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A mandate or a rejection? Lessons from the 2012 elections

Neither Democrats nor Republicans should assume that the election returns mean the public is happy with them.

DFL party attendees celebrating the re-election of President Barack Obama on Tuesday night.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

For a year that was not supposed to be theirs, the Democrats appeared to do well across the country and in Minnesota. But while the Democrats may conclude that it was a mandate for them, it is possible that their success was more a rejection of the Republicans. The election returns thus provide important lessons for both of the parties both across the country and in Minnesota.

At the presidential level, President Barack Obama scored a decisive Electoral College victory but a narrow popular-vote win (50%-48%, according to the New York Times). His margin was far less than in 2008, and the total number of votes he received in 2012 was 60 million compared to 69.5 million. Not the numbers of a mandate.

In so many ways this was a campaign he should have lost. Obama had economic numbers that doom most presidents, the public did not like his handling of the economy, and Obama never articulated the case for why he deserved four more years.  All this Mitt Romney seized on in his campaign. But Obama won because the public never really liked Romney as a person, he never connected with the average voter, and he, too, lacked a compelling narrative for why he should  be president. In too many ways, the rival arguments for Obama and Romney as to why they should be president came down to “I am not the other guy.” 

Morever, Romney proved to be a horrible campaigner. In the end he only won one swing state. Obama out-organized Romney and used better math and tracking to locate voters. One of the major stories in 2012 is that the polls called it exactly correct nationally and across the states. Republicans were in constant denial about the polls but they were wrong. Moving forward they need better field operations and campaign information.

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The soul searching for the Republican Party thus begins again, much like four years ago.  In 2008 the conclusion was that McCain was not conservative enough, so in 2012 the GOP base – now dominated by Tea Party activists – toyed with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum before settling on a candidate who did not enthuse them or the American public.

Romney: a caretaker candidate

Romney was a caretaker candidate en route to the 2016 elections. The Republicans are an old, white, Christian, anti-gay and anti-immigrant party out of touch with the changing American demographics. But instead of dealing with that they will move further to the right, making Paul Ryan the obvious frontrunner for 2016. He was one of the few Republican winners.

David Schultz
David Schultz

The congressional elections represented lost opportunities for Republicans. There were 33 Senate races with 23 seats held by Democrats. Republicans lost Senate races in Missouri and Indiana that they should not have. They did it by nominating candidates so out of touch with mainstream America, or with retreads such as Tommy Thompson, that even weak Democrats won.

The Senate also witnessed the loss of some moderates such as Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe. The result is a more polarized Senate with more conservative  Republicans. Democrats still have control, again by default. Finally, the House represents little change from the existing one, with no party taking comfort that they achieved a real victory. More gridlock is the message, along with the reality that the 2014 elections are now less than two years away.

The most interesting of surprises: Minnesota

Minnesota turned out to be the most interesting of all surprises. The Republicans were routed. They had won surprise control over the Legislature in 2010 with talk of jobs and the economy. They failed to deliver on it, and balanced a budget with gimmicks and a government shutdown. They overreached with social issues and pushed an elections amendment and marriage amendment. Both amendments represented a go-for-broke strategy to change the Constitution permanently, and the public rejected the amendments along with the Republicans. 

It is possible that this overreach cost Chip Cravaack his seat and almost unseated Michele Bachmann. Bachmann should have won big in a tailor-made district for her, coupled with her money and name recognition advantage. It is doubtful she will be chastened by her narrow escape, but she certainly is a weaker leader for the Tea Party and less a 2014 Senate threat to Sen. Al Franken than before.

Republicans have handed to the DFL the keys to the Minnesota government.  Democrats control all the constitutional offices, including the governor and the Legislature. This is the first unified party control since 1990. Dayton can potentially move his agenda finally, but the Democrats  should heed the lessons of the Republicans in that they need to be cautious about claims of mandates. They may have won simply because the Republicans were inept and awkward, embracing issues that fail to appeal to mainstream and centrist Minnesotans.

The mandate is not here for Democrats. Nor is there a mandate for the Republicans. Neither should assume that the election returns mean the public is happy with them.  The public still wants a change, but perhaps not the type that either party wants to consider for themselves.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches classes on privatization and public, private and nonprofit partnerships. He is the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). Schultz blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this article first appeared.

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