It was an election that, once upon a time, many thought was stacked in Mitt Romney's favor.
Unemployment was hovering around eight percent, a number that was much higher in black and Latino households. Many had simply given up and stopped looking for work, pessimistic about the future. Voters were still skeptical or fearful about President Obama's health care plan, and small business owners were bracing for what they thought would be higher costs. Overseas, a civil war raging unabated in Syria, resulting in the deaths of thousands, was threatening to upend the entire Middle East.
And yet Romney didn't win. The popular vote count was pretty close: 50.5 percent for Obama, 48 percent for Romney. Almost, but not quite, a split down the middle. The two-point-plus spread made it the fifth closest presidential election in more than a century — trailing only Kennedy-Nixon 1960, Bush-Gore 2000, Nixon-Humphrey 1968 and Carter-Ford 1976.
But it wasn't close in the Electoral College. With Florida now finally called, Obama finished with 332 electoral votes — 62 more than the 270 needed to put him over the top. (Romney received 206.) Three hundred thirty-two electoral votes may not be something to write home about (it's 33 fewer than what he got four years ago), but it's more than any Republican got since George H.W. Bush in 1988. And think of all that transfixed us in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 6, those elusive and hard-to-predict "battleground states." With the exception of North Carolina, Obama carried every single one: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida.
And what accounts for this result? According to leaders of the Tea Party and others on the right, the reason why the GOP suffered on Nov. 6 is because Romney was too moderate.
In a Washington news conference the day after the election, longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie argued that Romney had no core conservative principles, and flatly stated, "The battle to take over the Republican Party begins today."
The Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian writes that Viguerie called for the resignation of the entire GOP leadership for its "epic election failure of 2012." He singled out RNC chair Reince Priebus, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And that wasn't all:
"In any logical universe," Viguerie said, "establishment Republican consultants such as Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie and Romney campaign senior advisors Stuart Stevens and Neil Newhouse would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again and no one would give a dime to their ineffective 'super PACs.'"
Also attending the news conference was Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. Like Viguerie, she wasn't happy:
"What we got was a weak moderate candidate handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them," she said.
Not everyone on the right buys that argument. According to Abcarian's article, conservative columnist Michael Barone "told an audience at Hillsdale College's center in Washington that the tea party, while bringing some talented politicians to the fore, also brought some 'wackos and weirdos and witches.'" Barone singled out Todd Akin, the unsuccessful GOP Senate candidate in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock, who performed the same role in Indiana.
It's always been a two-edged sword in assessing the role played by the Tea Party in Republican victories and defeats. The movement was undeniably significant in the GOP's House takeover in 2010, responsible as much as anyone for the Republican pickup of 63 seats. But it may have also cost the party the Senate as well that year, as weak and/or flawed Tea Party candidates in states such as Nevada (Sharron Angle) and Delaware (Christine O'Donnell) turned likely Republican victories into crushing defeats.
Indiana's Mourdock, who trounced longtime GOP Sen. Dick Lugar in this year's May primary, never got his footing with moderates and independents. After beating Lugar, he said he would model himself after South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite. He promised to be "confrontational" on key issues. And, in a direct slap at Lugar's reputation for working out deals with Democrats, Mourdock said, "I don't think there's going to be a lot of successful compromise. I hope to build a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government." Mourdock lost to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Nor did Missouri's Akin go into the general election talking compromise. A no-nonsense conservative, he helped save the career of vulnerable Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill by getting embroiled in a controversy over "legitimate rape" and pregnancy. His comments — along with those of Mourdock and a few others — became Democratic talking points throughout the country, resulting in a huge night for Democratic women. Akin himself was buried in a landslide.
But it would be a mistake to pin the defeats of 6 November on the Tea Party. In Wisconsin, former four term Gov. Tommy Thompson defeated Tea Party opposition during the GOP primary and then promptly lost in the general election to Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a strong liberal. Conservatives insist that a candidate with better right-wing bona fides would have won. In New Mexico, ex-Rep. Heather Wilson (R) touted her moderate credentials but she got crushed by Democrat Martin Heinrich in the battle for an open Senate seat. And no one can blame the defeat of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts on the Tea Partiers. (Though if Brown lost because of the weight of Obama strength in the commonwealth, how do you explain the victories of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota or Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, two states that Romney carried handily?)
It was also a mixed scorecard for the Tea Party in the House. Some, like Allen West in Florida, found that their penchant for controversy may have cost them their seats (West trails Democrat Patrick Murphy by 1,907 votes but refuses to concede). Others, like Michele Bachmann in Minnesota, escaped by the barest of margins.
But the Republican Party kept their majority and may have held their net losses to single digits. Many Tea Party candidates won re-election and lived to fight another day — a surprise to some, given that there was talk about 2012 being a "correction" from the 2010 Republican tsunami. Many of the GOP defeats came as a result of redistricting, not a backlash to the Tea Party. In Illinois, Democrats were in complete control of redrawing the lines and promptly defeated Reps. Joe Walsh, Robert Dold, Judy Biggert and Bobby Schilling (though, in fairness, the controversial Walsh, a Tea Party favorite, was probably doomed no matter how his district was drawn). In California, new district lines certainly helped push Raul Ruiz over Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) in the 36th CD. At this writing, two other California Republicans, Dan Lungren (7th CD) and Brian Bilbray (52nd CD), trail their Democratic opponents.
(By the same token, Republican-controlled redistricting in North Carolina is probably responsible for the GOP adding three more seats to their total.)
In trying to determine what exactly happened to the Republican Party, focusing on the Tea Party may be missing the bigger point: the changing demographics of the country. Obama won women by 11 points. He took 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asians, 93 percent of blacks. Sixty percent of voters under 30. Once upon a time, winning the white vote by a 61-39 percentage — as Romney did — would be enough for victory. Those days may be gone. The great strides the Republican Party made in the midterm election of 2010 were not repeated in the national election of 2012.
And if we are going to pin the blame on Romney, as the Tea Party suggests, it may not be because he was too "moderate." Yes, he seemed to have found his footing during the first debate, Oct. 3 in Denver, and moved to the middle. But many of the positions he took in the final month of the campaign were at odds to the more conservative ones he took earlier, especially during his fight for the GOP nomination. Yes, one needs to take conservative stances during the Republican primaries and then move to the center for the general election. But Romney had a history of moving back and forth, starting with his 1994 challenge in Massachusetts to Sen. Ted Kennedy. In the eyes of many, there never was the sense of who the authentic Mitt Romney really was. It was a problem for him when he squared off against his fellow Republicans and it was a problem in the fall. It wasn't that he was too moderate, or too conservative. It was a question of which was the real Romney.
No better illustration of this problem was how Romney addressed illegal immigration during the primaries and caucuses. He tore into GOP rival Rick Perry over his policy of allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges. He said he would veto the Dream Act. He even talked about "self-deportation." Now, this is all well and good when the electorate is overwhelmingly white, as it was (and is) during the primaries. But it's more problematic for the general election. And the results have been alarming for the party. California and New Mexico, with their huge Latino populations, may be lost causes for Republican presidential candidates for years to come. Puerto Ricans in Florida, who lean Democratic, are outvoting pro-Republican Cubans in the Sunshine State. Obama has now won Colorado, with its surging Hispanic presence, twice in a row. Ten percent of the voting population is Latino, a number that is only going to grow. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is among those leaders in the GOP who have been trying to send the message that a new approach is desperately needed. (Watch for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to gain greater prominence and visibility.)
Too moderate? Too inconsistent? Too inauthentic? The Republican Party will be debating Mitt Romney's pluses and minuses as they try to regroup for the 2014 midterms and, of course, to try and recapture the White House in 2016. That campaign has already begun.
Electoral Vote Contest. Back in September, I asked for predictions on the nation's electoral vote totals for Obama and Romney. The person coming up with the exact total of EVs would get a Political Junkie t-shirt (in case of a tie, the first person to send his or her correct total would get the shirt). As it turned out, 19 people accurately said that Obama would finish with 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. But the first was David Driscoll of Stanford, Calif. And the shirt is his.
(Congrats, but no shirt, go to the 18 others who also got the correct numbers: Will Thanhouser of Washington, D.C.; David Long of Baltimore, Md.; Yoichi Hariguchi; David Wohl of Tucson, Ariz.; Jeff Ewener of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Alex Dalton of Montpelier, Va.; Lance LaPointe of St. Petersburg, Fla.; Joshua Downes of Sarasota, Fla.; Alexis Yee-Garcia of Berkeley, Calif.; Matthew Bond of Nashville, Tenn.; Kent Borg of Cambridge, Mass.; Daniel Schrider of Bloomington, Ind.; Paul Whalen of Fort Thomas, Ky.; Joshua Holman of Havelock, N.C.; Chris Bradley of Westfield, Ind.; Lawana Gibson of Winter Springs, Fla.; Corey Hunt of Bethany, Mo.; and Andrew Ujdak of South Bend, Ind.)
Still uncalled. With Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) conceding defeat, there are five House races yet to be officially decided. Here are the latest totals as of Sunday:
Ariz. 02: Rep. Ron Barber (D) leads GOP challenger Martha McSally by 330 votes.
Ariz. 09: Kyrsten Sinema (D) leads Vernon Parker (R) by more than 4,700 votes in this new district.
Calif. 07: Rep. Dan Lungren (R) trails Democratic challenger Ami Bera by 1,779 votes.
Calif. 52: Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) trails Democratic challenger Scott Peters by 1,334 votes.
Fla. 18: Rep. Allen West (R) trails Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by 1,907 votes.
Incumbents defeated (thus far). In addition to Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), these congressional incumbents went down to defeat on Nov. 6:
Republicans (13): Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), David Rivera (Fla.), Joe Walsh (Ill.), Robert Dold (Ill.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Bobby Schilling (Ill.), Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), Chip Cravaack (Minn.), Frank Guinta (N.H.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), Quico Canseco (Texas).
Democrats (10): Pete Stark (Calif.)*, Howard Berman (Calif.)*, Joe Baca (Calif.)*, Laura Richardson (Calif.)*, Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Kathy Hochul (N.Y.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Betty Sutton (Ohio), Mark Critz (Pa.).
*lost to fellow California Democrats.
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Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week we had two full hours to discuss election results. The first hour, which you can listen to here, focused on how Obama did it.
The second hour focused on individual races for Congress.
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Last week's winner: Deirdre Carroll of Seattle, Wash.
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This day in campaign history: Alabama Gov. George Wallace, paralyzed from the waist down after an assassination attempt while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, once again announces a run for the White House. It is his fourth bid for president, having also run in 1964 (Democratic primaries) and 1968 (as a third-party candidate in the general election). Wallace, 56, is the 10th Democrat to announce his candidacy for 1976 and is the best financed (Nov. 12, 1975).
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