The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Nov 082012

On November 7, Americans were just beginning to assess the magnitude and meaning of President Obama’s ’12 victory when the Dow dropped over 300 points, its largest daily plunge of the year. The next day, November 8, it plunged again. It’s almost as if history doesn’t want to give us time to contemplate what happened. But now, at the risk ignoring the rush of events, let’s take a moment to put some closure on the election season.

Overall, as my readers know, the ‘12 results were pretty much what I anticipated.

I said the election would be a lot closer than in ‘08, but that Obama would win. The margin would be narrow, but the outcome would not be an all-night cliffhanger. That turned out to be about right. In ’08, Obama won by 7.3 percent of the popular vote, just about the median margin for all elections in U.S. history. (It was just shy of FDR’s margin over Thomas Dewey in 1944.)  In ’12, Obama won by only 2.3 percent of the popular vote, which is the fifth smallest since 1900. (It was just under George W. Bush’s 2.5 percent margin against John Kerry, an election that was also considered a squeaker.)

I said there would be a 15-to-25 percentage point gap between under-30 young vote for Obama and the 65+ senior vote for Obama. In ’08, the gap was 21 percent; and in ’12, a preliminary survey by Pew projected it would be 20 percent. In fact, according to exit polls, the ‘12 gap between young and old was 16 points. So age polarization did moderate slightly. From ’08 to ’12, all age groups voted about 3 percent more for Romney. But Millennials tipped somewhat more steeply to Romney (about 5 percent) and the Silent a bit less. Let me go back to the postwar history of the presidential “generation gap” and update the Pew chart here. My edits in red show the actual ’12 exit poll results.

Why the moderation—or shrinkage—of the Obama youth margin from ‘08? Pre-election surveys identifying this youth shift away from Obama found that it was generated mostly by young whites (especially non-college young whites who have been hit hardest by the post-2008 economy) and only to a lesser extent by young minorities. The CIRCLE crosstabs on the exit poll, shown below, confirm that this is indeed what happened. Note that this time, unlike in ’08, the majority of young whites (51 percent) voted for the GOP.

This should not be a surprise. Unlike McCain, who struck many Millennials in ’08 as simply “too old,” Romney came across as more youthful and did not present the same obvious age contrast with Obama. Also, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Millennials are attracted to Romney’s cool, analytical, consensus-seeking persona—just as they have been attracted to many of these same qualities in Obama. The huge positive shift to Romney among under-50 whites after the first debate was largely attributed to the popular discovery that Romney was not an eccentric hothead like McCain or committed culture warrior like Rick Perry. This discovery brought Romney back into the race and hugely complicated Team Obama’s campaign strategy. Ultimately, however, it was not enough to put Romney over the top.

Although I’ve reported on several surveys pointing to declining youth enthusiasm for the election, I’ve also insisted that the Millennial Generation is destined to be a civic force to be reckoned with. My entire generational model points in that direction. True to my model, Millennials pulled through—surprising many who had predicted they would stay home. In fact, according to the latest CIRCLE estimates, the ‘12 youth voter participation rate (at least 49 percent, the count is not over yet) was nearly as strong as it was in ’08 (52 percent). This rate is already higher than ’04 (48 percent) and much higher than in the last election in which Gen-Xers totally filled the under-30 age bracket (1996: 37 percent).

In ’12 as in ’08, the youth vote determined the outcome—meaning that if the under-30 vote had simply split 50-50, McCain and Romney would have won. This cannot be said of any election earlier than 2008, going all the way back to the 1930s. The youth vote likewise determined the outcome of all the major battleground states that went this time to Obama: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Many who expected a GOP victory clearly hoped that a lot fewer youth voters would show up at the polls this year. This did not happen. Or, if it did happen to some degree, declining excitement probably kept home precisely those young voter categories (noncollege white males) who would have been least likely to vote for Obama. Either way, no advantage for Team Romney.

More generally, the ’12 results showed that the Democrats were mostly right, and the Republicans mostly wrong, about the composition of the turnout. The GOP-ridiculed “D+6” model turned out to be dead on. Also, futures markets like Intrade once again demonstrated their uncanny ability to hone in on the most likely outcome, even when real-time voter surveys were jumping all around. Conservatives who normally praise the virtues of markets should have known this all along.

Let me turn to two further perspectives on the results—income and ethnicity. Each sheds some interesting light on where Romney went wrong and why he fell short.

First, income. As discussed in a previous post, a major Pew survey recently revealed that the significant overall voter shift away from Democratic (and toward Republican) party identification over the last four years has been generated entirely by lower- and middle-income voters. Reason: They have been hardest hit by the economy. Affluent voters, by contrast, actually lean more to Obama and the Democrats in 2012 than in 2008. For Romney to win, it was absolutely essential for him to exploit this opening and harness this disaffection. He had to persuade these voters that the Obama economy had failed them and had stripped them of their security, dignity, and independence. And he had to make his biggest gains (relative to ’08) among lower income brackets.

In this effort he failed. The GOP preference by income bracket in ’12 was even steeper (slightly) than in ’08. Among > $100K voters, Romney won 54 percent; among < $50K voters, he won 38 percent. Compared to McCain in ’08, Romney did better over $100K and worse under $50K. To be sure, Romney faced some unique challenges in appealing to lower-income America—starting with his image as a very wealthy Wall Street wheeler-dealer. But these were surmountable. (Obama too is regularly criticized as an elitist Ivy League legal theorist, yet over time he has learned to handle the issue deftly.) What killed Romney was not the image, but rather the substance he regularly delivered that perfectly matched the image. Notorious example: the surreptitiously taped “47 percent” monologue, which was exactly the wrong message and which remained attached to Romney until the end of the campaign. The remark did untold damage. At long last, Jimmy Carter’s humiliating 1980 loss to the GOP was avenged by his grandson!

Second, ethnicity. And here I’m not sure I have the answers. Romney was the decisive favorite of all white Americans (59 percent).  He was even the decisive favorite of all white American women (56 percent). Yet Romney was also distinctly unpopular among nonwhites: He got the vote of only 27 percent of Hispanics, 26 percent of Asians, and 6 percent of African-Americans. Despite his better overall showing compared to McCain in ‘08, Romney actually lost 4 points among Hispanics and (incredibly) 11 points among Asians.

What’s going on here? Of course, everyone points to John McCain’s and George W. Bush’s conciliatory stance on immigration reform as one reason they didn’t suffer as badly at the hands of minority voters. Maybe. But I don’t think that’s a complete explanation. Romney and Obama actually agree on most of the basics of immigration reform—and though minority immigrants widely approve of Obama’s Dream Act and selective enforcement policy, they also know about his relentless deportation agenda. (Obama has deported more immigrants than any other President.)

I think something deeper, more cultural is at work. An 11 percent decline among Asians? That’s a catastrophe for the GOP. Asians are not known to obsess over immigration reform. They exceed whites in median household income. They are socially conservative, aspire to own property, and admire successful business leaders. In recent elections, I haven’t found one in which they didn’t give the GOP at least 40 percent of their vote.  In 1996, when Dole lost badly to Clinton, Asians actually preferred Dole to Clinton, 48 to 43 percent. So what happened in 2012?

Perhaps this is where Romney’s Mormonism ultimately hurt him—not, as once expected, among white evangelicals (who ended up ignoring theology and voting for him anyway), but among nonwhite minorities (who could not look past the long LDS heritage as a white-only church). Again, I am simply suggesting possibilities. I welcome your suggestions.

We can make two fairly certain predictions for how Romney’s defeat is going to play out for the future of the GOP and for the Republican candidates likely to be running in 2016. One prediction is generational. Romney is likely to be the last Boomer to run as the GOP Presidential candidate. After all, by nearly everyone’s post-mortem consensus, he was the ablest Boomer contender in ’12 and still he lost. In 2016, by contrast, a huge new influx of first-wave Gen-Xers will be flooding onto the GOP primary stage. They are smart, charismatic, and (mostly) have plenty of hands-on executive experience. I’m talking about Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz. And maybe we can add on late-wave Boomers (both born in 1959) Susana Martinez and Scott Brown.

To be sure, not all the these will run for the White House in ’16. And, of those who do, many have sharp edges and as-yet unvetted secrets that could prevent them from going all the way to nomination. But it is an impressive field, and the Democrats have nothing like it in the bull pen.

In fact, it’s easy to imagine a generational reversal in party candidates. The Democrats in 2016 could very well move back to a Boomer candidate (Hillary, we know you’ve been waiting!), who might encounter little serious competition from Xers. Meanwhile, the Republicans are clearly going to put an Xer at the top of their ticket. Moreover—and this is my second prediction—this Xer is very likely to be nonwhite or Hispanic. (Of the contenders listed above, three are Hispanic and two are Indian.) Given Romney’s exit polls, many GOP leaders will regard the elevation of a minority standard bearer for their party as not just a nice-thing-to-do, but as a must-thing-to-do.

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