Boston University Arts & Sciences

CAS News

Reflections on the 2012 Presidential Election

Doug Kriner


It is hard to escape invocations of Ronald Reagan in the 2012 race. From the earliest days of the contest for the Republican nomination, a succeeding string of GOP hopefuls has endeavored to cast himself or herself as the true heir to the Reagan Revolution. Yet, perhaps the candidate who would most like to emulate Reagan in this electoral cycle is President Obama: that is, he would like to pull off the electoral feat achieved by the Gipper in 1984. Since World War II, four presidents have sought reelection with an unemployment rate over 7 percent (1976, 1980, 1984, and 1992). Only President Reagan emerged victorious.

Given the ultimate electoral and popular vote landslide, it is difficult to remember that President Reagan looked vulnerable in early 1984. The President won a significant legislative victory—a dramatic slashing of income tax rates—in 1981; but rather than stimulating rapid economic growth, the economy slid into a deep recession in 1982. In late fall of 1983, the President's approval ratings sagged below 50 percent in most polls. And in early 1984, Reagan suffered a humiliating foreign policy defeat as he was forced to order the withdrawal of American Marines from Beirut following sustained attacks from members of both parties of Congress in the aftermath of the October 1983 barracks bombing, the deadliest day for the U.S. Marine Corps since Iwo Jima.     

How did Reagan pull off the dramatic turnaround and what are the lessons for Obama? President Clinton's campaign guru James Carville famously said of presidential elections, "It's the economy, stupid!" At first blush, the economy seems unable to explain Reagan's reversal of fortune—unemployment was stubbornly high, after all. However, upon further inspection, the economy may, indeed, have played a key role. One of the major themes of the Reagan '84 campaign was that it was once again "morning in America." And many believed him. Although unemployment was high, measures of consumer perceptions of the economy were rebounding quickly. Most Americans believed that the economic situation was rapidly improving and this rosy outlook almost certainly buoyed Reagan's fortunes at the polls. 

So where does this leave President Obama? As of January 2012, unemployment sits at 8.3 percent, higher than it was in 1984. As of February, the University of Michigan's Index of Consumer Sentiment had risen to a 12-month high. However, its raw level remains closer to the figure when presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush lost reelection bids in 1980 and 1992, respectively, than to where it sat when President Reagan coasted to reelection in 1984. A lot can change in eight months' time; history suggests that whether consumer confidence grows or fades may well determine whether Obama is granted another four years in office.

Andrew Reeves

Like most elections, the 2012 election will be about the economy.

While most academics and pundits focus on the national economy, it is important to consider the experiences of voters in their local communities. In research with James Gimpel, we examined unemployment, home foreclosure rates, and gas prices across American communities.

We found that these local factors significantly influenced attitudes toward the national economy. What was also striking was the tremendous economic variation across the country. For instance, voters in North Dakota saw home foreclosures up less than one percent from July to October of 2008, while voters in Nevada saw a bone-rattling 76 percent increase in this same period. More recent unemployment numbers show that there are still tremendous differences in economic experiences across in the country. For instance, unemployment in Imperial County, California, sits at nearly 30 percent. Meanwhile, Cass County, North Dakota, is well below the national average at 6 percent. Whatever the economic variable, national statistics mask the diversity of experiences seen by voters in this country. I think this will be true again in 2012. 

National statistics matter, but they do little to inform the day-to-day lives of voters. Driving by shuttered homes foreclosed by the banks, seeing friends and family unable to find work, and working more to pay for gas may influence voters just as much as reports of the national unemployment rate.

Dino P. Christenson

The Dynamic Nomination Process

The presidential nomination process is in flux and so, too, is our understanding of which factors bring about nomination success. The most recent changes have come in the form of adjustments to the schedule of state contests. Nomination campaigns have become increasingly front-loaded, compressed, and nationalized, making the earliest stage of the campaign—what is also termed the invisible primary or the exhibition season—a powerful force in the selection of party nominees for president. In the modern campaign, candidates for nomination often withdraw in this period and party nominations are clinched within, what was until recently, mostly shorter and shorter time periods. Recent scholarship emphasizes that a candidate's early elite endorsements, level of funding, and national political support in the pre-primary largely determine who gets the nod. As a result, long-shots have less of a chance to compete with early front-runners, which has led some scholars to conclude that parties have virtually reversed the electoral reforms of the late 1960s that curbed party control and opened up the nomination to the public.

Today, a host of persistent contenders in the 2012 nomination contests are bucking the trend. The currently dominant political science perspective suggests that Romney, the early front-runner, should have clinched the nomination long ago. Instead, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul have all managed to stay in the game by collecting delegates and making substantial inroads among the Republican primary electorate. As of Super Tuesday, these three candidates remain committed to challenging the small but increasing lead of the party's anointed front-runner. What explains this drawn out and competitive campaign? 

At least two possibilities merit some attention. The first is the Citizen's United decision, which opened up the floodgates of campaign finance. This ruling has led to the creation of new political action committees, known commonly as Super PACs. Funded by corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals, these supposedly independent organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money supporting a candidate or—what seems to be more the case this year—slinging the proverbial mud at the other candidates. The media bombardment from Super PACs may allow contenders without a great deal of popular support to appear viable to the public or make front-runners appear vulnerable, potentially elongating the competition in the primary season.  

The second is the Internet. This is not the first set of nomination candidates to take advantage of the new media, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there are substantial benefits to the long-shot candidates. Today, as in the past, candidates in a nomination campaign must fundraise, organize their campaigns in multiple states, and broadcast their message across the country. Historically, to do so required a great deal of money, travel, and staff. The party's early favorite typically had a huge advantage. Today, all of this can be done with relatively little money via the Internet, thereby leveling the playing field.  

In all, it appears that changes in campaign finance rules and recent technological advancements have lowered the barrier of entry into the nomination campaign for outsider candidates and allowed them to stay afloat even longer. Whether 2012 will be evidence of a come-from-behind victory as a result of these structural changes is anybody's guess, but one thing is for sure: the nomination game is changing and so too are the factors that drive the outcome. 

David Glick

As the courts person, I'll be keeping an eye on how the campaign—both the politicians and the media—brings the upcoming health care debate into play. Whatever happens, one side is going be very upset with the courts, and it will be interesting to see how much respect they show for the judiciary. What would be even more interesting is if the court plays the "legitimating" role some scholars ascribe to it and essentially ends the debate. In other words, if the court upholds health care, will it go away as an issue? I doubt it. As interesting will be how the complex issues of federalism, limited powers, and decades of Constitutional development are turned into campaign rhetoric. I suspect the popular debate will have very little to do with the actual issues in the courts, and I'll keep an eye on how the legal issues are framed in the campaign.

Return to the Newsletter

Keep Us in the Loop

Let us know about news or upcoming events. Please send news items to, or call Megan Maynard Winderbaum at 617-353-2540.

Boston University

Boston University
Arts & Sciences
725 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215