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Election 2012

President Barack Obama smiles during his speech at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

The high rhetoric of ‘hope and change’ was supplanted four years later by a harsh political campaign and more precise coalition building. That strategy, however, worked well for President Barack Obama in winning a second term on an election eve that played out largely as expected.

There were few surprises as the major polls during the last month were generally spot-on. They revealed the narrative of a Romney campaign that surged historically in the wake of the first debate, pulling it up to a level of competitiveness that it had not come close to achieving over the summer. The campaign stagnated abruptly, however, as Romney’s decision to fall back into a defensive ‘presidential’ mode did not turn out well –- evidenced in the ensuing two debates where Romney underperformed and allowed Obama to regain the initiative.

It was an initiative Obama had seized during the Republican primary, when his campaign focused on defining Romney to the electorate — as Romney himself spent large sums of money and energy beating back marginal primary opponents like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Though Romney performed with dignity in the final weeks, ultimately making it a worthy race, he never overcame his initial reputational deficit — thanks in large part to the relentless tactic of the Obama campaign to portray Romney as an enemy of the working class.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes the podium to give his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The Obama campaign had four years to hone its own coalition-building — a strategy it developed during the 2008 Democratic primary when Obama stunned his own party establishment by overcoming Hillary Clinton’s huge organizational advantage to grab the Democratic mantle. The core concept behind the coalition — drawing loyal supporters from previously dormant areas of the electorate — is laid out clearly in David Plouffe’s 2009 book, “The Audacity to Win.” This strategy has changed very little since then, with Plouffe and David Axelrod again effectively redefining the political landscape to suit their unique candidate — the nation’s first African-American president. Whether another candidate in a different historical context can win using the same strategy remains to be seen.

This is the surface narrative of the election, but it doesn’t necessarily go to the underlying substance — which is even more dramatic. For, the more things changed in this election, the more they stayed the same.

The electorate, and the federal government, remain divided. Though the actual election numbers still need to be processed, most recent polling shows a nation voting along the lines of race, gender and age. The election results themselves reveal the now-typical geographic split between blue and red America. Obama failed to unite the nation under the grand ideals of his first campaign for president — perhaps, even, dividing the nation further through his focus this year on class-based rhetoric that seemed designed to pit groups against each other.

In the beginning of his second term, Obama will have another opportunity to unite — as his acceptance speech seemed to acknowledge. But he’ll once again be facing a Republican House that will view itself as the last bulwark to prevent the president from reshaping the nation in his image, and will be unlikely to move much towards compromise.

Obama will once again be facing a Republican House that will view itself as the last bulwark to prevent the president from reshaping the nation in his image, and will be unlikely to move much towards compromise.

Obama will have two years to put political pressure on this Republican House before it stands for election again, and will be tempted to portray its members as small-minded and standing in the way of progress. This will mesh well with the common criticism that Republicans must be more than the party of “no.”

Indeed, Obama’s surrogates — such as Gov. Deval Patrick shortly after midnight during a brief interview with NBC’s Brian Williams — have already begun pressuring the House to work with the president to solve some of the myriad problems now facing the nation. First up on this agenda will be the ‘fiscal cliff’ and a showdown over taxes and spending cuts.

In addition to this immediate challenge, the Republican Party must begin to address the long-term task of redefining and broadening itself. Romney won only one swing state on Tuesday, despite an economy that hasn’t been as bad for an incumbent presidential candidate since FDR. The lack of a message that resonated with swing-state voters couldn’t be more crystal clear – those voters simply didn’t trust the Republicans because the party and its candidate failed to articulate how they would bring positive change.

It is therefore likely that this second consecutive morose election for Republicans – which, I suspect, still manifests some of the residue of the George W. Bush years – will naturally drive some in the party, starting the next few weeks, to re-examine its path. It will quite possibly lead to a struggle for influence between those House Republicans who will seek the status quo, and the stable of dynamic upcoming governors and others in the party who believe they have innovative policies that they can sell to a broader electorate. The party knows it must also make inroads with Latinos and other minority groups — not by pandering, as it has condescendingly done on the recent past, but through policies designed to help those communities succeed while remaining loyal to Republican ideals of limited government and personal freedom.

In the meantime, however, because of the president’s well-oiled political effort, the Republicans are left pondering an uncertain future with a standard-bearer for 2016 yet to emerge.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Election 2012, Mitt Romney

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  • Pingback: The Obama Realignment | Cognoscenti

  • massappeal

    Thanks for this thoughtful column…and for laying out so clearly the challenges facing Republicans and conservatives as they begin to look forward to 2014 and beyond.

    Given the unprecedented (at least in the past 140 years) obstructionism Pres. Obama has faced from congressional Republicans, the fact that he won re-election despite an unemployment rate of 8% and a slowly growing economy suggests, I think, that while the electorate may be closely divided, it’s more “blue” than “red”.

    There’s further evidence for that in the Senate races where Republicans failed to make gains despite the Democrats having 7 retiring senators and 23 seats to defend versus 10 for Republicans.

    If we assume a reasonably health economy in 2016 and a continuation of demographic trends in the electorate, the next Republican presidential candidate will face an even steeper challenge than Gov. Romney did this year.

  • FleetoNH

    You stated it correctly: The Democrats won (again) because they succeeded in defining the Republican candidates (Romney, Paul, Brown, Tisei, etc.), and redefining them, to the public, with no push-back from the candidates.

    Now let me add to that and release a little frustration. The key to winning as a Republican in Massachusetts is actually somewhat simple: 1) sacrifice your integrity for the truth, and 2) hire union thugs to work for you. Although voters consistently state that they hate negative political ads, distrust politicians in general, despise partisan bickering, and are tired of party politics, whom do they vote for? Candidates who falsely paint their worthy opponents in an extreme light, who invoke fear and loathing, and who toe an extreme partisan line.

    Consider: The last bi-partisan Senator in Washington is about to leave the building, because his opponent (who cannot name a single Republican senator with whom she will work toward getting laws passed) told the world that he does not care about women and will not protect their rights to healthcare or equal pay. Think about the offensiveness of that!

    Or consider this: The would-be first openly gay Republican Congressman from Massachusetts lost to (an alleged) felon, because his opponents ads likened him to Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, etc.

    Romney lost because he’s rich and doesn’t care about the rest of America; only the select 47% – right?

    The traditional response from conservatives is to take the high road and stress the positive; not fight fire with fire. It fails over and over. Want to win an election in Massachusetts, Republicans? Play their game! Pay people to intimidate others, do your literature drops and hold your campaign signs; make up lies (or half-truths) about your opponent and stand by those lies at all costs. Lie some more about the wonderful things you will do as an elected official, with no real intent of accomplishing those feats.

    Or, preserve your integrity and lose.

    …and let your frustrations loose on blogs.

  • disgusted

    FleetoNH-

    Your characterization is dead on, you just have the parties confused. Perhaps you missed all of the facts because you are so partisan you can’t see them. I’m a
    registered independent and I grew up in NH, so you can’t lump me in with the MA
    stereotype. The facts are the republicans are the party of ‘win at all costs’,
    the party that talks of morality while operating like thugs, the party that
    reduces early voting and passes voter ID laws specifically to reduce the # of
    democratic voters…and they don’t even pretend they are doing it for any
    positive reason. Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, they are the standard bearers.

    Mitt Romney lost because he tried to be 10 different candidates during the same
    election and luckily there were enough rational people to realize they couldn’t
    really have any idea about how he might govern. He lost because he catered to
    the far right of the party. The Tea party should form a separate 3rd party,
    then the republicans could go back to being the center right party they always
    were and their candidates could be moderate, mainstream, electable people. The
    republican candidates define themselves and you make the opposing views point
    when you say “the last bi-partisan Senator”. Where are all the other
    ‘bi-partisan’ republicans? Where are the rational, center right conservatives?
    They have all been run out of office or silenced by right wing whackos.

    I think Brown would have been a reasonable choice if he wasn’t in the party of
    ‘legitimate rape’. If the republican leadership had some balls and squashed the
    lunatic fringe, then maybe people in the center could count on the rationality
    of people like Brown. It’s not enough to have 1 bipartisan when the majority of
    his/her party mates are so far right. It’s unfortunate for Brown and for people
    that would advocate for centrist policies and politicians, but it sure as hell
    is a left wing conspiracy…the right ruined the right for all of us.

    The real problem is that far right/tea party talk of less government but
    advocate for more control over other people lives. They want to stuff their
    values down other people’s throats through more invasive government. They will
    let you keep more of your $ in exchange for telling you who you can marry, how
    many children you can have, who can join the military. Creationism? Get real.
    The tea party is the party of yesterday, not tomorrow. They talk of freedom,
    but what they mean is ‘you are free to be just like me’. They look back nostalgically on everything that has ever been wrong with this country, from racism to sexism to abusing the environment. Republicans lost because they have become the party of exclusion over time and rather than face the reality of changing demographics and if they don’t wake up..they will keep losing. O’reilly looked like he was going to cry when he said “the white establishment is now the minority’, Limbaugh going on and on about women=birth control/pro choice and latinos=illegals. If that is how your party is going to define your problem, I can see why you are so hopeless.

    Republicans have become the party of ‘me’ and the party of ‘now’. They talk of
    the debt burden on their children, but don’t worry much at all about the
    environmental burden their ‘pro business’ policies would place on every future generation. The idea that businesses will regulate themselves is laughable. Denying climate change, asinine. The republicans need to get back to better ideas rather than alternate reality.

    As an independent, I breathe a sigh of relief when the country rejects
    Murdocks, Aikins, David Dukes, and the rest of the red neck
    crowd that is taking over the rational right and turning it into a party I will
    never vote for. Brown is a casualty of your party.

    If you’re a rational republican, I’d suggest you send your tea baggers packing
    or you will continue to lose independents and centrist democrats that vote
    people rather than party.

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