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.
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 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.