At least we know Mitt Romney could not lie his way into the presidency. Never in modern American political history has a more deliberately mendacious candidate appeared before the public. America dodged a bullet this time, just as it did four years ago when Sarah Palin was allowed to pursue her dream to be a TV news pundit and reality star rather than serve as Vice President of the US. There was more to this election than just rejecting the politics of deceit and hypocrisy. Let’s look at some of the salient lessons from Barack Obama’s reelection, which is if anything a small triumph for race relations in the US when a mediocre and disappointing African-American candidate can still get a majority of the votes.
All Hail Nate Silver – or At Least Math
Among the many, many places where the Republican Party has trouble with reality, political polling tops the list in this election. We begin with Neil Newhouse, who had a flattering portrait drawn of him two days ago by Politico, the right-leaning blog, which described Mitt Romney’s official pollster as the best the Republicans have working for them anywhere in the country. Mr. Newhouse sounds like a very pleasant man, but he staked his reputation and his polling results on the belief that turnout in 2012 was going to look like turnout in the 2004 Bush-Kerry race: participation by minorities was going to revert back to the 2004 pattern when there was none of the excitement of trying to elect America’s first black president.
The Obama campaign was quietly arguing the opposite – that not only would enthusiasm among minorities remain high, but demographics would lead to even higher minority percentages of the total electorate. The results last night seem decisively in favor of the Democratic argument, which means Mr. Newhouse was feeding his client fantasies about where he stood in the polls and which way the electorate would lean. Enthusiasm among minorities did remain high, as best as we can tell from the preliminary turnout data, but much more important, the electorate’s composition changed. Nate Silver points out that in the most important bellwether county in Florida– Hillsborough county which contains the city of Tampa– Obama won by 5 points, and not coincidentally, Hispanic population growth in the county since 2000 has been an astounding 71%. With that degree of change in the electorate, you don’t need much enthusiasm to carry the county – you just need a majority of the new voters who happen to be Hispanic.
And speaking of Nate Silver, the New York Times polling guru who runs the 538 blog, his victory last night was bigger than Obama’s. He was right about the Electoral College victory, and he looks like he will be right about the popular vote once all the provisional and absentee ballots fromCalifornia and elsewhere are counted. His analysis not only of the winner in each of the swing states, but the winning spread of the popular vote in these states, was spot on. Mr. Silver relies on averages of all the major polls to get his results, and he applies a proprietary formula to reduce bias in his results, such as not counting very much on the Rasmussen poll because it consistently favors the Republicans. Like the Obama team, Silver accepted the argument (or reality) that the electorate was changing demographically.
The good news for Mr. Newhouse is that, however bad his polling was, he still remains the best of a miserable lot of pollsters within the Republican party and the conservative movement. Republicans were so unhappy with Romney’s poor showing halfway through the campaign, that they began to attack the polls as biased. One website became a favorite go-to source for the “truth” about the polls: UnSkewed Polling.com, run by an amateur pollster, Dean Berman. Mr. Berman a week ago famously attacked Nate Silver as “effeminate” in an article titled The Bizarre World of Nate Silver’s Voodoo Political Predictions. At that time Mr. Berman touted his own polling results, which he said stripped out the liberal bias of the mainstream polls. His results predicted such upsets as Colorado 54-45 forRomney, Florida 54-46 forRomney, Iowa for Romney with the same spread, Michigan 51-48 for Romney (“the surprise of the night”), Ohio 54-46 for Romney, and Pennsylvania 53-47 for Romney. Mr. Romney was also going to pick up Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Oregon, and his Electoral College landslide was going to be 359 votes to Obama’s 179 votes. Mr. Berman’s gimmick in his polling averages was to first assume that the voters would identify themselves about evenly split among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. As it turned out, more than 6% of the voters identified as Democrats (38%) than Republicans (32%), and even more identified as independent than Democratic. This is a huge error in polling, akin to what Neil Newhouse did, but then Mr. Berman went a step further. He assumed that all the undecided voters would break for Mr. Romney when they finally came to a decision, because this is how things used to work in years past. This didn’t happen either: undecided voters largely went for Obama. Mr. Berman’s polling practices were so horrifically off base that he got every swing state wrong, the electoral vote wrong, and the popular vote wrong, which is about as useless as you can be. Except he was a darling of the right wing: Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity urged their viewers to follow his blog and ignore all the biased pollsters like Nate Silver. “Serious” pundits like George Will, Jeffrey Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone, and Dick Morris all predicted a substantial or landslide Electoral College victory for Romney, as if they were following the “unskewed polls” as well.
There was a terrific “scene” which occurred on Fox News last night when that network called Ohio for Obama, and thus the election for Obama. Karl Rove insisted the call was premature (and he knows a thing or two about premature calls from the 2000 Florida election), because at the time Obama only led Ohio by 900 votes out of nearly 4,000,000 cast with hundreds of thousands still to be counted. Rove pointed to all the Republican counties in Ohio which still had not reported. The news anchor had the cameras follow her down several halls to the statistical and polling arm of Fox News to confront the guys who made the call for Obama on Ohio. They completely contradicted Rove, saying that the counties yet to report were mostly around Cleveland and were heavily African-American and pro-Obama. Asked what percentage likelihood they put on their forecast for Ohio being correct, they said “99.9%”.
Who are Fox News viewers going to believe? A bunch of nerds in the back office who believe in things like “math” and “statistics” and “facts”, or Karl Rove, Bush’s brains, who is going to have a lot of explaining to do to the billionaires whom he fleeced for hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions for a losing cause? Naturally they are going to go with Karl Rove and the hope that the numbers will turn around. If they don’t, the conspiracy theories will begin about a stolen election. This is just the first of many conversations where the right is forced to come to grips with reality.
About Those Latinos
The talk all over the right wing blogs and television last night was about the need for the Republican Party to begin toning down the rhetoric about illegal aliens, and start appealing to Hispanic voters. A lot of people mentioned the prominence of Florida Senator Marco Rubio as a potential 2016 candidate to help turn around the perception the party has as bigoted. Charles Krauthammer, the conservative writer, said there was nothing wrong with the conservative message – the voters still supported conservatism above any other ideology – but the candidate was flawed and the campaign poorly run. This will certainly be a point of universal agreement among Republicans – Mitt Romney was a poor candidate who wasn’t a true conservative. But even Krauthammer admitted that the party had to do something to be more appealing to Hispanics. How exactly this is going to be done was unclear. It is the bigots who own the Tea Party, and who ran their bigoted or ignorant candidates in Republican primaries and won. The whole ethos of the party for 40 years has been to appeal to Southern white bigots, some of whom weren’t ashamed to show up at Romney rallies with t-shirts saying “Put the White Back in the White House.”
The Republican Party is now effectively leaderless. Mitt Romney is likely to retire to enjoy his millions of dollars in the Cayman Islands. Mitch McConnell may not survive as Senate Minority Leader given the calamity that hit the Republicans in the Senate. John Boehner will be the only leader to remain, as Speaker of the House, along with his buddies Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, none of whom has ever stood up to the intellectual leaders of the party, like Rush Limbaugh and various radio shock jocks. Top Republican politicians are not about to purge the party of the people who keep the base stirred up, angry, and fearful, because that is what keeps bringing the money in.
At the mid to lower levels of the party, power is in the hands of the evangelical Christian voters and Tea Party patriots, and they may well ignore their elected representatives and persist in their plan to purge the party of agnostics and moderates. This will make it that much harder for the Republicans to turn course and embrace multi-culturalism no matter what their political leaders say. Besides, notice that all that is being called for so far is to appeal to Hispanics. Nobody says anything about appealing to African-Americans, perhaps recognizing the hopelessness of this after 50 years of pursuing the Southern Strategy. But if blacks continue to vote Democratic at a 95% rate, why should Hispanics stop voting for Democrats at a 75% rate? There is already a deep-seated antipathy to Republicans by Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, and these feelings get passed down to generations, especially given the past four years where Republicans have made it legal to search any Hispanic on their looks alone. This is what is missing in all the talk you will hear about Republicans softening their message: it may be too late.
Obama’s Short Coat-Tails
Barack Obama had a nice victory for himself, but this was not like 2008, when waves of Democratic politicians were elected because of enthusiasm for the top of the ticket. However much minorities (soon to be the majority racially in the US) and women were willing to vote for Obama, this did not translate to enthusiasm down the ticket. The Democrats made no gains in the House of Representatives, and they remain almost powerless there. The gains Democrats made in the Senate were largely due to the shabby performances of the Republican candidates in Missouri, Indiana, and Massachusetts (all of whom were Tea Party candidates). In particular, the comments some of these Tea Party candidates made about legitimate rape, God-given rape, and other forms of happy rape shocked women and doomed these candidacies in states Republicans were sure they could win.
The Republicans are already insisting that Obama has received no mandate from the people in this election, especially considering he is only two million votes up in the popular vote out of 115,000,0000 cast. He will likely get just over 50% of the popular vote, which is a majority, but hardly a rout or landslide. It’s not just the Republicans who will claim there is no mandate. Liberals have already said they intend to oppose any efforts by Obama to strike a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans in which Social Security or Medicare are sacrificed, the point being that liberals have learned their lessons during the past four years of being disappointed and betrayed by Obama on his promises. Even Obama has said that Washington can only be reformed from outside, which is an open invitation for liberals to mount protests against him if he strays too far from traditional Democratic policies.
The first showdown over these policies will come soon, before the next inauguration, because Obama has to decide whether to fight against the mandatory budget cuts that will occur at the end of this year if both parties do not act to reduce the deficit significantly. This is described as the “fiscal cliff”, which everyone now is fearing because of the magnitude of the cuts involved, from defense to social programs. This was supposed to be only a threat to keep the politicians focused on real deficit reform. But even before the votes were being counted yesterday, Speaker Boehner said Obama has no mandate to demand any tax increases whatever. The liberals will say he has no mandate to slash social programs, at least not without significant tax increases being imposed on the wealthy and corporations. The stand-off, in other words, could easily continue and result in the very cuts and tax increases everyone supposedly is working to achieve.
Either way, something bad is coming down the road for the US economy since the political system is now rigged to explode one way or the other with spending cuts and the expiration of the enormous tax cuts for the wealthy. The economy is already teetering on a recession, which after all would be a renewed downdraft in the ongoing depression that began in 2008. A major slowdown in China, and a credit crisis in Europe, are not helping either.
So while it is fashionable to claim this election reaffirmed the status quo, it did not. Republicans can persist in their fantasy of no new taxes as a means of reducing fiscal deficits, but this will strike at the very purpose of the party – to protect the privileges and wealth of the 1% of the country who just spent over $1 billion to influence this campaign. If no new taxes are imposed, then automatically the Bush tax cuts for the1% will disappear and the old rates on capital gains and death taxes will be reimposed.
Similarly, if Obama thinks he can strike a Grand Bargain, this time he has opposition within his own party. Obama may not find it easy to continue governing as if he was a conservative Republican. Beginning today, Democrats are going to start thinking about who they want to lead them in 2016, and what their party will stand for in that election. Obama may have a much easier time dealing with his own party if he returns to the White House as a Democrat rather than a conservative Republican. He may even have better chances with the electorate, since research shows the millions of Americans who don’t vote at all are awaiting someone to the left of both parties. He just won’t have very good chances with the Republicans, who could well dig in their heels and reject any compromise that involves tax increases. Obama will then be forced to make this the big issue in the 2014 elections.
But that would not be like Obama. He likes to pretend he is a centrist and a bipartisan figure of reason and compromise, no matter how many times the Republicans push him to the right just because he is desperate for the mantle of bipartisanship. He is a small-bore politician with small, tactical ideas, like tinkering with health care without really challenging the insurance companies and the 9% growth rate in costs per annum they have built into the system. He is not a man with a big picture or the willingness to fight for what he believes in, because like Mitt Romney, we aren’t sure what he believes in.
All of this is a recipe for more drift and little attention to pressing problems, like the need to confront climate change, turn around the trade deficit, rebuild the infrastructure, generate tax revenues, restore civil liberties, get rid of corrupt money in politics, maneuver internationally in a multi-polar world, and open up the government to more transparency, like he promised.
The best we can say about this election is Americans wind up with more political drift, but at least some of the extreme craziness and outright deceit that characterized the right, has been rejected for the time being.