Category Archives: Referendums

Guest Post: Irish Referendums 2015

David J. Barrett contributed this excellent guest post covering the results of the two referendums held in Ireland on May 22, 2015

Two referendums and a by-election to parliament took place on Friday May 22nd in Ireland. The referendums took place in order to change the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, and to lower the age of eligibility for candidates running for President from 35 to 21. The by-election took place to fill the vacancy caused by the appointment of Phil Hogan to the European Commission.

The referendum in marriage was a long-time coming, but still moved quickly when it did. Ireland has traditionally been very far from the lead in socially progressive legislation in Europe. Homosexuality was only legalized in 1993 and divorce only won a referendum in 1995 by about 9,000 votes – less than 1%. Abortion is still one of the live-issues of Irish politics and is still effectively illegal. Nonetheless after legalization public opinion moved relatively quickly. In 2010 civil unions, with many similarities to marriage (albeit without being exactly the same) was pushed through by the then governing Fianna Fail-Green coalition, after having been repeatedly proposed by the social-democratic  Labour Party in legislation while in opposition for several years prior to that. It faced nearly negligible opposition when actually brought to a vote – with only a handful of senators in the largely powerless upper house seriously expressing disquiet over the issue. Reaction to the legislation among the Irish LGBT community was generally positive, albeit not uniformly so, with the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) expressing their support for the legislation while Marriage Equality – an organization with an eponymous raison d’etre – pointing out the numerous legal differences between civil partnership and marriage.

In the 2011 election Ireland elected openly gay parliamentarians to the Dail – the lower house of parliament – for the first time, having long had Senator David Norris in the upper house. Norris, who led the legal fight in the courts to get homosexuality legalized, was later that year considered the heavy favourite to win Ireland’s largely ceremonial presidency in polls before ultimately faltering, but the popularity of his campaign showed how homosexuality seemed to be increasingly a non-issue in Irish politics.

Same-sex marriage was not in the programme for government of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that took power in 2011. Instead, the issue was put to the Constitutional Convention, a joint assembly of citizen’s and politicians that would consider a variety of civic and political reforms. The constitutional convention voted overwhelmingly to recommend the issue to the government, along with a variety of other reforms, including lowering the eligibility age for presidential and lowering the voting age.

However the step from civil partnership to full marriage was always going to be more difficult. The Irish court system had previously ruled that the constitutional definition of family was limited to opposite-sex couples only. This meant that any change to the legal status of marriage required a referendum – like any other change in the Irish constitution. While the government’s poll rating had slipped since the election, the referendum began to be seen increasingly as the most inevitable of those proposed by the Convention, not least owing to the passionate support it received from the Labour Party, whose then leader Eamon Gilmore called it the ‘Civil Rights issue of our generation’. Fine Gael as well became increasingly more supportive as time went on, with motions supporting same-sex marriage being supported by the youth wing of the party, and with the foundation of an LGBT wing led by popular Cork based deputy Jerry Buttimer, who came out after the 2011 election.

On January 11th 2014 Rory O’Neill, a popular Irish drag queen who is best name as his alter-ego ‘Panti Bliss’, was interviewed by the state broadcaster RTE, in which he alleged that two socially conservative newspapers columnists for the Irish Times, a major broadsheet newspaper in Ireland, Breda O’Brien and John Waters, were homophobic. Both O’Brien and Waters sued RTE for defamation, who immediately settled and paid them a sum of €85,000. There was immediate outrage not only among the LGBT community but among politicians and wider society, which culminated in large protests and a passionate and extremely well-watched speech by Panti in the Abbey Theatre, which currently has over 700,000 views on YouTube. With the referendum very well anticipated by this point it was a seen as an early battleground between the liberal and conservative portions of Irish politics.

The Yes side spent a considerable proportion of their energy initially ensuring that large numbers of county councils passed resolutions in favour of same-sex marriage, in order to help build a sense of momentum for the idea among the body politic.

Much of the work before the referendum concerned the ‘Children and Family Relationships Bill’, which was an omnibus piece of legislation that aimed to address legal ambiguities involving all kinds of non-traditional families, including LGBT ones. While not strictly related to the referendum the passage of the bill before the vote was seen as absolutely necessary for the referendum to pass, as the bill would remove most of the issues that the No side to the referendum would likely raise regarding children and the family. In the event the bill only passed the upper house on March 20th, very close to the final date of the referendum, so much of the issues dealt with in the bill were seen by many as tied up with the referendum.

The Campaign

Both the Yes and No campaigns carefully studied previous campaigns in the US and Eastern Europe for advice over what worked and what did not for their rivals, giving the campaign a much more international than previous referendums.

Irish referendums have been dominated in recent years by the Coughlan and McKenna Supreme Court Judgments. These hold that governments cannot spend public money to promote their own proposal and that the state broadcaster must be ‘balanced’ in their coverage of the issue – which has usually been interpreted as giving exactly equal airtime to both sides.

The Yes campaign was supported by all major political parties, and a major civic society effort. Fine Gael and Labour in particular were active in promoting the government’s proposal with campaigns that emphasized the idea of equality for every citizen, with extensive and costly poster campaigns, and with many deputies running their own campaigns for the proposal in their own local area. The far-left and nationalist Sinn Fein, similarly, strongly supported a Yes vote, with their campaign invoking the 1916 proclamation, a document written by Irish rebels in 1916 declaring an Irish Republic that is considered the founding document of the Irish state, albeit without legal force, that all children of the nation be cherished equally. The centrist and populist Fianna Fail similarly ran a colourful poster campaign, but the party was noticeably more lukewarm in its support than the others and almost non-existent beyond the efforts of Senator Averil Power, based in northern Dublin suburbs, and a few local councilors. Indeed Wexford based Senator Jim Walsh resigned from the party over the party’s support for the proposal and for its support of the Children and Family Relationships’ bill. The party gave a distinct impression of being more interested in campaigning for the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election, which the party was regarded as strongly competitive in, than in the referendum.

ireland2015-1However civic society was undoubtedly the main force of the Yes campaign. GLEN, Marriage Equality and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who pooled their organisations to make ‘Yes Equality’ (YE), which rapidly became a campaigning behemoth in several areas of the country. YE largely ran a conservative message, emphasizing the importance of family and stability in people’s lives, and how a yes vote would reduce stigma and improve the mental health of young LGBT people. Much of their early literature focused on well known sports and television personalities popular in rural Ireland, as it was felt that these individuals who would appeal to swing voters, rather than the outspoken liberals most associated with LGBT rights before this point.

YE’s actual strategy was similar to that of any political party – knock on as many doors as possible nationwide and speak to voters. While this has long been considered the best strategy for parties in general elections it is normally not done in referendums due to a severe shortage of volunteers. Most parties find it difficult to muster up their own members to campaign even over contentious European treaty referendums, and other volunteers tend to be extremely sparse. This means that the ‘ground war’ in most referendums is limited to things with high visibility, such as distributing leaflets at sporting occasions. However YE had no such shortage of volunteers, particularly in Dublin and Cork, where the number of campaigners in a constituency per night regularly passed fifty. YE was partially motivated in this approach by the (now utterly discredited and found to be fabricated) study of LaCour and Green, which found that people speaking to those that they know to be LGBT helps change attitudes positively significantly.

ireland2015-3The No side ran a significantly more traditional referendum campaign. It had no political parties in support, but a number of politicians did support  them, such independent Mattie McGrath and former Fianna Fail junior minister John McGuinness in the lower house, and Senators Ronan Mullen and Fidelma Healy Eames in the upper house. The Catholic Church also lent their support to the campaign. It was also supported a by a few media figures – most noticeably newspaper columnists David Quinn, Breda O’Brien and John Waters. Most of these figures amalgamated their efforts into the civic society group ‘Mothers and Fathers Matter’ (MFM). Their campaign focused little on the issue directly at hand. Their posters emphasized surrogacy and the importance of gender specific parents biologically related to the child, as well as arguing that No voters were being ‘silenced’ and discriminated against by a liberal society. The overall thrust of their campaign however focused on the ‘air war’, where their lack of volunteers on the ground (certainly relative to YE) was less noticeable and where they would be obliged to receive the same airtime as YE.

Both sides were well funded. YE in particular attracted an exceptionally large amount of small donations and also managed to make a considerable sum on the sale of campaign related merchandise. In particular YE badges became ubiquitous, with over 500,000 in circulation. The source of funding for MFM was more ambiguous – but they could clearly print posters and post literature at the same rate as YE, and also paid a considerable sum for seemingly endless advertisements on YouTube.

A selection of posters from both sides in Dublin city centre can be seen on either side.

Polling in the campaign stayed quite consistent, with support for Yes consistently high, and usually over 70%. Almost no one from either side of the campaign believed these numbers however, as it was felt that there was a strong social desirability factor in voting yes and many Irish referendums see extremely inaccurate poll numbers (with several European treaties and the abolition of the upper house being defeated in spite of no poll showing the Yes side behind). Additionally many spoke of the 1995 divorce referendum, which polled well and then saw the lead for the Yes side dwindle to almost nothing. As, arguably, the referendum most similar to it both sides planned for a similarly close finish.

ireland2015-2Voters could be forgiven for not knowing that there was a second referendum, as the ballot on the presidential age had no campaign launched either for or against it, and received essentially no air time, which was probably related to the issue seeming almost laughably trivial compared to the other item on the ballot paper. There was essentially no polling done on it either, but almost all expected it to be heavily defeated.

The by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny, a predominantly rural constituency in the South-East of the country, was somewhat unusual, as almost every party had reason to expect to do reasonably well. FG was defending the seat and ran a local councillor, but this was also the area that FF received the highest percentage of the vote nationwide in their 2011 wipeout and were running a former parliamentarian for the area, and both Carlow and Kilkenny were among Labour’s best areas nationally in the last local election. SF was also polling exceptionally well nationally, and this was one of the few areas nationwide where the Green Party had a well-entrenched local councilor. The newly founded conservative ‘Renua’ party also managed to recruit a local councilor off FF, and hoped for a strong showing.


Results – Marriage Equality Referendum
Votes Of total
 Yes 1,201,607 62.07%
 No 734,300 37.93%
Valid votes 1,935,907 99.29%
Invalid or blank votes 13,818 0.71%
Total votes 1,949,725 100.00%
Voter turnout 60.52%
Electorate 3,221,681
Results – Presidential Age Referendum
Votes Of total
 Yes 520,898 26.94%
 No 1,412,602 73.06%
Valid votes 1,933,500 99.18%
Invalid or blank votes 15,938 0.82%
Total votes 1,949,438 100.00%
Voter turnout 60.51%
Electorate 3,221,681

The Marriage Equality passed resoundingly, with only one of 43 constituencies – Roscommon-South Leitrim, in the west of the country, rejecting the proposal. By contrast the Presidential Age referendum lost resoundingly. It failed to win a single constituency nationwide and had the lowest Yes vote of any referendum in Irish history. FF won the by-election, being well clear of FG in the final count.

Results of the same-sex marriage referendum by constituency (source: Wikipedia)

While the Yes vote in the Marriage Equality was lower than most polls suggested, it was still well in line with what they were suggesting. Indeed it was the highest vote in favour of same-sex marriage anywhere in the world by nearly 10%.  Based on previous form with referendums and polling this was considered extremely surprising and a result near stunning victory for YE. David Quinn effectively conceded for the No side within less than hour of the votes being counted and suggesting a near-landslide in Dublin.

The reason for YE’s near total victory can be seen in the extremely high turnout figure – which is near, albeit not quite at, general election turnout numbers in Ireland, and is the referendum with the highest turnout since divorce. While a high turnout the level of enthusiasm for actually voting surprised nearly every observer. Huge numbers enrolled on the electoral register for the first time – with nearly 67,000 voters ending up on the supplemental voting register – a resource for those who register after the deadline for the main register which is historically almost never used. Unofficial tallies of the boxes these votes were cast in suggested that they almost unanimously supported Yes. Ireland has no postal voting (which is likely related to large numbers of residents of Northern Ireland and the US who have Irish citizenship but have never actually been resident in Ireland), and in the final days of the campaign #hometovote started trending globally on twitter. With Ireland’s economic difficulties since 2008 a considerable number of young people left the country for jobs and opportunities elsewhere. A considerable number of them returned from very afield in order to vote on the proposal – with virtually all of Ryanair’s flights to Dublin the day before the vote sold out weeks in advance, and with individuals coming from considerably further afield than that (two friends of the author returned from New York and Mozambique to vote – these are extreme but not actually particularly uncommon examples).

However there was still a geographical split. Urban areas, and particularly Dublin, were noticeably more in favour of the proposal than rural ones, with areas in the North and West of the country having particularly low Yes votes compared to the national average (indeed the only No constituency was in this region, as were the next seven closest constituencies). This sort of split is not particularly unusual in Irish referendums.

What was unusual however was the internal breakdown of areas. Normally middle class Southern Dublin leads the way on issues relating to Europe and on social reform. Here the picture was much more mixed. The highest Yes constituency was indeed Dublin South East – an extremely wealthy constituency home to most of Dublin’s south city centre and the base of most of Ireland’s tech companies – making the constituency have an extremely high student and young professional population that naturally favoured a Yes.  However what many of the other most favourable constituencies for Yes in Dublin share is being predominantly working class. By contrast Dublin South, a middle class area of suburban lawns and golf club memberships, which is usually very high on these measures, scoring among the lowest Yes votes in Dublin. While surprising to observers this was certainly not news to Yes campaigners, who regularly reported having a more difficult time in such more ‘settled’ areas, with an older population, more Church influence and less exposure to non-nuclear families generally. Turnout in Dublin was much more uniform than normal between middle and working class areas, suggesting that the latter was more interested in this than normal.

Cork and Limerick were also decisively favourable and above the national average, though with Yes votes below even Dublin’s lowest constituency. This is, again, normal on social issues in Ireland.

Non-urban areas however behaved somewhat differently in the details than they have in the past – again similar to Dublin. The gap between urban and rural was much smaller than in divorce. Many Dublin constituencies moved little from their Divorce vote – in spite of the liberal side winning 62% in contrast to 50.3% then. The most liberal constituency then – Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, went from 68% in favour to 71% in favour this time. Rural Ireland seems to have distinctly moved. There also in this contest a regional divide in the rural constituencies, with the North and West being distinctly less in favour than the South and East. In previous contests rural areas in Cork have been among Ireland’s most conservative – Cork North West had the highest No vote in divorce (Only 34% in favour) and returned enormous margins against abortion. This time it the liberal side of the issue won 58%. Rural areas anywhere near a commuting distance to Dublin saw enormous Yes wins (69% in Kildare North, 66% in Kildare South, 68% in Wicklow), although even areas outside of the pull of the capital were decisive.

No constituency in Connacht or Ulster were above the national average, and the only loss for Yes occurred in this region. Roscommon-South Leitrim, an inland Western constituency with a very poor economy, has traditionally not been the most conservative constituency – albeit it certainly leaned in that direction. What seems to have happened was a near total lack of support for YE among local politicians, combined with a knowledge that this was not actually Ireland’s most conservative constituency ensuring it got no special attention. Nonetheless the defeat in the area was quite narrow.

Much better bets for No constituencies actually returned a Yes vote – both Donegal constituencies in the far North-West and Cavan-Monaghan on the border of Northern Ireland, where local politicians supported YE campaigns seemingly determined the defy the conservative reputations of the area.

Results of the presidential age referendum by constituency (source: Irish Political Maps)

What the rural areas in the North and West seem to share – and that contrasts them with the rest of the country – is the near total non-existence of the Labour Party there at any level at almost any point in Irish history. Labour was for most of its existence predominantly a rural party in the South and East, and the party still has support and can return parliamentarians there even after becoming an urban force. Nonetheless this relationship is not total, and certainly does not explain the narrowing gap between Urban and Rural Ireland on social issues just as Labour has become more urban.

Another explanation is the institutional strength of the Church in certain areas, with No being stronger where they continue to have sway. This seems likely, but does not bode well for for the Church’s future sway over Ireland – particularly since, as the Archbishop of Dublin noted, 90% of Irish young people have spent nearly their whole lives in Catholic educational institutions, and these were the individuals most likely to repudiate their stance.

The Presidential age referendum had essentially the same geographical split, with the highest Yes again being Dublin South East, followed by other Dublin constituencies. The defeat was extremely heavy however, which likely reflected the perceived frivolity of the vote.

FF won the by-election – but their percentage of the vote (28%), was exactly the same as what they won in the area in the General Election, which does not strongly indicate a party in recovery and more reflects the struggles of FG, who both have reason to be disappointed. Renua did quite well – and with a vote only slightly above the 9.5% they received in a by-election perceived as a contest largely between FF and FG they would likely win a seat. One of the more striking features of the contest  was the poor performance of Labour and the comparatively impressive percentages of the various minor Left parties. Labour were strongly associated with the Marriage Equality referendum that got all of these voters to the polls in the first place (and clearly carried Carlow-Kilkenny) and were certainly not rewarded by the electorate for it. By contrast first time voters seem to have rewarded the minor left parties without the established local history that Labour has, but also without Labour’s coalition baggage.


The result turned most of Dublin into a sort of spontaneous joyous street party for much of the day of the count. The most comparable moment in Irish history for such celebrations was Ireland winning through to the soccer world cup quarter-finals in 1990 (which also provoked the same sort of reaction and is still considered arguable the finest moment in Irish sporting history).

Following on from the referendum FF Senator Averil Power resigned from the party, saying that the party lacked the courage to stand for anything by its (effective) refusal to campaign as a party on the issue, in spite of the efforts of many party activists. This fairly quickly deflated the party after their by-election success and much of the subsequent discussion became whether the party had misread their now predominantly rural base by not engaging in the campaign.

The government has followed up the referendum victory with a gender-recognition bill for transgendered individuals. The combination of such legislation, combined with Ireland’s first ever (albeit extremely restrictive) abortion legislation means that the government can make a reasonable case for this being one of Ireland’s most socially progressive governments ever, something that both constituent parties are likely to try to capitalize on in a general election that is now likely less than a year  away.

Swiss Referendums 2014

Referendums on three matters were held in Switzerland on February 9, 2014. One issue was a mandatory referendum, because it modified the Swiss Constitution and the other two were popular initiatives which were placed on the ballot after they gathered 100,000 signatures from voters.

Turnout on the three votes ranged from 55% to 55.8%, a rather high level in a country where turnout in both elections and referendums is usually below 50% (or barely above).

Popular initiative “against mass immigration”

The popular initiative “against mass immigration” was presented by the right-populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in the Swiss Parliament which is well known for its nationalist and anti-immigration positions.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Switzerland isn’t quite an exclusive cocoon made up of Swiss citizens. In 2012, foreigners made up 23.3% of the Swiss population (about 1.87 million people), the highest number and percentage in the country’s recent history. About 64% of foreigners are EU and EFTA citizens (especially from neighboring Germany, Italy and France or countries such as Portugal); there are significant Serbian (6% of all foreigners), African (4.1%) and Turkish (3.9%) communities in Switzerland. Overall, 85% of foreign residents are European. Additionally, 34.7% of Swiss residents have ‘immigration background’ – including naturalized Swiss citizens and first/second generation foreigners.

Switzerland signed an Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU (which also applies to EFTA member-states) in 1999, allowing for the free movement and employment of EU and EFTA citizens in the country. Immigration of non-EU/EFTA citizens is strictly limited, with the country largely admitting only qualified professionals and other skilled workers. Swiss companies must prove that they failed to find adequate Swiss or European workforce when employing non-EU/EFTA foreigners. Asylum seekers and refugees are not covered by these regulations.

Immigration has increased significantly since 2008, with the economic crisis. Since 2007, immigration has increased by about 80,000 per year. In 2002, when the agreements on freedom of movement came into force, the Federal Council estimated that there would be about 8,000 immigrants per year – the reality has been 10 times higher. The large number of new immigrants in Switzerland created real problems in terms of housing shortages, overstretched transportation infrastructure creating traffic jams or overcrowded trains and major pressure on jobs, wages and rents.

The situation is made even more problematic by Switzerland’s longstanding tradition of relative isolationism. On the right, there has been a significant emphasis on the protection of ‘Swiss identity’ or ‘Swiss jobs’. This isn’t the first popular initiative dealing with the issue of immigration or the feeling of ‘too many immigrants’. In 1970, an initiative by the far-right National Action which wanted to limit the foreign population to 10% by canton (25% in Geneva) was narrowly rejected, with 54% against. In 1974, a very similar text pushed by the same group, which proposed to limit the country’s foreign population at 500,000, was rejected by a wide margin (65.8% no). Two similar initiatives were rejected by huge majorities in 1977. These first anti-immigration initiatives took place following the first significant surge in the foreign population (in the 1960s and early 1970s). While unsuccessful, the environment created by these initiatives pushed the Federal Council to pass stricter immigration laws which led to a sharp dip in the foreign population after 1975 and until 1990.

Beginning with another National Action proposal in 1988, the 1990s and 2000s saw another wave of anti-immigration initiatives – mostly proposed by the SVP, which at the same time saw its popular support expand significantly, becoming the single largest party in 2003. In 1996, a popular initiative “against illegal immigration” proposed by the SVP was rejected with 53.7% against. In 2000, a popular initiative proposing to limit the foreign population at 18% of the country’s population was rejected with 63.8%. In 2002, a SVP initiative seeking to strictly limit the conditions for the admission of asylum seekers was rejected by a very narrow margin – with 50.1% against. In 2009, a controversial initiative banning the construction of minarets was approved with 57.5% of the vote. In 2010, a SVP popular initiative “for the expulsion of foreign criminals”, which allows for the expulsion of foreigners convicted of serious crimes or having illegally received welfare benefits. The SVP’s initiative was approved by 52.9% of voters. The SVP unsuccessfully opposed the approval of Swiss membership in the Schengen Area (in 2005) and the extension of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons to the new EU member states in 2005 and to Romania and Bulgaria in 2009.

This popular initiative “against mass immigration” asked that Switzerland manages autonomously immigration through annual quotas and ceilings (without specifying what the levels would be). This would apply to all categories of foreigners including foreign workers and their families, asylum seekers, refugees and trans-border workers. Employers would need to give preference to Swiss nationals, and the initiative bans the ratification of international treaties contravening these regulations. This would imply the renegotiation or even full denunciation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU; the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons is one of Switzerland’s Bilateral Agreements I with the EU and the termination of one of these agreements leads to the automatic cancellation within six months of the other agreements.

The initiative committee blamed the massive increase in immigration for higher unemployment (8% with foreigners), overcrowded trains, traffic jams, rent increases, the loss of arable land, pressure on salaries, ‘foreign criminality’, asylum abuse and a large number of foreigners on welfare. ‘Uncontrolled immigration’, according to the initiative’s backers, threatens Swiss freedom, security, full employment, natural beauty and Swiss prosperity. In presenting the initiative, they stressed that it did not want to ‘freeze’ immigration or terminate bilateral agreements with the EU.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. In its official recommendation, the Federal Council argued that Switzerland is dependent on foreign labour and that immigrants contribute to the Swiss economy. Above all, however, they sought to point out that the approval of the initiative would necessarily mean a renegotiation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (which, according to the government, the EU is unwilling to undertake). A failure to renegotiate the agreement would, as aforementioned, automatically terminate all parts of the Bilateral Agreements I. Given Switzerland’s close economic and trade ties with the EU, termination of the Bilateral Agreements I would have, according to the Federal Council, serious consequences on the economy. The government recognizes immigration’s impact on housing and infrastructure, but argue that they would exist even without immigration and therefore require internal policy reforms rather than ‘administrative obstacles’ and ‘unnecessary annoyances’ entailed by the initiative.

Every major party except the SVP recommended the rejection of the initiative. However, while the Swiss Green Party at the federal level recommended a no vote, the Ticino section of the Green Party supported the yes. The SVP, as in the past, played a lot on sensationalist (but misleading) statistics – for example, a newspaper ad claiming that by 2060, there would be more foreigners than Swiss citizens – based on an exponential growth in the foreign population and a slow growth in the Swiss population. But with the same ‘projections’ playing on stats, we can also ‘project’ that the SVP will be winning 69% in 2060! The SVP also knew how to frame its argument: in a fairly moderate way, claiming that Switzerland could reject mass immigration without endangering bilateral agreements with the EU; and by playing on simple bread-and-butter issues – the nefarious effect of immigration on housing, wages, infrastructure, ‘freedom’ and unemployment (although some studies show that immigration hasn’t had a negative effect on the job market). It also played on deep-seated Eurosceptic sentiments, by using the Federal Council’s arguments on EU reprisals to appeal to opposition to ‘EU diktats’, the ‘European elites’ and a desire to ‘stand up’ to ‘EU scaremongering’ and defending Swiss sovereignty.

Do you accept the popular initiative “against mass immigration”?

Yes 50.3%
No 49.7%

Switzerland 2014 - Mass immigrationb

Early polling had the anti-immigration initiative going down to defeat, but the gap narrowed significantly in the yes’ favour in the final days. The initiative was narrowly approved with a 19,526 vote majority (0.6%). The initiative’s implications are interesting and significant. Like the minaret initiative, the Swiss vote hit a nerve in the EU and has placed the contentious issue of immigration (and limits on immigration) at the top of media attention and public opinion interest in many EU countries dealing with the same issue – France, Austria, Italy or the UK, for example. It has sparked widespread condemnation in the foreign media and many political leaders, with – in my mind – appropriate comments on xenophobic sentiments and the rise of anti-immigration opinion in Switzerland. Regardless of one’s opinion and appreciation on the Swiss vote, it would be best not to give lessons of morality. For example, I have little doubt that France could potentially approve a very similar initiative if such an issue came up in a referendum (a 2013 poll showed that about 70% of French voters felt that there were too many immigrants in France).

The initial official reaction by the EU has been negative: in a brief statement on February 9, the European Commission said that the initiative “goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland” and that it would “examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.” The French foreign minister and German finance minister both expressed concern; the issue is particularly important for France, Germany and Italy who have a large number of trans-border workers (frontaliers): citizens of those countries who either live and work in Switzerland or commute to work in Switzerland.

At the same time, the European far-right as a whole is rather giddy about the issue: Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Matteo Salvini but also Nigel Farage, the German AfD and Norway’s FrP all welcomed the result and would like similar votes in their own countries.

The Swiss Federal Council will respect the result and present legislation to implement the initiative by the end of the year, and immediately begin negotiations with the EU – the initiative gives them a three year period to renegotiate existing agreements with the EU. Many Swiss politicians and their constituents are confident that the EU will not choose confrontation and that some kind of agreement will be found between the two countries. Some feel that, in the long run, the initiative won’t change much: the cantons may gain considerable leeway in setting quotas, allowing diverse and immigrant-heavy cantons (Basel, Geneva, Zurich etc) to set large quotas; the implementing legislation may be challenged in a referendum; international law will still apply and Switzerland will need to abide by it (although the SVP fancies an initiative to make Swiss law supersede international law) and the very drawn out process for renegotiation will allow for adaptation or compromise. If the negotiations were to collapse, however, it would have major economic consequences for Switzerland and the EU: some sectors of the Swiss economy are compelled to turn to foreign labour for lack of domestic labour, many Swiss take advantage of bilateral programs with the EU (Erasmus, for example), Switzerland is closely connected to the EU economy and Swiss participation in EU projects may be jeopardized. Swiss businesses are worried, fearing an overload of administrative annoyances and starting in a disadvantageous position in EU negotiations (the EU will likely demand concessions from Switzerland in case of a compromise).

There has been significant attention paid to the geography of the vote, even in the foreign press which usually ignores electoral geography. The overall geography was not very different from past votes on foreigners/immigration-related votes in Switzerland: anti-immigration votes tended to come from German but also Italian Switzerland – and rural areas – while support for the pro-immigration position came from French Switzerland and urban areas in general. Once again, French Switzerland only gave 41.5% support to the initiative, compared with 52% in German Switzerland and 68% in Italian Switzerland. The strongest support for the initiative came from the Italian canton of Ticino, which voted yes with no less than 68.2%. Ticino, like Geneva (which voted no, with 61%), has the highest unemployment in the country (around 7%, in a country where unemployment is only 2-3%); but the main reason for the canton’s strong support for the initiative is because it has been impacted by significant labour immigration from neighboring Italy. Well-educated but unemployed Italians are willing to cross the border to accept jobs in Ticino – at higher salaries than in Italy, but at significantly lower salaries than Swiss workers. The canton of Ticino has voted against ‘free movement’ issues in the past: in 2009, 66% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to Romania and Bulgaria (38% in Switzerland as a whole); in 2005, 64% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to the 2004 EU entrants (40.6% in the country); in 2004, 62% voted against Schengen (45% in the country); and in 2000, 57% voted against the sectoral agreements with the EU which were approved by 67% of voters. This year, there was little rural-urban divide in Italian Switzerland: 66% approval in urban areas, 69.6% approval in rural towns.

Support for the initiative was also strong in German-speaking rural areas: in the rural communities, 60.7% voted in favour. The very conservative Catholic canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden approved the issue with 63.5%, the predominantly rural (and also Catholic) canton of Schwyz – which often records strong support for anti-immigration votes (it too voted against the Romania/Bulgaria extension, and was the only one to back a 2008 SVP initiative which would have subjected naturalization applications to popular votes in each town) – voted yes with 63.1%. The next highest results in support of the initiative were recorded in Glarus (59.4%), Obwalden (59.1%), Nidwalden (58.8%) and Uri (58.2%). With the exception of Glarus, which has been industrialized over 100 years ago, all the other cantons are peripheral, historically rural and and traditionally poor German Catholic cantons. The cantons of Schwyz, Uri and the half-cantons of the Unterwalden formed the original four cantons of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, were the central part of the anti-centralist and conservative Sonderbund in 1847 and have long been peripheral, isolated, patriarchal and strongly traditionalist/conservative. Glarus, which was historically Protestant and industrialized, proved more open to external influences but it has become conservative in the post-war era. These cantons have often recorded the strongest opposition on votes concerning European integration (EEC membership in 1992), UN membership (2002), immigration but also other issues (abortion, gun control).

The initiative also received strong support in rural and small town conservative areas throughout German areas, for example in the cantons of Aargau (55.2%), Thurgau (57.8%), Schaffhausen (58.1%) and Saint Gallen (55.9%). Far less rural and traditionalist than the original four cantons, these German cantons have nonetheless become – outside of their main urban centres – quite conservative. It passed by a narrow majority in Lucerne (53.3%), Solothurn (54.6%), Bern (51.1%), Grisons (50.6%) and Basel-Landschaft (50.6%). In the cantons of Bern and Lucerne, the initiative was carried exclusively by strong support in rural conservative areas: it received only 39.7% support in Lucerne and 27.7% in Bern. However, for example, in the rural districts of Entlebuch (LU) and Obersimmental-Saanen (BE), the yes won 67.4% and 66.7% respectively. The initiative was also defeated in the cities of Aarau, Baden, Winterthur and Saint Gallen.

In the canton of Grisons, a mountainous and fairly conservative canton, the rather high level of opposition to the initiative might have something to do with the importance of tourism in the canton, which is home to internationally famous high-end ski resorts and has created a fairly high demand for foreign labour (the foreign population reaches 30.6% in the Maloja district, which includes Saint-Moritz). In the Italian-speaking district of Moesa in Grisons, the yes won 71% of the vote – it also won 58% in the district of Bernina, an Italian-speaking valley. It failed in the canton’s main city (Chur) and most major resort towns, including Davos and Saint-Moritz.

The cantons of Basel-Stadt (39% yes), Zurich (47.3% yes) and Zug (49.9% yes) voted against. The first two cantons are anchored by large urban areas, which voted heavily against – in the city of Zurich itself, the yes won only 33.4%. In German Switzerland, there was a very strong rural-urban divide. In German urban areas, the yes vote received only 41% (keeping in mind that, in contrast, it took 61% in the most rural German communities); the yes vote was successful in medium-sized towns (52.9%) and isolated towns (53.9%). The cities, as in every other country, concentrate multicultural communities with more leftist views on issues such as immigration and highly-educated professionals – either wealthier suburbanites (District 7/8 in Zurich) or ‘new middle-classes’ in gentrified downtowns (Districts 4/5 in Zurich) with similar socially liberal views. In Zurich, the initiative was defeated by huge margins both in the very wealthy suburban districts (7+8, 27.7% yes) and the central gentrified areas (Districts 4/5, 21.1% yes); it carried only District 12, a lower-income/blue-collar peripheral district (52% yes). The initiative also lost by significant margins in Zurich’s very wealthy lakeside suburbs (43.9% yes in Meilen district, 46.6% in Horgen district). In Basel, a major economic centre closely connected to neighboring Germany and France (many German and French nationals commute cross-border), the initiative won only 38.7%; it was also defeated in its affluent, well-educated suburbs. The canton of Zug is the country’s wealthiest canton; as a low-tax zone, the city of Zug has become home to the headquarters of many multinational corporations. In the city of Zug itself, the initiative won 43.1% support.

French Switzerland (Suisse romande) was the only region to reject the initiative, with only 41.5% support. It won about 39% support in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel; it did slightly better in the Jura (44%) and failed only narrowly in the cantons of Fribourg (48.5%) and Valais (48.3%). In the case of the latter canton, there was a clear linguistic divide: the German-speaking eastern half of the Valais (Oberwallis) voted in favour, while all but one district in the French-speaking western half (Bas-Valais) voted against. In the canton of Fribourg, which has a substantial German minority, the German-majority district of Sense was more heavily in favour (56.7%) than French-speaking rural district, but in that canton the divide was more urban-rural: the initiative failed by a landslide in the city of Fribourg (34.3%) and its suburbs but was successful in rural areas. On the whole, French-speaking Switzerland has been the country’s most liberal region; voting in favour of European integration and choosing the more liberal option on matters such as immigration, identity, abortion or women’s rights.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a strong rural-urban divide in French Switzerland as well. In urban centres, the initiative received only 37.7% support. It won 40.6% in me

dium-sized towns, 42.2% in isolated towns and 47% in rural areas. The cities of Geneva (37.9% yes), Lausanne (32.5% yes), Neuchâtel (31.2% yes), La-Chaux-de-Fonds (39.8% yes), Delémont (32.3% yes), Porrentruy (38.7% yes), Nyon (36.2% yes), Montreux (40.7% yes) and Sion (40.4% yes) all voted heavily against. Opposition was very strong in the arc lémanique, a very affluent urban/suburban area around the Lac Léman from Geneva to Lausanne. The Geneva-Léman region is home to a large number of international organizations and attract a large number of cross-border workers from France; foreigners constitute about 40% of the population in the canton of Geneva and in Lausanne, and 34% in the district of Nyon (VD). In the affluent Geneva lakeside suburb of Collonge-Bellerive, the initiative won only 35%; support was below 40% in most affluent towns in the arc lémanique. On the other hand, support was higher in less affluent areas in the Ouest lausannois and in Geneva’s suburbs; 42.6% in the Ouest lausannois district and 49.1% in the town of Vernier, a poorer suburb outside of Geneva. That being said, plenty of historically working-class and poorer cities in French Switzerland voted heavily against: the industrial cities of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Delémont and Le Locle all voted against by substantial margins; the French-speaking valleys of the Bas-Valais are no more or less affluent than the German-speaking Oberwallis yet the former voted against while the latter voted in favour by large margins. In French Switzerland, the initiative was only successful in rural areas: the eastern ends of the canton of Vaud, the Jura bernois (in the canton of Bern) and much of the canton of Fribourg outside urban areas.

While the initiative’s victory is a major political success for the SVP, it would not have been successful without the support of voters outside of the SVP’s traditional electoral base. The SVP’s electoral base is, at most, no more than 30%; the core hardline anti-European and anti-immigration electorate in referendums is often 30-35% as well. Like the minaret or ‘foreign criminals’ referendums, this result shows that the SVP’s rhetoric against immigration appeals to a much wider crowd than that which usually votes for the SVP in federal elections. In this referendum, success would not have been possible without significant cross-over support from other parties and independents – including left-wingers. The left-wing argument in favour of this initiative is that the current levels of population growth, in good part due to foreign immigration, are unsustainable in the long-term for economic, social and environmental reasons.

There have been a lot of comments in the media that the regions which voted in favour are those with a low percentage of foreigners while those which voted against are those with a higher percentage of immigrants. This is not entirely the case. This graph (by district) comparing the % of foreigners to % yes for the initiative does show some kind of correlation between a low number of foreigners and stronger support for the initiative – only two districts with a number of foreigners above the Swiss average voted in favour; at the same time, however, many districts with a fairly large percentage of foreigners voted in favour. Based on the data in that chart, I calculated a correlation coefficient of -0.34 (negative correlation between support for the initiative and high percentage of foreigners), but the R² value is only 0.11, so it’s a very weak correlation.

Popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

Abortion rights in Switzerland have evolved gradually. From 1942 to 2002, abortion was only permitted in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy in cases of maternal life and the mother’s health; the understanding of the term ‘health’ evolved from only physical health to cover mental health. In 1977, an initiative to legalize abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks was narrowly rejected by the electorate, with 51.7% against. In 1978, a federal law which continued to classify abortion as an offense but expanding exceptions allowing for abortions (medical and social reasons, rape, fetal defects) was struck down by a wide majority (by the looks of the vote, it displeased both the pro-life and pro-choice camps). Afterwards, the practice of abortion, albeit still legally an offense and strictly curtailed by legislation, was liberalized and the practice was only rarely prosecuted. In 2002, an amendment to the Swiss penal code legalized abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks. In a June 2002 referendum, 72% of voters approved the new law and simultaneously rejected a counter-initiative, which sought to re-criminalize abortion (81.8% against). The costs of abortions are covered, since 2002, by public health insurance.

This popular initiative proposed that abortions be no longer covered by health insurance, on the grounds of lessening the financial burden on health insurance. The text allowed for exceptions, but did not define them. The initiative was supported officially by the Evangelical People’s Party (EVP) and the SVP, although two SVP cantonal sections (Jura and Vaud) called to vote against and some other SVP sections gave no voting recommendations. Certain members of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and the FDP.The Liberals backed the initiative. Besides lessening the financial burden on health insurance, the supporters of the text argued that, as a matter of conscience, nobody should be forced to finance abortions against their ethical and moral convictions. Other supporters argued that if abortions were to be self-financed or privately covered, there would be less abortions.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. It argued in favour of the existing system, which it says has proved its worth: the number of abortions in Switzerland are low by international standards and have remained stable since 2002 (and decreased with young women under 20); strong support and counseling for women; strict guidelines to ensure quality and safety and the costs of abortions have decreased significantly (it says between 600 and 1000 CHF). The savings which would be incurred by not covering abortions would be minimal: 8 billion CHF in a system worth 26 billion CHF, so only about 0.03% of the total costs of health insurance. The Federal Council also raised concerns about the undefined ‘exceptions’ in the text of the initiative, which, they argued, would lead to patchy case-by-case financing of certain abortions.

Do you accept the popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

No 69.8%
Yes 30.2%

Switzerland 2014 - Abortion

Unsurprisingly, the initiative was rejected by a very wide margin. Only a socially conservative base strongly opposed to abortion voted in favour. Outside of a socially conservative minority, abortion in Switzerland – like in many/most other Western European countries – is well accepted by the population and there is little interest in changing a system which is perceived as working well, as the Federal Council argued.

The geography of the vote was both unsurprising and surprising. Unsurprising because the very few outposts of support for the measure – only two districts and one half canton voted in favour – were rather predictable. The half-canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, a very conservative, traditionalist and rural German Catholic region, voted in favour – with 50.9%. The district of Entlebuch, an isolated rural valley in the Catholic canton of Lucern, was the only other district to vote in favour, with 50.3%. Although it failed in every other districts, there was substantial support in some more rural districts of the cantons of Schwyz (44.3% overall), Uri (45.3%), Saint-Gallen (42.4%), Obwald (41.6%) and Thurgovia (40.9%). It was in German Switzerland where the measure found the most support, 34.5% overall, especially in German rural areas (41.2%). Swiss German cities were strongly opposed, with only 27.7% support. In the city of Zurich, the yes won 21.1% and in Basel-Stadt it got 24.6%.

In contrast, there was only negligible support in French Switzerland; where only 15.7% voted in favour, with support for the text as low as 10.9% in Vaud and 13.8% in Geneva. Over 90% of voters rejected the initiative in the city of Lausanne and the neighboring (affluent) districts of Morges and Gros-de-Vaud. Even in the French Catholic canton of Jura, the yes won barely 20.3%. Italian Catholics were slightly more supportive, with support for the text standing at 32.7% in all Italian-speaking regions.

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

On the other hand, the geography was more surprising because it followed the usual rural-urban and linguistic divides more than the confessional divide, unlike in the past. In 1977, when the initiative which would have legalized abortion failed, opposition was larger overall in German cantons than French cantons (regardless of religion) but the main cleavage was religion: Catholic cantons being very strongly opposed, with Protestant cantons either more narrowly against or in favour if they were urban or French. For example: the linguistically divided but religiously homogeneous Catholic canton of Valais voted no to the 1977 initiative with 82%; opposition was over 90% in Appenzell Innerrhoden, over 75% in Uri, the Unterwalden cantons and Schwyz and over 70% in Lucerne and Fribourg. In 2002, the issue was obviously far less divisive, but it still got significant opposition in the original four cantons, Valais (46% for the yes), Appenzell Innerrhoden (less than 40% for the yes), the rural districts of Lucerne and some Catholic districts in Saint-Gallen and the Grisons. Granted, a linguistic element was at work in 2002, because the Catholic cantons of Jura and Ticino voted in favour with far higher majorities for the yes than German Catholic cantons. But in this referendum, religious differences are harder to catch: on the whole, German Catholic areas were more favourable than German Protestant areas, and it can be seen in the fairly low levels of support for the measure in the Protestant cantons of Glarus (35.8% yes) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (39.8% yes). But German Protestant rural areas still showed above-average support. The Catholic canton of the Valais had a linguistic element at work in 2002 (German districts were very strongly opposed, French districts either marginally in favour or marginally opposed), but in 2014, it appears as if the only divide in the canton (which rejected the measure with 29% – below average (!) support) was linguistic, with 20-26% support in the Bas-Valais and 43-48% support in the German Oberwallis. In the canton of Grisons, little difference is perceptible between Catholic and Protestant districts (unlike in 2002).

Federal decree on railway financing and development

Switzerland has a large, well developed and heavily used railway system operated by private companies and a state-owned company (the Swiss Federal Railways, SBB-CFF-FFS) which operates the huge majority of lines. However, on many lines, trains are crowded and companies are unable to offer additional trains at rush hours. The Federal Council and Parliament decided to invest in railway infrastructure by combining several federal and cantonal funds into a single permanent infrastructure fund; priority shall be given to investments in maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure where the demands are most pressing. 80% of the funds in the new fund will come from the existing federal spending for railway infrastructure; about 1 million CHF per year will come from new sources (cantonal funds, VAT, limiting federal tax deductions for commuting). The new law also plans for the long-term development of railway infrastructure, with infrastructure upgrades on major lines and plans to allow for more trains and more space on trains. Because the federal decree modifies the Constitution, it must be ratified by the people and cantons.

The Federal Council, both houses of Parliament and all major parties except the SVP recommended the approval of the measure.

Do you accept the federal decree?

Yes 60.2%
No 39.8%

Switzerland 2014 - RRs

The federal decree was approved by a wide majority. Only the conservative canton of Schwyz, which has long been hostile to government intervention in the economy or a strong central/federal government, rejected the measure, by a tiny margin (49.5% yes). Opposition was fairly significant in the other original cantons of 1291 and Glarus, where the measure won less than 55% support. Overall, German Switzerland was more opposed than French or Italian Switzerland, with 59% support against 69% in French Switzerland and 71% in Italian Switzerland. There was the usual urban-rural divide in all three linguistic regions: German cities voted in favour with 69% on average but rural communities in German Switzerland only barely voted in favour on the whole (51% yes); similarly, in French Switzerland, support increased linearly with the size of the town, from 61% in rural areas to 74% in urban areas. While the main reason for opposition might likely be conservatism, it is worth pointing out that the cantons which were more strongly opposed are those which will not benefit much from the new measures by 2025 (according to a map published in the Federal Council’s document on the measure); the lines which will be improved are those linking major urban areas.

Guest Post: Irish Referenda 2013

I was fortunate enough to receive a guest post on the October 4 Irish referenda, which I did not have time to cover, from David J. Barrett

Two referenda took place in the Republic Ireland on the 4th of October on whether to abolish Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate), Ireland’s rather powerless upper house, and on whether to establish a Court of Civic Appeal.

The Seanad has long been criticised in the Ireland due to its seeming irrelevance and extremely convoluted electoral system. The original constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 contained a senate, which was used originally as a means to ensure the representation of the remaining Protestant Unionists in Irish politics, and was at first appointed and then elected as a nationwide, nineteen-seat constituency by PR-STV in 1925, which was considered chaotic, and replaced by selection by parliament. While it did return a lot of Protestant members, it also proved to be a stronghold for the fairly conservative Cumann na nGaedhael, which proved problematic when they retained a majority in the chamber after the party lost nationally in 1932. After making it a point to delay every piece of legislation of note by the new Fianna Fáil government, even after another election in 1933 which reaffirmed Fianna Fáil’s new dominance of the Irish party system; the party proposed the Senate’s abolition in 1936. Predictably this was also delayed, before the chamber was abolished entirely.

The modern Seanad was created by the new Irish constitution of 1937, and owes a lot to the corporatist ideas of Fascist Italy that were popular in political circles in Ireland at the time. The Seanad was given only very limited delaying powers of up to ninety days, and was elected in an extremely convoluted manner.

43 members are elected by five ‘vocational’ panels, returning between five and eleven members. The panels are meant to represent various sectors of Irish society and are named after those sections, such as the ‘Cultural and Educational Panel’ and the ‘Labour Panel’. Organisations involved in those areas have some rights in the way of nominating people for election, but the electorate for each panel consists of local councillors, members of Dáil Éireann (the lower house of Parliament) and outgoing members of the Seanad. This means that in practice no vocational members were ever elected and were almost never nominated for these seats, with most elected for them in recent years being former or future members of the Dáil and very much party politicians.

An additional six seats are elected by university graduates, with three returned by the graduates of Trinity College Dublin, a traditionally Protestant university, and another three by the graduates of the National University of Ireland, an umbrella group consisting of four other universities – University College Dublin, University College Cork, National University of Ireland Galway and National University of Ireland Maynooth. The graduates of Ireland’s other two universities, Dublin City University and the University of Limerick, do not have a vote.

The final eleven seats are appointed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, who generally appoints promising party members who they feel can challenge for a seat in the Dáil in the next election, although they have also been known to select prominent figures in Northern Ireland for a seat. This inbuilt addition of eleven government seats means that only one Irish government has not had a majority in the Seanad, however the current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, used most of his appointments to appoint prominent members of civil society, such as Fiach Mac Conghail, the Director of the Irish National Theatre Company, and Katherine Zappone, a theology professor who is pursuing a court case to get her Canadian same-sex marriage recognised in Ireland.

Background to the Referenda

While no one was particularly happy with the Seanad, and many reports were issued as to its reform, no government ever did anything. This reached a climax with a referendum passed in 1979 to give all graduates the vote for the university seats, which was never legislated for.

Faced with increased questioning of his leadership, Fine Gael leader and then opposition leader Enda Kenny said that, if elected, Fine Gael would propose a referendum to abolish the Seanad, visibly surprising the Seanad leader of his party sitting next to him at the press conference, as it was felt he needed to do something bold and dramatic to keep hold of the party leadership. The idea took hold, and Labour and Fianna Fáil included it as part of their manifesto in the 2011 election, and was included in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government’s programme for government.

Despite calls for the proposal to be put to the newly formed Constitutional Convention as a proposed change to the Irish constitution, this was not done and a referendum was announced for October 4th 2013, along with a larger procedural and uncontroversial amendment to establish a Court of Appeal.


Richard Bruton, Kenny’s defeated leadership and now Minister for Enterprise, was put in charge of the Fine Gael campaign. Also on the Yes side were their coalition partners in Labour, the republican and nationalist Sinn Fein, the small far-left Socialist Party and the civil society group One House. In opposition were Fianna Fail (motivated to do a u-turn and oppose the referendum presumably as a means of inflicting a defeat on Kenny), the now tiny Irish Green Party and the civil society groups Democracy Matters and Future Matters.

The campaign opened with polls showing wide leads for abolition. Fine Gael ran a very focus-group led campaign, with posters pointing out the Seanad cost the Ireland €20 million a year, and (ironically from the largest party in the state) that abolition would result in fewer politicians. While the party spent a lot of money on the campaign, the campaign never really caught the imagination of party activists and they stayed oddly muted.

The other Yes advocates focused on the undemocratic nature of Seanad elections, arguing that a chamber chosen by the already educated and powerful in Irish society was inherently wrong. This could be seen in Sinn Fein’s election slogan of ‘Equality not Elitism’ and the Socialists pointing out how many people had votes in the poorest parts of Dublin as compared to the richest. The support of groups for yes was regarded as surprising, as both parties are known for opposing virtually every referendum proposed by any government, with Sinn Fein’s at least likely motivated by attempting to seem more ‘responsible’. Labour’s campaign however was very lukewarm, with many prominent party members, including Joanna Tuffy and the party’s Seanad leader Ivana Bacik actively campaigning against the proposal, to no visible sanctions from party headquarters.

The No side said that the proposal was part of a government ‘powergrab’ that was undemocratic and intended to silence dissenting voices, pointing out that no reform had ever actually been done, so abolition was somewhat premature. No group on the No side defended the status-quo. The Fianna Fail, the most prominent No party, used the slogan ‘Demand Real Reform’ while the Greens ran with ‘Democracy is Priceless’ (although with posters only in the parts of Dublin where the party has the best hopes to rebuild). Democracy Matters ran a highly visible campaign, highlighting all of the prominent figures of Irish liberalism that were elected by the Seanad that was widely regarded as effective.

While the polls narrowed, every poll showed a lead for the Yes side, often over 50%, and the campaign failed to capture the public imagination. A debate on the issue on RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, between Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin and Enda Kenny was rejected by Kenny, who largely did not personally campaign, and his place in the debate was filled by Bruton. This was seen by many commentators as ‘chickening out’. Kenny argued that the Taoiseach of the day does not personally campaign on referenda and they are not partisan issues however.

There was no campaign for either a Yes or a No on the Court of Appeals, which was regarded as dull, procedural and a ‘common-sense’ solution to the problem of an overloaded Supreme Court.


Turnout was 39.17% for the Seanad question and 39.15% for the Court of Appeal question.

Abolition of the Seanad
No 51.73% (634,437 votes)
Yes 48.27% (591,937 votes)

Court of Appeal
Yes 65.16% (795,008 votes)
No 34.84% (425,047 votes)

The Referendum to abolish the Seanad was narrowly defeated, while that to establish a Court of Appeal was very comfortably passed, with a victory in every constituency.

The geography of the Seanad result was somewhat odd. The highest No vote was observed in Dublin South East, an extremely wealthy and somewhat bohemian constituency that has a high number of rich professionals, politicians (the Irish parliament building is in the constituency) and students (Trinity College Dublin is there as well) which gave the Yes side a mere 39%. However every constituency in Dublin, whatever their demographic profile, returned a No vote, as did the whole commuter belt around the city. Greater Dublin’s relative uniformity on the issue largely carried the day for the No side, whose performance was quite patchy outside of the capital.

In the south, Cork City’s wealthy southern suburbs were against abolition (unsurprisingly as this is Martin’s political base) but the more working class areas in the north of the city were narrowly in favour – apparently due to an active campaign by a local Sinn Fein deputy. The proposal similarly narrowly passed through Limerick City, while losing in Galway in the west, which has more students.

Results of the Seanad referendum by constituency (source: Irish Political Maps,

While some rural areas in Cork were very narrowly against abolition, these constituencies also have spillover from Cork’s suburbs in them as well. The only genuinely rural Nos were in the two northern Donegal constituencies, which seem to habitually oppose any proposal even slightly controversial (Donegal North East also had highest No vote to the Court of Appeals, and they were the only constituencies to oppose the European Fiscal Compact two years ago for instance). This will be very disappointing for Sinn Fein, who are very strong in the area and would have hoped their campaign would influence people there more.

Aside from the already mentioned Cork North Central and Limerick City, every area that voted Yes was rural, with the highest Yes vote being in Kenny’s own constituency of Mayo (57%), but many of them were quite narrow indeed.

While there were no publically released exit polls with demographic breakdowns there was clearly an urban-rural divide, something that seems to manifest itself in every Irish election that is not a General Election, and was certainly seen in the 2011 presidential election, and while it seems plausible that education made a difference (as more educated people were more likely to be voters in the Seanad already) we cannot know that from the result.

Notably, there is a heavy correlation between Fianna Fail support in a constituency and a Yes vote, and for Labour support and a No vote, something both parties will be keen to downplay when they go through the effectiveness of their campaigns. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein seemed to make no difference.

Results of the Court of Appeal referendum by constituency (source: Irish Political Maps,

The turnout was very low, and was only somewhat above the 33% turnout of the Children’s Rights referendum of last year. There is talk of Ireland suffering ‘referendum fatigue’. These are the fifth and sixth referenda of this parliamentary term, with at least five more expected to be proposed over the coming years, including undoubtedly contentious polls over legalising same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age. While it is hard to get people excited over the abolition of a largely powerless upper house and these are more ‘meaningful’ issues to most people there is the possibility of referenda becoming dominated only by the seriously politically committed – the sort of anoraks with unrepresentative views of the general population that result in the banishment of the moderate middle from the Irish electorate.

What happens now?

The result is a real blow to Enda Kenny, who was seen as the personal leader of the Yes side and the Seanad proposal being very much a personal crusade, His refusal to debate is now seen as much more damaging than it did at the time, and the result is ominous for the readiness of the Fine Gael organisation for an undoubtedly difficult local election campaign next year.

Kenny’s association with the idea was such that apparent ineffectiveness of Labour and Sinn Fein has been largely ignored, but the lack of either to a real ideological commitment to abolition probably meant that they never really cared enough to really run serious campaigns, with Labour in particular conserving reserves for the local elections.

Kenny has indicated his intention to treat the result as a vote for reform of the Seanad, as the No side had hoped, but no one is of yet very sure of what that means, except that the graduates of all universities are likely to be given a vote for the six university senators, but beyond that – as nobody wants another referendum on the issue which is what real reform would need – it seems likely that the idea of Seanad reform will be eventually passed to the constitutional convention, which will issue recommendations but nothing seems likely for the remainder of this parliamentary term.

If you wish to contribute a guest post on any election or subject related to electoral politics, please email me at glhermine<at>

United States 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).

These two spreadsheets (here and here) are being updated with the latest results.

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.

Party ID!

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.

Results of the presidential election by county (red: Obama, blue: Romney) using a graduated 5% colour scale

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.

% swing by county in Kentucky (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing by county in Wisconsin – notice the Fox River Valley and the Northern Highlands (source: uselectionatlas)

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?

% swing by county in Illinois (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing by county in Arizona (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Alaska by state house district (source: uselectionatlas)

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).

% swing by county in Alabama – notice the Obama swings in the extended Black Belt and Birmingham (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Ohio (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing by county in Ohio (source: uselectionatlas)

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!

Results of the presidential election in Florida (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing in Florida by county (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Colorado (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Virginia (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing by county in Virginia (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Iowa (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Wisconsin (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

Results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

% swing by county in Pennsylvania (source: uselectionatlas)

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.

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Lithuania 2012

Legislative elections were held in Lithuania on October 14 and 28, 2012. All 141 seats in the country’s unicameral legislature, the Seimas, were up for reelection. 70 seats are elected by party-list proportional representation, with a 5% threshold for political parties and a 7% threshold for coalitions. The other 71 seats are elected by two-round FPTP in single-member constituencies. A candidate must win an absolute majority of the vote and with turnout above 40% to be elected; if turnout is under 40%, the candidate who has won the most votes (and the vote of at least 1/5 of those registered), is elected. If these conditions are not met, a second round is held two weeks later. In the first round, only 3 of the 71 single-member seats were filled.

Lithuania’s Prime Minister since 2008 is Andrius Kubilius. Despite the tough economic circumstances, he is the first Lithuanian PM to serve out his full four-year term. Kubilius is the leader of the conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD). As is the case with most Iron Curtain countries, Lithuanian politics since independence in 1990 have been unstable and marked by high turnover in government after each election.

In 1990, the pro-independence centre-right Sąjūdis swept the country in the first free elections, but the economic crisis which ensued led to its defeat only two years later. The post-communist Democratic Labor Party, led by Algirdas Brazauskas, the leader of the local Communists who broke off ties with Moscow in 1989, was swept to power.

While Lithuania’s centre-left is of a very moderate and social democratic flavour, it is quite interesting to note that Lithuania stands out from its Baltic neighbors (Latvia and Estonia) in that reformed communists and the left in general have won elections”- the ethnic Latvian left is inexistent, the left in Estonia is infinitely moderate and rather weak. A number of factors could explain this “oddity”. First and foremost, Lithuania’s Communists, led by Brazauskas, broke with Moscow in 1989, something which no other local Communist Party in the former USSR did. Secondly, Lithuania – unlike Latvia and Estonia – lacks a large Russian minority (it does have a fairly sizable Polish minority, but it is not as politically controversial as the Russians in Latvia and Estonia) and, as a result, has tended towards more liberal citizenship laws (upon independence, all permanent residents were granted citizenship – unlike in the two other nations who ‘restored’ the citizenship of those who had held it prior to 1940) and a less confrontational relationship with Russia.

Algirdas Brazauskas was elected President in 1993. There has been a shift in power from the presidency to the legislature/Prime Minister in Lithuania, today the Lithuanian presidency holds some important powers but it is increasingly a ceremonial position. The first decade after independence was marked by economic turbulence, and voters often took out their anger on the governing party. The left lost power in the 1996 election, with the remnants of the Sąjūdis rebranded as the Homeland Union sweeping to power. Four years later, the governing party collapsed and the Prime Minister – Kubilius – even lost his own seat.

A centre-left coalition including Brazauskas’ party won 31% in the 2000 election, but President Valdas Adamkus nominated Rolandas Paksas, populist leader of a liberal party, to become Prime Minister. The two men had a bitter falling out quickly thereafter, which culminated in Paksas upsetting Adamkus in the runoff of the 2003 presidential election. Paksas was impeached in 2004 after he granted Lithuanian citizenship (and leaked classified information) to a shady Russian businessman who had bankrolled his 2003 presidential campaign.

Algirdas Brazauskas became Prime Minister in 2001, presiding over the merger of the Democratic Labor Party and the Social Democrats (LSDP). He was succeeded in 2006 by Gediminas Kirkilas. The centre-left governing coalition became the first and, to date, only, government to win reelection (kind of) in 2004. Technically, they remained in power following the election. But it was a new party, the undefinable populist Labour Party (DP), led by (another) shady Russian businessman, Viktor Uspaskich. Uspaskich’s DP entered the new ruling coalition as a junior party to the LSDP, but it was kicked out in 2006 as corruption started catching up with Uspaskich, who fled to Russia in 2006 (he failed to declare over 4.3 million euros in both income and spending). He was arrested upon his return in 2007, but released on bail. As an MEP (since 2009), he has parliamentary immunity.

The right returned to power in the 2008 elections, with the TS-LKD winning 45 seats against 25 for the LSDP. But, once again, the election was marked by a new party: the National Resurrection Party, vaguely centrist, led by a popular TV personality, surprised observers by taking 15.1% of the vote (second place) and 16 seats. Order and Justice (TT), a right-wing populist outfit led by impeached president Paksas won 15 seats, while the disgraced DP won only 9% and 10 seats. Kubilius’ cabinet, which has survived its full term, includes two smaller liberal parties.

The Baltics were hit very badly by the 2008 economic crisis. Lithuania’s GDP shrunk by nearly 15% in 2008. Unlike Latvia, Kubilius’ government opted not to call on foreign aid and instead implemented severe austerity policies. His policies were successful, the country now enjoys solid growth rates for a EU-27 member state (6% in 2011, 3% in 2012) and the deficit could drop below the EU’s 3% limit this year. However, unemployment remains very high (13.5%) and Lithuania has the third lowest minimum wage in the EU. Vilnius aims to join the Eurozone in 2014.

In this election, the LSDP promised to increase the minimum wage and replace Lithuania’s 15% flat tax with a progressive income tax. It prioritized cutting the VAT on foodstuff and cutting taxes on small businesses. Uspaskich’s DP, which seems to be trolling as far as I’m concerned, promised to bring unemployment down to 0% in three years and resign if he didn’t.

Turnout was 52.93% in the first round on October 14, up from 48.6% in 2008. Turnout was 35.86% in the second round in the 67 constituencies disputed (3 were already filled, one constituency result from October 14 was declared invalid). Turnout is usually rather low in the second round, but this is apparently up 2% from the second round in 2008. The results were as follows – the popular vote refers to the party-list vote two weeks ago.

LSDP 18.37% (+6.65%) winning 38 seats (+13) [15 PR, 23 FPTP incl. 1 by round one]
TS-LKD 15.08% (-4.64%) winning 33 seats (-12) [13 PR, 20 FPTP incl. 1 by round one]
DP 19.82% (+7.19%) winning 29 seats (+18) [17 PR, 12 FPTP]
TT 7.31% (-5.37%) winning 11 seats (-4) [6 PR, 5 FPTP]
Liberal Movement (LRLS) 8.57% (+2.84%) winning 10 seats (-1) [7 PR, 3 FPTP]
AWPL (Poles) 5.83% (+1.04%) winning 8 seats (+5) [5 PR, 3 FPTP incl. 1 by round one]
Way of Courage 7.99% (+7.99%) winning 7 seats (+7) [7 FPTP]
Peasant and Green (LVŽS) 3.88% (+0.15%) winning 1 seat (-2) [1 FPTP]
LiCS 2.06% (-18.4%) winning 0 seats (-24)
YES 1.76% (+1.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 5.11% (-3.47%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Independents winning 3 seats (-1) [3 FPTP]

You may consult the full results here or consult them in an interactive map.

Results of the party-list PR vote (source:
Key: red – LSDP, blue – DP, green – TS-LKD, yellow – TT, gray – AWPL, pink – Courage, orange – LRLS

The second round confirmed the first round and the incumbent government was defeated, although not trounced. A semblance of electoral stability is slowly starting to emerge in Lithuania. The incumbent government was unable to cash in on any recovery following the painful recovery. Even if their effect on the country’s economy has been judged positively abroad, many Lithuanian voters resented the deep social cost and pain associated with these policies. The austerity policies included big cuts in spending, pensions and real wages along with higher taxes on consumer goods, consumption and businesses. Voters instead turned to the left – both the moderate LSDP and the populist DP.

The LSDP and DP were strongest in rural areas, where the impact of austerity was likely felt the most. The right still dominated the country’s two main urban areas – Vilnius and Kaunas. The TT was strongest in Samogitia.

The major new party in this election – every Lithuanian election seemingly needs one – was “The Way of Courage”, an anti-corruption party.

The party has an interesting backstory – it is founded by supporters of Drąsius Kedys (who is the brother of one of the party’s founders, judge Neringa Venckiene), a man found dead in 2010 after he went missing following a double homicide case in 2009 in which he was the top suspect. In 2008, Kedys had accused his ex-wife of allowing another man to pay her to sexually molest their underage daughter, but the case was never brought to trial despite Kedys’ very public pleas. In October 2009, a judge and Kedys’ sister-in-law – both accused by Kedys of partaking in the molestation of his daughter – were found dead. Kedys was the main suspect, and he went into hiding following the case (it is not proven if he was the murderer). Kedys was found dead near Kaunas in April 2010, the official account claims it was a natural death (‘choking on vomit’) but many others suspect he was murdered. The accused pedophile/molester was found dead in mysterious circumstances in June 2010.

The case bounced back in May 2012 when a court ordered Kedys’ daughter, who had been living with Venckiene, to be reunited with her mother. The order sparked a major uproar in Lithuania, and led to major protest protesting the decision. Riot police was called in and protesters were arrested. The new party – Way of Courage – claims that the scandal is covering up a pedophile ring in the highest instances of power.

The party’s success speaks to a broader discontent with politics and justice in the country. Political corruption is a major issue in the country, as the cases of Rolandas Paksas and Viktor Uspaskich show. For others, the new party was a way to protest injustice they may feel in society. The party won 8% of the vote and seven seats, it did particularly well around Kaunas (the epicentre of the case) and won nearly 20% of the vote in an area south of Kaunas, which includes Kedys’ hometown of Garliava. The party won 7 seats, all by PR. Its caucus includes Neringa Venckiene, poet and former Soviet dissident Algirdas Patackas and a former foreign minister.

Right after the first round, the LSDP, led by Algirdas Butkevičius, had already come to a de-facto coalition agreement with Uspaskich’s DP and Paksas’ TT. Uspaskich had apparently held out hope for becoming Prime Minister himself, but after the DP’s disappointing performance in the second round, he tempered his demands to four departments: economy, transport, agriculture and culture. The results of the second round confirmed that a centre-left coalition led by Butkevičius and the LSDP with the participation of the DP and TT would hold an absolute majority (78 seats).

However, right after the election came a major bombshell: President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who appoints the Prime Minister, announced that she would reject any coalition with the DP. Right after the first round, details of a major vote buying scandal involving, primarily, the DP was leaked. This adds to the pending case against the party itself and three top leaders who are accused of fraud and false documentation. Grybauskaitė, the country’s very popular and strong-willed president, argues that a party which is mired so deep in corruption is unfit for government, and most voters likely support her position. Grybauskaitė nonetheless stated that she would advise the LSDP’s leader to form the government, and Butkevičius has the power to defy her and form a government with the DP regardless, but this seems unlikely.

The President’s decision creates some uncertainty for the time being about the composition of the next government. Originally presumed to be a fait accompli, it seems as if the three-party left-wing cabinet with the DP is unlikely to be formed and parties are back to step one. Some say that Butkevičius will form a coalition with DP, but he will exclude Uspaskich and the party’s other controversial members. The other options, excluding the DP, appear unlikely and also unappealing to any of the actors involved. There is the option of a “rainbow coalition” including Kubilius’ ruling TS-LKD and the liberals – but Kubilius does not seem very interested. The other option is a coalition including every party except the DP and the TS-LKD; including the liberals, the AWPL and Way of Courage; but that is unlikely to work out if the liberals are dead-set on staying in opposition with the TS-LKD.

Nevertheless, Butkevičius remains the favourite to be the country’s next Prime Minister. His party has some fairly ambitious promises – progressive income tax, higher wages and so forth – but in large part he will need to stick with Kubilius’ macroeconomic policies. Hence, it appears as if most analysts think that Butkevičius will be in good part unable to usher in any major divergences from the outgoing government’s economic policies. The president has made it clear that the new government should follow these policies, albeit she would like more emphasis on jobs and wages as the economy improves.

A referendum on nuclear power was held alongside the first round of voting on October 14. The old Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was shut down in 2009, judged to be unsafe. The government developed plans to build a new nuclear power plant in Visaginas by 2020-2022 with funding from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Japanese company Hitachi. Voters rejected the plan with 64.77% against. This was only an advisory referendum, the government will not be bound by it – but it will be tough to go ahead with the plan if the voters didn’t back it. This map shows the results of the referendum down to the district level. The area most directly concerned by the issue – Visaginas – was the only district in the whole country to vote in favour (with no less than 65%), it failed by huge margins in basically every other district in the country.

Romanian impeachment referendum 2012

A referendum on the impeachment of the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, was held in Romania on July 29. This referendum was required to ratify the decision of the Romanian Parliament, on July 6, to impeach President Băsescu who has been in office since 2004. The constitution allows for the President to be impeached only for grave misdeeds, but this clause has been abused by Băsescu’s political enemies who had already tried to impeach him (unsuccessfully) in 2007.

Since January, Romania has been rocked by major political instability. The country’s politics have been bitter and sulfurous since at least 2009, and at the root of it all is Băsescu himself. The President quickly alienated most of his former political allies after being elected to the presidency on a centre-right, anti-corruption platform in 2004. Băsescu has a very hot temper and is well known for his erratic and off-the-cuff style, which sometimes degenerates into foul-mouthed tirades against his opponents. He has not lived up to expectations on the matter of corruption, and he has been criticized for his authoritarian penchants.

Băsescu survived a first attempt by the opposition to impeach him on fairly flimsy grounds in 2007, when three-quarters of the 44% who turned out voted against removing him from office (even if the referendum had been valid – it had a 50% turnout threshold – Băsescu would not have been removed from office). Relations between Băsescu’s centre-right Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) and the opposition – both the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) worsened following Băsescu’s narrow reelection in 2009 with only 50.3% of the votes in a disputed runoff election.

Romania is a semi-presidential republic, with the President holding responsibility over foreign affairs as well as the power to appoint judges or to delay legislation. Between 2008 and 2012, his Prime Minister was Emil Boc, a member of the PDL. Boc governed in coalition with the PSD until 2009, when his first government was taken down by a no-confidence motion backed by the PSD, the PNL and the Hungarian minority party (UDMR). Following Băsescu’s reelection, he renominated Boc instead of nominating a candidate backed by the three parties which had voted the no-confidence motion. However, Boc managed to obtain Parliament’s confidence in December 2009, thanks to the support of the UDMR and dissidents from the PSD.

In office, Boc wrestled with the economic crisis. Romania fell into recession in 2009 and again in 2010, and since then the country’s economic recovery has been slow. While Romania remains the second poorest country in the EU, its economic situation – in a comparative perspective – is not all that bad. However, in 2009 Romania received a $27 billion bailout from the IMF, which came with strings attached. The Boc government implemented and became extremely unpopular for austerity measures, including budget cuts, wage cuts in the public sector and a sales tax hike. The government is committed to reducing the country’s budgetary deficit from 4.4% of the GDP in 2011 to 1.9% this year.

The austerity measures associated with the PDL and Băsescu were extremely unpopular. Voters in the EU’s second poorest country were tired of tax hikes, wage cuts and decling public services; all with the backdrop of politicians and political parties which are widely seen as lining their pockets. Maybe austerity would have been better received if voters did not feel that their representatives were stealing their money. Several PDL politicians, including Băsescu himself, are suspected of corruption; but the opposition hardly has a better reputation. The PNL’s ranks include a corrupt oil magnate/billionaire, while the ex-communist PSD is seen as the epitome of the old corrupt clique – a coalition of old communist party bosses and security employees.

There were major protests earlier this year, which ultimately forced Boc to resign on February 6. A few days later, he was replaced by a cabinet led by Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, a former boss of the foreign intelligence services. However, on April 27, his government was voted down by a motion of no-confidence backed by the opposition. In February 2011, the three main opposition parties (the ex-communist centre-left PSD, the liberal PNL and the small right-wing Conservative Party) formed an electoral coalition, the Social Liberal Union (USL).

Initially, in February, after Boc resigned, the leader of the PSD (and USL), 39-year old Victor Ponta, refused to become Prime Minister. However, after the Ungureanu cabinet fell, Băsescu was compelled to name Ponta, his top political rival, as Prime Minister. Romania was thus thrown into a French-like situation of cohabitation between an opposing President and government. However, unlike in France, Romanian politics – especially with a President like Băsescu who is known to be a prick – are far less consensual.

Since taking office, Ponta and Băsescu have been embroiled in a bloody schoolyard fight. Things got extremely ugly at the end of June, after the courts – which Ponta claims are stacked with Băsescu’s allies – found Ponta’s political mentor and former PSD Prime Minister Adrian Năstase guilty in a corruption and fraud case. It was after this incident that the Parliament voted to impeach the President, accusing him of using the secret services against political enemies, refusing to appoint cabinet ministers, trying to influence prosecutors in criminal cases and engaging in illegal phone tapping. Băsescu has flatly denied these allegations, and regardless of their veracity, the case for his impeachment is constitutionally flimsy and is definitely politically motivated. In this schoolyard brawl, Ponta’s allies claims that Băsescu struck back by leaking a plagiarism scandal in which Victor Ponta is accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis. Ponta had the commission in charge of academic integrity dissolved and has said that he will not resign regardless of what happens in this case.

After a fight with the courts and Băsescu over who from Ponta and Băsescu should have represented the country at a European summit, Ponta made his most controversial moves. He threatened to fire constitution court judges (he claims that they are Băsescu loyalists), fired and replaced the ombudsman with a party loyalist, seized control of the official journal and replaced the heads of both chambers of Parliament. These measures, which opponents claim are clear moves to weaken the country’s independent institutions, sent a chill down the spine of the European Commission and most EU grandees. The EU has struggled in the past year with the issue of Hungary – which presents a similar case of a European elected government disrespecting the rule of law and liberal democratic values. In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made controversial changes to the Hungarian constitution which has limited media freedoms and judicial freedom.

The EC issued a stark warning to the Romanian government in early July, and Germany’s Angela Merkel minced no words in condemning Ponta’s actions. The EC has debated which sanctions, if any, should be adopted against Romania. A freeze in EU transfers was seriously considered, but the crisis has likely derailed or at least significantly delayed Romanian attempts to join the Schengen area. Unlike Orbán however, Ponta has not been defiant of  European institutions and moved to soothe fears that he was staging something akin to a coup d’état. Ponta claimed that there had been misunderstandings, and reassured that he would withdraw his controversial laws if they were to cause any trouble for Romania in the EU.

In 2007, the previous referendum on Băsescu’s impeachment was deemed invalid because turnout was below the 50% threshold required to validate it. Ponta tried to remove this quorum and allow for the referendum to be valid even if less than 50% of voters turned out. After protests by the courts and the EU, he was forced to reinstate the turnout requirement. Băsescu, denouncing a constitutional coup d’état and a grave threat to democracy, called on his supporters to boycott the referendum (with the hope that less than 50% of voters would turn out and invalidate whatever the verdict was). However, Băsescu was far more popular in 2007 than he is today. Local elections held in June saw his party, the PDL, win only 15% of the vote against 49.7% for the USL.

The high prospect of the referendum both passing the turnout requirement and a majority of votes in support of Băsescu’s impeachment worried Romania’s European partners a lot. The EU would be forced to deal with the consequences of legitimate, free and fair referendum which was, however, motivated by a political turf war between two cliques and enemies. Such a result would have boosted Ponta’s power at home – it will still be boosted in November when the USL is the big favourite to win the legislative elections – by allowing for the election of a close ally of Ponta, perhaps the PNL’s leader and caretaker president Crin Antonescu.

Turnout, however, ultimately fell just short of the 50% threshold. 46.53% of registered voters turned out to vote, but of these 46%, 87.5% voted in favour of removing Băsescu from office. If the law is to be followed, then the courts will not validate the results of this referendum and Băsescu will remain in office.

This result is a brief respite for Romania’s European neighbors and political partners, who feared the consequences of 50%+1 turnout in the referendum. However, the political instability and acrimonious political situation has not, for that matter, ended. Băsescu was triumphant on July 29, styling the results of the referendum as a victory for democracy against the constitutional coup d’état and democratic transgressions of Victor Ponta. While he said that he would work to mend the “enormous rift in society”, he has refused to resign and shows no sign of shying away from his confrontational attitude against Ponta’s government. Băsescu’s allies have been eager to attack the current government, recently leaking a secret deal between Ponta and a shady trade union of ex-military men which seeks to scrap institutions such as the Constitutional Court. On the other hand, Victor Ponta has been similarly defiant. He has claimed that Băsescu has lost all legitmacy and should resign, and originally indicated that he would refuse to work with an illegitimate president (and it is true, in part, with such a large number of voters voting to impeach him, that Băsescu’s legitimacy is minimal at this point). The USL would like for the courts to validate the referendum anyway, claiming that some registered voters on the rolls do not live in Romania and haven’t voted in years. Regardless of what happens, it is a certainty that Ponta backed by the legislature and President Băsescu will continue their bloody schoolyard fight in the foreseeable future, given that Băsescu’s term will only end in 2014.

Map of turnout by county (source: Wikipedia)

Given that the President’s remaining base of support is hardly more than 15%, he did not “win” the referendum only by motivating his supporters to boycott the referendum. Against all expectations, however, less than 50% of voters actually voted. There are a number of factors at play here. The EU’s threats (to suspend transfer payments, or keep the country’s judicial system under supervision or even the nuclear option) likely played a role in demotivating potential opponents of Băsescu. There is certainly an element of political apathy at play as well, boosted by the timing of the referendum (in the middle of summer on a hot Sunday) but also traditional disenchantment with politicians and politics. The USL is the favourite to win the next election, but – at least in Romanian academia – there is little enthusiasm for it. Romanians do not political parties as political movements which represent them or work for the national interest, but rather as a grubby bunch of frontmen and corrupt oligarchs and ex-communist stooges. Neither party has a crystal clean reputation. Ponta’s controversial tactics, mixed with the very personal and partisan nature of this referendum and the EU’s surprisingly vocal reaction to all this, like played a role as well.The geography of turnout shows that there is a clear partisan element at work, given that turnout was lowest (below 40%) in Transylvania, where Băsescu’s centre-right party is usually the strongest. However, the lowest turnout levels were in Harghita and Covasna counties, at barely 11.6% and 20.6% respectively. Both of these counties are heavily Hungarian (over 70% of the population). Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a controversial entrance in the referendum campaign by calling Hungarians in Romania to boycott the referendum as well. Orbán’s controversial intervention was strongly condemened by Ponta, who claimed that Orbán was intervening in Romania’s internal affairs.

This referendum was, from a certain perspective, a no-win scenario given that a victory would have caused nightmares for the EU and cemented Ponta’s power, while its defeat means that the power struggle between both men will continue unabated, condemning the country to months of a bloody power struggle between two enemies who occupy the top two political offices in the country.

Latvian language referendum 2012

A constitutional referendum dealing with official languages was held in Latvia on February 18, 2012. The referendum, the result of a popular initiative, amended five articles of the Latvian constitution in order to define Russian as the country’s second official language alongside Latvian and prescribing two working languages – Latvian and Russian – for local government institutions.

Russians make up about 27% of Latvia’s population, while around 38% of the population speaks Russian as their native language. The Russian presence in Latvia is old, but the bulk of the Russian population in Latvia settled in the country following World War II, and in 1989 they made up 34% of the country’s population. Russians are concentrated in the capital, Riga, and in the impoverished Latgale region of southeastern Latvia near the Russian and Belorussian borders.

The status of the Russians in Latvia is a very touchy political question in Latvia. Ethnic Latvians tend to view Russians as illegal occupiers and have no desire of recognizing Russian as a co-official language in Latvia alongside Latvian, which is constitutionally defined as Latvia’s sole official language. But the issue goes beyond simple linguistic matters. Some 35% of ethnic Russians in Latvia are ‘non-citizens’ – meaning they are not Latvian (or Russian) citizens, and hence cannot vote. Politically, ethnic Russian voters have in the past few elections tended to vote en masse for the left-wing and largely Russian Harmony Centre (SC), currently the largest party in the Saeima, but excluded from Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ cabinet.

This referendum was a concerted effort by Russian lobby groups aimed at mobilizing the Russian minority and force the government to open a dialogue with the ‘national minorities’. SC leader and mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs was not overly enthusiastic about the idea of a referendum, but supported a yes vote. Both the President and Prime Minister called for a no vote. Given how polarizing the question of language is in Latvia, whereby most Latvians are quasi-unanimous in their opposition to Russian and the Russians quasi-unanimous in their support for Russian, the referendum never stood a chance of passing. The results were:

No 74.8%
Yes 24.88%
Invalid 0.32%

Results of the referendum by municipality (source:

Turnout was 71.12%. Turnout is the first explanation for the wider than expected trouncing of the Russians. The Latvian electorate was far more motivated to turn out than the Russian electorate was. Turnout was heavy in Riga (77%), but in the predominantly Russian region of Latgale, only 60% of voters turned out to vote, about a full 10% below the average in the rest of the country. For Latvian voters who probably knew the referendum had no chance of passage, turning out was likely a way to assert their country’s independence because the linguistic battles between Latvian and Russian often carries a major nationalistic element: Latvian voters viewed the referendum as an attempt to encroach on their country’s independence and worry that Moscow might seek to influence Latvian politics through the country’s Russian minority.

Unsurprisingly, the referendum showed a wide schism in Latvian society between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians. The result was almost a picture-perfect map of an ethnic vote. Latvian-speakers were almost unanimous in their rejection of the proposals, with results in the few communities with barely any Russians often nearing 99% against. Russians were, on the other hand, slightly less overwhelming in their support, but I think we can still estimate their support of the proposals in the 90% range. Their votes, of course, were drowned by the heavy turnout and unanimous opposition of Latvians.

In geographic terms, this is what happened in Riga, which rejected the referendum with 63.6% against 36.1%. Riga’s population is about 41% Russian and 43% Latvian. The only region where the referendum passed, unsurprisingly, is the eastern region of Latgale (39% Russian and 44% Latvian). In Latgale, 55.6% voted in favour. It received a majority in seven municipalities. Daugavpils, Latvia’s second largest city and only 18% Latvian, voted yes with 85.2% of the vote. In other regions of the country, the yes vote was slightly higher in those regions (mostly around Riga) where there is a more significant Russian presence, but in regions such as Kurzeme (the country’s westernmost region), the no vote was as high as 91.4%, a number nearly matched by Vidzeme (88% against) and Zemgale (87%).

The goal of the referendum’s organizers was to mobilize Russian voters, which they were not extremely successful in doing, and to put the issue of minority rights on the table. It is unlikely to carry this effect. There is instead the risk that this heavily ‘ethnicized’ referendum has reopened the country’s touchy ethnic and linguistic schism.

Croatia EU membership referendum 2012

A referendum on the EU accession of Croatia was held on January 22 in Croatia. On December 9, Croatia signed a Treaty of Accession but a referendum on the matter is constitutionally mandated. If all 27 member states ratify Croatia’s accession, the country should become the EU’s 28th member state on July 1, 2013.

Croatia’s accession process formally began in June 2004 when it became an official candidate country and negotiations between Zagreb and Brussels were launched in October 2005 and lasted until June 2011. Croatia faced two main challenges in the accession process: full cooperation by Zagreb with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and a border dispute with Slovenia. In June 2001, the ICTY charged Croatian general Ante Gotovina – a Croatian hero because of his role in the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s – with crimes against humanity, but Gotovina fled into hiding for four years day before an arrest warrant was handed down. He was arrested in Spain in 2005 and convicted to 24 years in jail in April 2011. While Croatian governments post-2001 have been willing to cooperate with the ICTY, public opinion has proven to be far more nationalist on the issue as Gotovina is still well regarded by most Croats as an hero of the country’s war of independence against the Serbs. There was an ephemeral surge in Eurosceptic nationalist sentiment in Croatia in April following Gotovina’s conviction. Until 2010, finally, Slovenia, an EU member, had blocked Croatia’s accession process because of a territorial dispute between the two countries (explained in full on Wikipedia) which was resolved in 2009 and ratified by referendum in Slovenia in 2010. Corruption and foreign land ownership (notably by Italians in Istria, which was Italian until the end of World War II) also proved to be contentious issues.

All major parties in Croatia are supportive of European integration. The conservative HDZ, in power until late last year, moved away from the authoritarian nationalism of the Tuđman era to traditional pro-European modern conservatism, especially under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader. Following Tuđman’s death, the election in 2000 of a Social Democratic government led by Ivica Račan and a liberal President, Stjepan Mesić, kicked off the accession process by transforming Croatia into a modern liberal democratic society. These policies were continued, enthusiastically, by the conservative governments of Ivo Sanader and Jadranska Kosor. No parliamentary party seems to have clearly said it is against EU membership – only far-right movements such as the Croatian Party of Rights have done so – but Dragutin Lesar’s Labour Party and the conservative-regionalist HDSSB both called for delaying the vote to allow for what they claim would be a fairer campaign by both sides.

The results were as follows:

Do you support membership of Croatia in the EU?
YES 66.27%
NO 33.13%

It is a fairly resounding victory for European integration, with two thirds of voters in support, but it is tarred a bit by the low turnout: only 43.51% of voters turned out to vote, which has led the far-right to say that 71% of voters either did not vote or rejected membership. I don’t know what to attribute low turnout to, but it is likely motivated by the sense that the resounding victory of the yes was an inevitability and that voting would not change much to what seems to be a fait accompli. The campaign – which was very short – did not seem particularly active or interesting. Besides, the opponents surely did not have the mobilization and financial resources of the yes side and could not really mount a major campaign of opposition. The government also warned that popular rejection of EU accession would cost Croatia 1.6 billion € of lost European funding.

Despite the low turnout, it is fairly clear that Croatian public opinion remains favourable to the EU. It seems a bit crazy for any country to be rushing to join the European Union in the midst of the European debt crisis in which the EU as an institution has fared pretty poorly. Enthusiasm has perhaps been diminished a bit by the debt crisis, but European integration probably retains much support because Croatia is due to receive 3.5 billion € in European funds over two years once it joins in 2013.

The map of the vote is quite interesting. I had expected opposition to be highest in the conservative and nationalist areas bordering Bosnia in Slavonia and Lika – basically the old war zones covering the territory of the old breakaway republic of Serbian Krajina in the 1990s. Nationalist parties and candidates have always performed best in that poor and rural region, but in the referendum there was little discernible difference between the vote in those regions and the national average. In some cases, such as in Slavonia, support was even higher than the national average. Opposition was highest in the counties of Split (40.7%) and Dubrovnik (42%). Politically, these two counties tend to be conservative, but they act less nationalistic as they lie outside the war zones. Dubrovnik especially and Split to a lesser extent are important tourist destinations, which makes the low support for European integration kind of puzzling. My only uneducated theory about the low support for European integration in Split and Dubrovnbik is that these two counties – which border the heavily Croatian counties of Bosnia – have closer economic ties with Bosnia. Dubrovnik county itself is split in two by Bosnia’s 20km-long seacoast in Neum, and the economic implications of this might have something to do with the level of support for EU membership. The northern inland county of Koprivnica-Križevci also saw pretty high opposition, just below 40%. I was a bit surprised support was just 68% in Istria, which has a reputation for being a liberal, tolerant and internationally-oriented place. Perhaps the issue of foreign land ownership by Italians played a role? At any rate, the map is rather interesting and I do hope somebody, someday, will do more research on the topic.

New Zealand 2011

General elections were held in New Zealand on November 26, 2011. The unicameral Parliament of New Zealand has 120 members, sometimes more due to overhang seats. Since 1994, New Zealand has used mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) in which 70 members are elected in single-member constituencies (the electorate seats) through FPTP and at least 50 members are elected through party-list proportional representation in a national constituency with a 5% threshold (parties winning one electorate seat can be exempted from the threshold). Of the 70 electorate seats, 63 members are elected in general constituencies were all voters are assigned to by default, while 7 members are elected in Māori electorates (created in 1868) where the only eligible voters are those citizens of Māori ethnicity who ask to be placed on the Māori electoral list. Not all Māori voters vote in these Māori electorates: a small minority of them preferred to be enrolled on the general electoral list and vote in the 63 general constituencies. The Māori electorates have long been a source of political controversy and the current government wishes to abolish them by 2014. Elections are held every three-years in New Zealand.

New Zealand has been governed since 2008 by John Key of the centre-right National Party, who defeated incumbent Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark who was first elected in 1999. The National Party was formed in 1936 by the two old rival parties of the centre and the right: the United Party (the old Liberals) and the Reform Party – to counteract the rise of the Labour Party which won power for the first time in 1935 following the defeat of the United-Reform coalition government. The Nationals first won power in 1949 and governed until 1957, returned to power in 1960 and ruled until 1972, returned to power in 1975 and ruled until 1984, won back power in 1990 and lost power to Labour in 1999. Traditionally, like all centre-right parties, National has usually favoured liberal economic policies and pro-business policies. But the experience of the Robert Muldoon government (1975-1984) sets it apart a bit: Muldoon, a populist autocrat, favoured heavily interventionist economic policies such as price freezes to control inflation or the “Think Big” energy initiatives. In contrast, the Labour government originally led by David Lange was by most regards far to the right on economic issues. Lange’s finance minister between 1984 and 1988 was the emblematic Roger Douglas, architect of neoliberal “Rogernomics” which included monetarist inflation control, cutting the tariff and farming subsidies, privatizations and tax cuts. This was a departure both from traditional social democratic policies but also Labour’s own traditional policies. Indeed, past Labour governments prior to 1984 had followed far more progressive and interventionist policies. Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister, became something of a left-wing icon for his creation of the country’s welfare state. The second Labour government between 1957 and 1960 was defeated following a “Black Budget” in 1958 which had significantly raised taxes. Douglas was eventually forced out in late 1988, and Lange himself resigned in 1989 but it was not enough to save Labour from a landslide defeat in 1990 at the hands of Jim Bolger’s Nationals. Rogernomics had divided National, which had a history of economic interventionism and statist conservatism going back to Muldoon’s days. However, Bolger’s finance minister, Ruth Richardson, was a fan of Rogernomics and in fact believed they had not gone far enough: she implemented even more radical Ruthanasia – major spending cuts in social welfare and unemployment benefits. These policies almost cost it victory in 1993, in which third parties did well. Bolger was pushed out by Jenny Shipley in 1997 but she lost the 1999 election to Helen Clark, who abandoned the Rogernomics era in favour of Blairite Third Way policies. Presiding over economic growth and a progressive decline in unemployment, she held office until 2008.

New Zealand adopted MMP in 1993, the result of a series of disproportional elections under FPTP in which parties such as Social Credit won nearly 20% of the vote but only one or two seats. MMP encouraged the growth of third parties, but New Zealand has retained a stable two-party system despite the adoption of MMP. It might be a result of the continued impact of the two-party system bred by FPTP or of the failure of third parties to appeal to a wide base, often because of their more ‘radical’ nature in the political spectrum. The most important of these third parties has been the populist New Zealand First (NZF), led by former National MP Winston Peters. NZF is a bit hard to pin down politically, but it is similar to other right-populist parties by its social conservatism, its anti-corporate rhetoric coupled with a low taxes and reduced spending agenda. Peters’ NZF, which won 13.4% in 1996 and held the balance of power formed a coalition with the Nationals which lasted until 1998. Between 2005 and 2008, NZF had a confidence-and-supply deal with Clark and Peters served as foreign minister. In the 2008 election, NZF was shut out as it fell to an all-time low of 4.1%.

Recently the Greens have grown in strength, polling 7% in 2002 and 6.7% in 2008. The Greens, who are pretty left-wing (they were a part of the left-wing Alliance in the 1993 and 1996 elections, winning 18% in 1993 and 10% in 1996), have a close working relationship with Labour but they have never signed formal coalition or confidence and supply deals with them, in part due to the hostility towards the Greens on the behalf of NZF and United Future. Other parties with a presence or foothold in recent years include United Future, ACT and the Progressives. United Future was founded as a merger of a secular centrist party and a right-wing Christian democratic party in 2000, and won 6.7%. United Future has been something of a weird beast, with a more moderate centre-right wing including Peter Dunne, the party’s leader and sole MP, with a more right-wing socially conservative ‘Christian right’ faction which has recently been eliminated. Today, United Future appears to be an empty shell and nothing more than a personal vehicle for Dunne, an extra-cabinet minister who has served under the last two governments. ACT is a free-market right-wing liberal party founded in 1994, advocating a flat tax, welfare reform, controlling government spending and debt, tough-on-crime policies and other right-wing positions on defense and the environment. It won between 6 and 7% of the vote between 1996 and 2002, but only 1.5% in 2005. It managed to win 5 seats in 2008, entering government. ACT’s leader until this election was Don Brash, the former leader of the National Party who had narrowly lost the 2005 election. Brash, on the National Party’s right, was progressively forced out after the election and resigned in 2006, at which point John Key, more centrist, won the National Party’s leadership. Until he retired this year, the other main actor was Jim Anderton’s Progressive Party. Anderton had split from the Labour Party in 1989 over Rogernomics and then played a key role as leader of the Alliance in the 1990s, a party which formed a coalition with Labour after 1999. But Anderton split from the Alliance, part of which thought he was moving too close to Labour. He held his electorate of Wigram in 2002, 2005 and 2008 but especially after 2008 the party became an empty shell. Anderton’s retirement this year killed the party. In the Māori electorates, the Māori Party, a splitoff from Labour founded in 2004. It won 5 Māori seats in 2008 and it has members outside cabinet since then.

John Key has been a fairly popular Prime Minister, and at any rate, New Zealand rarely turfs out first-term governments unless they’ve done something quite disagreeable or have been terrible. The country has been affected by the recession, and its unemployment rate is now 6%, but GDP growth is strong at 2% and projected to reach 3.8% in 2012. The government cut taxes, but increased the GST and minimum wage. Above all, Key is seen as a pleasant “Kiwi bloke” as opposed to Labour leader Phil Goff, seen as incompetent and desperate. The government was handed a nice boost by the All Blacks’ win in the Rugby World Cup earlier this year. Alongside the election, National also followed through with its election promise to hold a referendum on keeping or changing MMP. FPTP, STV, SM and preferential voting were the four proposed options in case voters voted to change MMP. Like most similar referendums, few voters seemed to care very much about the topic.

Turnout seems to be quite a bit lower than in 2008. Here are the results:

National 47.99% (+3.06%) winning 60 seats (+2) [41 E, 19 L]
Labour 27.13% (-6.86%) winning 34 seats (-9) [22 E, 12 L]
Greens 10.62% (+3.9%) winning 13 seats (+4) [13 L]
NZF 6.81% (+2.74%) winning 8 seats (+8) [8 L]
Māori 1.35% (-1.04%) winning 3 seats (-2) [3 E]
ACT 1.07% (-2.58%) winning 1 seat (-4) [1 E]
Mana 1% (+1%) winning 1 seat (+1) [1 E]
United Future 0.61% (-0.26%) winning 1 seat (+1) [1 E]
Conservative 2.76% (+2.76%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Results by electorate, constituency vote (source: Wikipedia)

Without any suspense, John Key’s popular incumbent National Party was reelected to a second term but, it was the surprise of the night perhaps, failed to win a majority and remains in a hung parliament albeit it’s almost a majority. The Nationals breaking the magic 50% line, as a lot of polls had predicted (less so in the final days), would have been pretty historic given that it’s not been broken by any party since National’s landslide in 1951. Labour, meanwhile, suffered a pretty significant defeat. Labour had never really stood a chance against a popular one-term government, and by all means its gadfly leader Phil Goff (from the party’s right-wing) was nothing more than a stopgap leader who would lose in 2011 while Labour’s more popular leadership contenders would wait until the 2014 election, which was the earliest National could be defeated. Goff led a pretty desperate campaign on stuff like the “cost of living” or removing from the GST from groceries. In contrast to Key, a popular and generally competent leader who is personally popular with voters and who has been able to wash off potential scandals, Goff and Labour never really stood a chance. 27% is a poor showing, but by no means a landslide defeat really. In terms of electorates, it seems as if Labour had it its core seats by 2008: it only lost Waimakariri while gaining West Coast-Tasman and the Māori seat of Te Tai Tonga.

In a pretty rare but how so amusing result, the vote in Christchurch Central ended up as a perfect tie between Labour MP Brendon Burns and National candidate Nicky Wagner at 10,493 votes apiece. The result will be determined by special votes. If National wins the seat, it would lose its last list seat without affecting the overall result. Similarly, if Labour wins the seat it would lose its last list seat without again affecting the final result. You thus have a situation where the last elected individual on each party’s list is wishing that their party doesn’t win Christchurch Central – if they did, they’d lose their seat.

The Greens had a good night, winning their best result ever. They likely took a lot of soft-left votes from Labour, especially in the final days of the campaign when they experienced their surge. I wonder how much the Tauranga oil spill on October 5 might have affected Green support: their real upsurge in support came after the spill.

The major surprise of the night was Winston Peters, NZF’s leader who had been thrown out of Parliament in 2008. He was not expected to reenter Parliament this year, and even in the final days as NZF picked up steam few people predicted it would win seats. With 6.8% and 8 seats, its success was the main surprise of the election. Its success, spectacular in some regards, is attributed to the Tea Tape scandals which taped a compromising conversation between Key and ACT candidate John Banks. NZF had taken the forefront in leaking the tapes, and Peters, whose party receives many votes from the elderly, claimed that Key insulted the elderly in the tapes.


Results of the first question by electorate

ACT, which has suffered from poor performance in cabinet and leadership disputes which claimed Rodney Hide’s leadership, suffered its worst electoral result since its foundation. The party is basically in terminal state right now. Its chances hinged on its pivotal electorate seat of Epsom, a very affluent suburb of Auckland which it has held since 2005. Rodney Hide, who had been ACT’s Epsom MP since 2005, was deselected in favour of John Banks, the former mayor of Auckland defeated last year. In some regards, the Nationals might have seen it in their interests to use ACT’s terminal condition to unplug it and rid itself from a controversial ally. But in other regards, Nationals need ACT as one of their only sure bases of coalition support. The Nationals stood a candidate in Epsom, Paul Goldsmith, but in an amusing situation Goldsmith – who led most polls for the seat – campaigned telling voters not to vote for him and instead give their electorate vote to ACT (Banks) and its list vote to the Nationals. ACT’s John Banks finally won Epsom with 45% against 37% for Goldsmith, while the list vote in the electorate split 65% in National’s favour (ACT taking a pathetic 2.6%). The Nationals winning Epsom would have been rather amusing and an embarrassing situation for themselves, but it can breath a sigh of relief as it has saved ACT for a bit longer keeping it plugged in and providing Key with a coalition partner. United Future, which is now more than ever a personality cult for Peter Dunne and which will die off like the Progressives once Dunne retires, is also seen as a likely coalition partner. The Māori Party, which lost two seats this year (one to Labour, another one – Te Tai Tokerau was held by dissident MP Hone Harawira of the Mana Party), could also continue backing the government. I wonder to what extent the Māori Party’s poor showing this year can be attributed to it propping up a National government given that Māori voters are pretty starkly anti-National in their voting and have been so for years. On a final note, a new right-wing party, the Conservatives, did fairly well for a newbie party with 2.7%. Its leader Colin Craig, helped by his personal wealth, won 21% standing in the National stronghold of Rodney north of Auckland. It will be interesting to see how the Conservatives carry on after a fairly strong showing in their first outing.

In the referendum on the voting system, MMP prevailed with 53.74% opposing the change and 42.62% supporting a change. 3.64% of ballots were marked ‘informal’ or invalid. In the follow-up question (ultimately useless because MMP won) on which alternative system to adopt, FPTP logically came out on top with 31.89%, followed by 14.53% for SM, 11.24% for STV and 8.19% for PV. But 34.15% of ballots were ‘informal’ or invalid. The map of the result shows strong support for MMP in core urban areas, especially lower-income or trendy neighborhoods (much less support, in fact, in the wealthier suburbs). Opposition to MMP was heavier in rural areas, though some rural areas – I don’t know why – tended to support MMP as well. Māori voters were strongly behind MMP with over 70% support for the country’s current electoral system. The referendum in Northland ended as another perfect tie!

Latvia referendum 2011

A referendum ratifying the former president’s decision to dissolve Parliament was held in Latvia on July 23, 2011. This is basically the resolution of a major political crisis in the country, covered in more detail here, which started when former President Valdis Zatlers decided to use his never-used prerogative to dissolve Parliament (the Saiemas) after it rejected earlier this spring a law which would have limited the immunity of one of its members, the corrupt Ainārs Šlesers. In Latvia, the President’s decision to dissolve the legislature must be ratified by voters – and if voters do not ratify the President’s decision, then the President must resign. However, angry members of the Saiemas got that done for him before the referendum, when on June 2 they elected Andris Bērziņš to the presidency in his stead during regular presidential elections.

In the backdrop of all this crisis is a crusade against corrupt politicians and oligarchs who allegedly run the show. Valdis Zatlers got angry with those oligarch politicians who run the country, and decided to use the risky power of dissolution to make a political statement. Latvians are frustrated with deep-seated corruption in their legislature and heavily backed the ex-president’s crusade against corrupt politicians. Many voters hoped that by dissolving parliament and holding new elections, something would change.

Turnout was 44.6%, but there was no turnout quota set rendering the referendum valid despite sub-50% turnout. 94.3% of voters voted in favour of the ex-president’s decision to dissolve parliament, while 5.48% voted against. 0.21% of ballots were invalid. A general election could take place on September 17.

Latvians eager for political change and a break with the corrupt oligarchs will likely turn to a new party led and founded by ex-President Valdis Zatlers, the Zatlers’ Reform Party (ZRP). This new anti-corruption party was credited with 17.5% of voting intentions in July, tied for first place with the opposition ethnically Russian Harmony Centre (SC). The governing centre-right alliance Unity led by Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis trails in third, with only 8.7% after having won 31% in last year’s legislative election. Dombrovskis has been forced to severe budget cuts in one of the EU members touched the worst by the economic crisis. His governing partner, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) is given 8.1% of voting intentions (it won 19.7% in 2010). The far-right National Alliance receives 6.3%, while all other parties including Ainārs Šlesers’ Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way party are under the 5% threshold.

Such a strong showing by Zatlers’ new party could place him in a good position to lead the next government, but this could be complicated by Zatlers’ very public feud with one of the most corrupt oligarchs in the country, former ZZS leader and Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs. Zatlers has already announced that he would not work with the “three oligarch parties”: the ZZS, Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way (LPP/LC) and the People’s Party. While LPP/LC, the party led by Ainārs Šlesers which won eight seats in coalition with the People’s Party in 2010, is unlikely to regain representation, the ZZS could retain representation and form a major obstacle to the ZRP’s access to power.