY) had a larger swing to Romney, who won 38.2% – up from McCain’s 35.8%; but again, he falls short of 40% and Bush’s 2004 performance. I have not been able to put my hands on township results in Westchester County, so I cannot say how much the wealthiest areas swung to Romney – but it could have been fairly significant, assuming that the poor minority areas (Yonkers, Mt. Vernon) did not budge much.
The general picture in America’s affluent areas is contrasted. Romney did well, better than McCain; but he scored most of his gains in very wealthy towns and precincts, likely regaining traditional Republican voters who had temporarily abandoned the party in 2008 because of Palin or the economic crisis. His gains were “insufficient” almost everywhere, falling short even of Bush’s 2004 results in most places (in Boston’s affluent suburbs he was far from his very strong results in the 2002 gubernatorial election). A good number of affluent, highly educated middle-class suburbanites have been drifting away from the GOP, a process which began under Reagan but which accelerated dramatically after Bush Jr’s presidency. They rejected the GOP’s cultural and religious conservatism, even if they might be attracted to its traditional low-taxes and small-government message. Middle-class educated liberal professionals in cosmopolitan milieus (Bay Area but also in towns such as Evanston, Newton, Cleveland Heights throughout the country etc) are now a core component of the Democratic base.
Swing State Geographies
Some of the main results in the swing states were covered above, but this section offers some additional reflections on some of the results in major swing states – notably Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Virginia.
Ohio had been seen as the swing state/tipping point of the election, and it was a key part of Obama’s firewall. His support held up well in Ohio, something which observers attributed to a whole slew of factors: the state’s shale gas boom, the lower unemployment rate, the popularity of Obama’s auto bailout or even the WWC’s lukewarm support for Romney. He won Ohio, but by a very underwhelming margin – it currently stands at 1.98%, he won by 3.3% nationally. This means that, in a tied race, Romney would have won Ohio; and that Ohio was not crucial to Obama’s reelection. It was also the only swing state were Obama underperformed his polling average.
What happened? As noted above, it might be the rare incidence of the Bradley Effect. Obama lost whites in Ohio by 17, after losing them by 6 to McCain in 2008. He even performed worse than Kerry with Ohio whites – unlike in Wisconsin or Iowa. Most polls had shown Obama performing better with whites than he actually did.
Obama performed very poorly in the Ohio Valley, a conservative but historically strongly Democratic working-class (mining, steel, manufacturing) region similar to SW Pennsylvania or West Virginia. He was the first Democratic presidential contender since McGovern in 1972 to lose Monroe, Belmont and Jefferson counties along the Ohio River. Romney’s campaign in this part of Ohio focused on Obama’s “war on coal” and it seems as if it might have paid off for him. In Monroe County, for example, Obama won 45%, down from over 53% in 2008. Obama performed well in large industrial cities – Toledo, Youngstown and so forth – which are solidly Democratic (though he did lose Stark County, a swing county which includes the working-class city of Canton). But there is little clear evidence, on the basis of the results, that the auto bailout “sealed the deal” for Obama in Ohio.
Instead, Obama’s victory in Ohio was due to historic black turnout. According to exit polls, blacks made up 15% of the electorate against rouhgly 11% in the last two elections. Obama was able to motivate and mobilize black voters like never before. In Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Obama won 68.9% – which is actually up a bit from the 68.7% he had won there in 2008. He also managed to hold Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and some of its solidly Republican suburbs. Romney gained less than one percentage point from McCain’s 2008 performance in a county which had voted GOP since 1964.
The swing map in Ohio is fairly interesting. On the Republican side, the strongest swings came from the aforementioned counties in the Ohio Valley with smaller swings in the solidly Republican rural wheat belt German counties – including a shift back towards the GOP in northwestern Ohio, where Obama had done especially well in 2008. There was a swing towards Obama in the Columbus (Franklin County) area which extended into Columbus’ Republican suburbia but also into poor rural counties in the south of the state. Columbus, the state capital, is an attractive predominantly white-collar metropolis. Is the shift due to state government employees – state capitals seem to generally have had very negligible swings since 2008? Is it due to increased black turnout, in a 21% black county with a growing minority population?
This would still not explain the surprising swing in solidly white, rural, poor and often culturally Southern counties to the south of Columbus – places like Pike, Scioto or Ross counties. Unemployment is high in these counties (some of the highest rates in the state) and most towns are old declining blue-collar towns (such as Portsmouth in Scioto County). What could explain the swing towards Obama, when he did poorly in demographically and economically similar counties elsewhere in the Midwest? It could be an effect of media markets – Obama outspent Romney in the Columbus media market by a solid margin. However, the swing map doesn’t really match up that well with the Columbus media market, though it could be an explanation. Some of Columbus’ growing suburban counties, solidly Republican, also swung to Obama; but census data doesn’t show a boom in the minority population in those counties.
Florida was one of the surprises on a fairly predictable election night. Obama had remained competitive in the state, but after the first debate most polls had shown Romney pulling ahead to the point that Obama’s campaign apparently mused pulling out of Florida. Two pollsters – Mason-Dixon and Suffolk U – were so confident about Romney’s chances in Florida that they got cocky and proclaimed that they would stop polling FL because it was a “done deal” – MD had shown Romney up 5 and 6 points in the state!
Instead, Obama won Florida by 0.88% (making it the closest state). This is fairly surprising, though in line with Obama overperforming in all swing states (except FL). The result is bad news for Republicans, who despite having a lock on state government, have lost Florida in the last two presidential elections. Florida remains more Republican than the national average, but the factors which explain Obama’s surprising 2012 victory in Florida should be cause for concern for many FL Republicans.
As in many other states, Obama’s victory in Florida rests on his strong support with minorities. The exit poll in Florida showed him losing whites by 24 (he lost them by 14 in 2008) but sweeping the floor with blacks (13% of voters) and Hispanics (up 21 points over Romney, he had won them by 15 in 2008 and President Bush probably won them in 2004). The white electorate in Florida is declining: 70% in 2004, 71% in 2008 and 67% this year. Hispanics now make up 17% of the electorate, and most of them are from solidly Democratic Hispanic groups (Puerto Ricans, Mexicans) rather than from Republican-leaning Cubans.
The Democratic electorate in Florida has changed a lot since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996. The Florida Panhandle and northern Florida, the most Southern regions of the state and the old Dixiecrat strongholds, have become solidly Republican, in line with the rest of the South. Places like small Liberty County (which voted for Carter in 1980, for example) in the Panhandle may retain a Democratic edge in voter registration, but Romney won over 70% of the vote.
Democrats have made gains along the Gold Coast since the 1990s, making Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – with their mix of northeastern Jewish retirees, blacks, non-Cuban Hispanics, LGBTs and younger families – the core of the Democratic base in Florida. Their most striking gains have since come from the politically decisive I-4 corridor in central Florida (the I-4 connects Tampa/St. Pete’s to Daytona Beach), particularly in the Orlando area which has a booming Puerto Rican Hispanic population. Osceola County (Kissimmee) now has a plurality Hispanic (Puerto Rican) population and Orange County (Orlando) is only 46% white.
In 2000, Al Gore had done extremely well with Jewish voters along the Gold Coast but he had lost the state and the White House by a controversial and excruciating small margin barely over 500 votes. In 2008, Obama won Florida by 2.8 points, thanks to out-organizing McCain and mobilizing black and non-Cuban Hispanics like never before. This allowed him to win Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida’s bellwether county which has picked the state’s winner since 1964.
Obama won Hillsborough County again this year, with a very solid 52.9% (barely down from 53.1% in 2008), and with that – basically – he carried the state. Indeed, his strong resistance in the Tampa/St. Pete’s (Pinellas County, 52.2% Obama) was one of the decisive factors. Precinct results will confirm this; but he was certainly able to mobilize youths, blacks and Hispanics (even Cubans, who tend to be more moderate in Hillsborough County) to carry him to victory in the Tampa area.
In Florida’s swingy I-4 corridor, particularly in the Orlando area, he scored a decisive victory. He won 61.9% in Osceola County, certainly a record for a Democrat in a county which had voted Republican between 1952 until 2008 (with the exception of 1996 and 2000); while in Orange County (Orlando) he basically remained at 2008 level (-0.3%). Like Osceola County, Orange had voted Republican between 1948 and 2000.
The swing map in Florida is interesting. In the Panhandle, swings towards the GOP were fairly modest and a few counties – including aforementioned Liberty County – swung to Obama; as did Gadsen County, the state’s only black majority county. This is a continuation of the patterns noted in the South, where Obama improved in black-majority counties or racially divided counties. It is again perhaps a reflection of some southern whites being unenthusiastic about Romney.
There were, however, bigger swings towards the GOP on the Fun Coast (Flagler and Volusia counties – Daytona Beach, Palm Coast, Deltona). Obama lost Volusia County (Daytona Beach), which had been Democratic since 1992, winning 48.9% (down from 52.2%). Obama had already underperformed in these counties in 2008.
The Florida Suncoast – the western coast south of Tampa including Naples, Fort Myers, Cape Coral – also had larger swings towards the GOP. Democrats had thought the Paul Ryan pick and fears over privatizing Medicare would help them with Florida’s seniors (the west coast is a GOP-leaning retirement haven), actively courted by both parties, but Ryan had no effect (either good or bad) whatsoever on the election. Instead, maybe Republican attacks on Obama’s Medicare policies (accusing Obama of ‘raiding’ $176 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare) helped them. Other coastal counties also had some fairly heavy swings to the GOP.
Obama performed well in the I-4 corridor. The growing Puerto Rican population in the Orlando area has helped Democrats and threatens the GOP’s standing in this crucial swing region. In Osceola County, Obama won over 61% and did over 2 points better than in 2008. In Orange County (Orlando) but also in Polk County (Lakeland – the GOP leaning suburban regions of the I-4 corridor), he held his own very well.
There was a big swing in Miami-Dade County, allowing Obama to break 60% (gaining nearly 4 points). The exit polls showed Obama winning the Cuban vote in Florida by 2 points; but Latino Decisions says the Cuban vote in FL still backed Romney by 29. This article claims that Obama did not win Cubans in Miami-Dade, and indeed the precinct results in the county (see here) do show that Romney still won the vast majority of precincts in Cuban areas such as Hialeah, Westchester and Little Havana. That being said, regardless of who won the Cuban vote, Obama still won one of the best results for a Democrat with Cubans. He had won around 35% of the Cuban vote in 2008, he certainly got over 40% this year.
Broward County also swung to Obama. Broward County has large black and non-Cuban Hispanic populations, and a large LGBT community in Fort Lauderdale. On the other hand, Palm Beach County swung fairly substantially to Romney, he did 3 points better than McCain in 2008. The Jewish vote, important on the Gold Coast, accounted for 5% of the electorate in Florida and went 66-30 for Obama. In general, it seems as if Obama suffered some substantial loses with the Jewish vote in the country as a whole. In part, this is a correction of 2008: Sarah Palin had scared a lot of moderate Jewish voters who would otherwise not be extremely enthusiastic about Obama.
Colorado went to Obama by 5.5, making it narrowly more Democratic than the nation for the second election in a row. Colorado has changed a lot since its days as a Mountain West GOP stronghold, voting Republican between 1964 and 2008 (except for 1992). The state’s political landscape has been changed dramatically in the last ten years because of Hispanic growth and an influx of younger educated migrants from the West Coast who have come to work in the big high-tech industry in Colorado. After his big 9 point win in CO back in 2008, Obama’s support dropped off a bit in the state (even though the 2010 midterms were quite kind on the CO Dems) and the last polls generally showed a tight race. His 5 point win is another case of the President beating his polling average.
The white share of the electorate in Colorado has declined by a full 8 points from 2004, when they accounted for 86% of voters, to today, when they made up only 78% of the 2012 electorate. Hispanics made up 14% of voters, and they backed Obama by 52 points this years (75-23) – which would be up substantially from 2008 (exit polls say Obama won them only 61-38). In 2008, Obama won whites in the state by 2 but reportedly lost them by 10 to Romney this year.
As previously mentioned, two middle-class inner suburban counties outside Denver had proven crucial to Obama in 2008: Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. He was the first Democrat to carry those old GOP strongholds since LBJ in 1964. The Democratic gains in these counties are pushed by growing minority populations – Arapahoe County is only 63%, with large Hispanic and black minorities in Aurora. Hispanics are also a growing population in Jefferson County, and they have contributed to pushing middle-income suburbs such as Lakewood or Arvada towards the Democrats.
Obama won both JeffCo and Arapahoe this year. The bad news for Republicans is that Arapahoe (44.5% for Romney, 42.8% for McCain) but also Denver proper and its northern (less affluent) suburbs in Adams County also swung below the national average. The slightly more encouraging news is that while Obama held JeffCo, Romney did score a significant improvement over McCain’s results (46.5% rather than 44.6%). The high-growth GOP exurbs in Douglas County also swung sizable: Obama dropped from nearly 41% to only 36%. The northern exurbs in Weld County also swung more than the country.
We noted above that ski resorts, another source of Democratic strength (and inroads) in Colorado, had a substantial swing towards Romney; most likely because they tend to be extremely affluent despite their staunch liberalism. Nonetheless, Romney’s results in ski counties – San Miguel, Gunnison, Pitkin, Eagle or Summit – are still nothing spectacular.
Some southern Colorado counties with a large Hispanic population swung towards Obama this year. To repeat the obvious, the GOP should be concerned by results in states like Colorado.
Nevada is in a similar basket. There too, very strong Hispanic and black support for Obama and Democrats are turning the state into a purple state which leans Democratic. Obama’s margin in NV dropped off to 6.6% this year, down from a phenomenal 12.5% margin in 2008; but these are still huge margins for a Democrat in historical perspective. Like in Colorado, the huge shift is due to the rapid decline of the white electorate – they made up 77% of voters in 2004 but only 64% this year! Clark County – home to Las Vegas and most Nevadans – is only 48% white.
Virginia had voted for Republicans between 1952 and 2008, with the exception of 1964, when Obama carried the state by a huge 6.3 points. This year, he repeated his magic and won VA by 3.88 – once again, Virginia is now more Democratic than the nation.
Backing this shift from Republican stronghold to swing state, even lean-D swing state, is the rapid growth and development of northern Virginia (NoVA) since the 1970s and its political shifts since the late 1990s. In the past, the region – white, very affluent and influenced by the presence of defense contractors of tech firms in the area, had been a GOP stronghold. Democrats found support in Arlington and Alexandria, the “edge cities” with a large base of public sector employees (and some minorities); but extremely wealthy Fairfax and Loudoun counties (the top 2 counties by income in the US) were Republican strongholds. NoVA’s face changed with immigration – predominantly Hispanic and Asian, young professionals (often singles) moving in and replacing older white suburbanites who moved further out and new subdivisions springing up or new apartment towers in Arlington or Alexandria. Fairfax County is 55% white, Loudoun County is 62% white and Prince William County is only 49% white.
NoVA swung against President Bush in 2004. John Kerry carried Fairfax County, which had voted GOP since 1964. In 2008, Barack Obama’s strong campaign organized and mobilized minorities or young professionals. He cashed in on NoVA’s swing towards the Democrats and on his campaign’s organization and he carried NoVA by a wide margin. He broke 60% in Fairfax County and was the first Democrat since LBJ to win Prince William and Loudoun County. As covered above, he held both of these conquests this year – Prince William County even swung to him. All NoVA counties besides Arlington swung below the national average and Romney couldn’t match President Bush’s already paltry 2004 results in any of these counties. With presidential election turnout, NoVA is increasingly out of reach for Republicans.
In 2008, Obama had also made inroads in metro Richmond – it too had been solidly Republican in the past, with suburban Henrico County voting GOP since 1952. With blacks moving out of Richmond, its metro area – primarily Henrico County to the north but also Chesterfield County to the south have seen a growth in the black population; they now make up 29% in Henrico (whites 57%). Obama won a huge 55.7% in Henrico County in 2008, and won 55.2% this year. This is another case of a suburban county where Romney failed to make any impact. Obama won 45.4% in Chesterfield County, about the same as in 2008 too.
As noted in the discussion about coal country, Appalachian Virginia’s coal country – Buchanan and Dickenson counties – had a huge swing towards the GOP. Other white rural or exurban regions in the Piedmont and Shenandoah region, but the rest of the state did not swing much. Through strong minority turnout, a few heavily black counties in Southside VA or the Tidewater/Hampton Roads swung to Obama who maintained his strong standing in the Hampton Roads region.
Minorities were, once again, key to Obama’s victory in Virginia – as they had been in 2008. He lost whites by 23 points, roughly the same amount he had lost them by in 2008; but he won 93% of blacks (20% of voters) and two-thirds of Hispanics and Asians.
Obama lost North Carolina, but it remains promising for Democrats. Obama remained strong in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), winning over 60% of the vote in a county which has seen a rapid increase in its minority population. The growing Research Triangle around Raleigh (Wake County, 54.9% Obama), Durham and Chapel Hill remained strongly Democratic, with Orange County (Chapel Hill) swinging to Obama while the swings towards the GOP in the other counties were below national average.
The white vote in North Carolina became even more solidly Republican – Romney won whites 68-31 (+37) after McCain had won them by 29; though this is smaller than Bush’s 46 point win with NC whites in 2004. Furthermore, the white share of the electorate dropped by another 2 percentage points this year, from 72% to 70%, while Hispanics accounted for 4% of voters, up 1 since 2008.
A particularly bad blow for Romney was New Hampshire, which Obama carried by nearly 6 points – certainly down from his big 9.6 point win in 2008 but nonetheless a solid victory. New Hampshire, with its independent and slightly libertarian attitude, is a very swingy state. In 2006 and 2008, it swung heavily towards the Democrats; but in 2010, it swung very heavily towards the Republicans, who won the senate contest with over 60% and took huge majorities in the state house. Mitt Romney, who owns a vacation home in Wolfeboro, was a good candidate for New Hampshire: businessman image and a campaign about low taxes and smaller government (NH is known for being quite keen on both matters). But the same could be said about McCain in 2008, yet he lost the state by a surprisingly large margin.
Romney was able to make his strongest gains in traditionally Republican areas of the state, primarily the low-tax crowd of Boston suburbanites and exurbanites or in the affluent resort towns of the Lake Country. However, he was unable to overcome the heavy Democratic lean of the more rural western half of the state – “Vermont bleed over” – home to a mix of small liberal college towns and old mill towns. After a huge swing towards the GOP in 2010, New Hampshire swung back to the Democrats, who regained the NH House and came close to regaining the State Senate.
Obama had won Iowa by 9.5 points in 2008, this year he won it by a less impressive but still very comfortable 5.8. John McCain had never been a very strong candidate for Iowa, in part because of his opposition to ethanol subsidies (which is the kiss of death for many candidates in the state) but also because of the state’s dovish streak.
With New Hampshire, Iowa is one of the only swing states where Obama won the white vote – they are, after all, 93% of the electorate in Iowa. The state’s Democratic lean has often surprised observers, who would expect a predominantly rural and lily white state with no dominant metro centre to be solidly Republican (and, fair enough, Iowa used to be solidly GOP). Iowa swung heavily Democratic in 1988 with the farm crisis, and it has remained a disputed swing state since that point. The state’s close Democratic lean in recent presidential elections (Bush was the only Republican since Reagan to win the state, in 2004, by a hair) should be understood from different standpoints. On the one hand, while Iowa lacks a large metropolis akin to Chicago or Minnesota’s Twin Cities, it does have a good number of mid-sized towns: Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Waterloo, Dubuque, Davenport, Sioux City or Burlington. Obama won mid-sized cities in Iowa – 27% of the electorate – by 37 points (68-31). These cities, a mix of liberal college towns (Iowa City, Ames, Cedar Falls) or old working-class centres (Davenport, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids) – many of them with a Catholic heritage (notably Dubuque, a heavily German Catholic Democratic stronghold).
That being said, Iowa does have a substantial Democratic vote in ‘rural’ areas (43% of the electorate were in rural areas, according to the exit polls – against 14% nationally) and Obama lost them by only 9 points, in 2008 he had actually won them by 1. Most “rural” Democratic support stems from the Driftless Area in eastern Iowa, a natural region which extends into southwestern Wisconsin (which is similarly lily white but solidly Democratic). The Driftless, a hilly and poorer region, attracted poorer immigrants from Scandinavia or Germany who created smaller farms. Scandinavians, like in Minnesota or western Wisconsin, brought with them a “moralistic” political culture (as defined by Daniel Elazar, see map here) which tends to be less individualist and more supportive of “good” government, seen as a positive force in society. On the other hand, western Iowa – a region similar to the neighboring Great Plains – with its larger farms, less mid-sized towns and less Catholics – is solidly Republican. In the state’s northwestern corner (Sioux, Lyon and O’Brien counties), the Republicans get huge majorities because of the large Dutch Reformed population. Romney won 83% of the vote in Sioux County, where over 50% of religious adherents belong to the Dutch Reformed Church.
In general, rural areas swung more heavily towards the GOP than urban areas this year. Obama generally resisted well in most urban counties, he even picked up Woodbury County (Sioux City), which he had lost by a hair in 2008. The counties including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Davenport and Ames all swung below the national average. Romney did pretty well in Dallas County – Des Moines’ affluent and rapidly growing suburbs – where he won 55% of the vote.
Wisconsin has generally been a closely fought state in recent presidential contests – Gore and Kerry each won it by less than one point in 2000 and 2004 – so Obama’s 14 point shellacking of McCain in 2008 was quite something. Obama won the state by nearly 7 points this year, still a very hefty margin though down quite a bit since 2008. Wisconsin has been at the centre of America’s polarized politics in the past two years, with the state’s Republican Governor, Scott Walker, making both enemies and allies with his battle against public sector unions. Walker handily survived a recall election earlier this year, and Republicans felt confident that they could take Wisconsin. Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan was likely informed, at least in part, by his potential positive impact on his fortunes in Wisconsin. Though Ryan’s selection did narrow the polls and gave Republicans a brief glimmer of hope, Obama ended up winning decisively in the state.
Romney’s inability to come closer in Wisconsin tells us something about the declining impact of VP picks in modern elections (see also: John Edwards in 2004). In the past, they could bring their state along with them. Today, VP picks from ‘swing states’ have much less impact on their state and this is being recognized by modern campaigns: Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden were not picked because of their state of origin.
His much narrower margin this year is a natural correction of his huge margin in 2008. As aforementioned, Obama’s very strong performance in WI in 2008 was due in good part to his unusually strong performance in the Fox River Valley and the Northern Highlands, traditionally blue-collar German Republican areas; because of Obama’s strong (ephemeral) appeal in smaller manufacturing centres in the Upper Midwest but also because of the Fox River Valley’s longstanding dovish streak. The region shifted back to the GOP in the 2010 midterms, helping both Ron Johnson and Scott Walker. As noted above, the heaviest swings to the GOP this year came from the Fox River Valley. The Driftless Area did swing above the national average, but Obama nevertheless remained strong.
Obama held his ground very well in the state’s main urban centres: the very liberal college town and state capital of Madison (Dane County), the blue-collar and multiracial Milwaukee and the old left-leaning working-class towns along Lake Superior (Douglas and Bayfield counties) up north. Obama won 71.1% in Dane County, not a lot less than what he had won in 2008 (72.8%) and quite a bit above Kerry’s 2004 result (66%). Similarly, in Milwaukee, Obama won 66.8% – down minimally from 2008 (67.3%) and still up substantially from 2004 (61.7%). Romney did, however, match or come close to matching Bush’s 2004 results in Milwaukee’s very conservative suburbs: 67% in Waukesha County, 69.9% in Washington County and 64.8% in Ozaukee County.
We already discussed Pennsylvania above. It was the “tipping point” state in this election, the state which brought Obama over 270EVs. Obama won the state, which has voted for Democrats since 1992, by 5 points. This is down from a decisive 10 point victory in 2008. Pennsylvania is one of the few swing states – with perhaps Michigan and maybe Wisconsin – which looks promising to the GOP in the long term, in part because they have been able to take increasingly large shares of the white vote. McCain won whites by 3 points in 2008, but Romney carried them by 15 points this year – which is more than what Bush carried them by in 2004 (+9). That being said, the white share of the electorate has declined in PA: from 82% in 2004 to 78% this year; and Democrats poll huge majorities with blacks (+87) and Hispanics (+62).
Like McCain/Palin in 2008, Romney’s campaign felt that Pennsylvania was within reach. Similar to how McCain’s team had gone all-out in the Pittsburgh media market in the last stretch of the 2008 campaign, Romney’s team went for the win in the state in the final stretch and forced Democrats to spend resources in the state. However, just as in 2008, Pennsylvania was once again fool’s gold for the GOP. Obama’s margin was cut in half, but he still won by more than either Kerry or Gore.
The state’s political bases have shifted around in recent years, especially in 2008. That year, Obama’s victory was quite different from previous Democratic victories. He benefited from big swings in Philly suburbia, which has shifted from reliably Republican to increasingly Democratic-leaning. On the other hand, Obama did extremely poorly in the working-class steel and coal country of southwestern Pennsylvania. SW PA, similar to West Virginia or the Ohio Valley in OH, had been the state’s Democratic stronghold par excellence. For example, in 1984, Walter Mondale was trounced outside Philly but carried all of SW PA, even breaking 60% in Beaver and Fayette counties. The region’s big swing towards the GOP reflects the collapse of Democratic support with the culturally conservative white working-class (outside of major urban areas). Obama was the first Democrat since McGovern in 1972 to lose Beaver, Washington and Fayette counties.
SW PA’s drift away from the national Democrats continued this year. There was a big swing in Cambria County, a traditionally Democratic county home to Johnstown, a major steel town. Obama had won 49.2% in 2008, he won only 40.1% this year. Elk County, a rural Catholic working-class county, also swung hard: Obama’s support fell from 50.8% to 41.3%. In the core of SW PA, Obama collapsed from 48.6% to 40.5% in Greene County. In Westmoreland County, a Mondale ’84 county which has shifted towards the GOP since 2000 because of Pittsburgh’s growth, Obama won only 37.6%, the worst result for a Democrat since 1928.
The heaviest swings to the GOP this year came from solidly Republican centre-west Pennsylvania, a mix of farm country but in this case a good number of blue-collar towns (they also fall in bituminous coal country). There was a big swing in Centre County, where Obama won 55% in 2008 but won only 49.1% (carrying the county by a tiny margin), which could reflect lower student turnout and enthusiasm for Obama (Centre County includes Penn State). Like Whitman County, WA (Wazzu in Pullman), Centre County has a very liberal college town dependent on student turnout surrounded by very conservative rural areas, which can outvote the college town. Obama won Whitman County in 2008, but it swung back this year, and fairly heavily. On the other hand, however, Alachua County, FL (Gainesville) – a county similarly polarized between a very liberal college town and very conservative rural areas – swung below the national average.
Romney did decently well in Philly’s suburbs where Obama had done extremely well in 2008, in Bucks County he even did better than Bush had done in 2004 (but he failed to match Bush in either Chester or MontCo). Obama had also done very well in traditionally Lancaster County, a more exurban and conservative county with a large Amish population (the Amish generally swung heavily Democratic in 2008, maybe because of the Iraq War); this year he fell back from 43.4% to 39.7% – still much better than Kerry’s 33.6%.
The idea that the WWC is homogeneously Republican and that it once was homogeneously Democratic in some distant past is false, like almost every myth about voting patterns made up by the media. If coal country in SW PA, WV, KY, VA or downstate IL had the biggest swings to Romney in the entire country; the results in northeastern PA’s Anthracite Coal Country tells a different story. Lackawanna County (Scranton) swung to Obama this year; he won 63.1% on Nov 6, a bit better than the 62.2% he won in 2008. Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) also swung below the national average. This does not really conform to the narrative that the WWC has swung heavily to the GOP everywhere. Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are different from WV’s coal country; there are ethnic differences (West Virginia, like parts of SW PA outside Pittsburgh, is Scots-Irish and Protestant country; the NE PA coal basin is of Irish, Polish, Italian or Welsh stock and is largely Catholic) but also major economic differences. West Virginia’s economy is still dependent on the extraction of bituminous coal, a type of coal which can be used for electricity generation. NE PA’s Coal Country extracted anthracite coal, which was used for home heating. The invention of modern furnaces basically destroyed coal mining as early as the 1960s, and industry left decades ago, leaving an economic and environmental mess. The region’s economy is no longer dependent on coal mining, unlike WV. The result is something similar to Butte-Anaconda, MT – a big copper mining town which has gone to waste, which remains heavily Democratic.
Continue reading below the fold for some analysis of Senate and House races and other results from November 6.