Demographics + Economics = Obama
BU experts dissect president’s victory
In the end, it wasn’t so surprising.
Yes, some pundits predicted the fight of Barack Obama’s political life, and yes, a president governing amid persistent unemployment risks a pummeling at the polls. (FDR and Ronald Reagan were exceptions.) Yet Obama’s victory was foreseen by election eve handicappers who’d given him an edge in the battleground states that decided the contest.
The president won, says David Glick, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science, partly because of a building demographic wave that prompted GOP soul-searching: the burgeoning number of voters who lean Democratic, particularly Latinos.
“The Obama-Romney splits among blacks, Latinos, and Asians are really overwhelming,” says Glick. Exit polls showed the president winning 71 percent of the Hispanic vote and 73 percent of the Asian vote, groups whose numbers are mushrooming. Obama took 93 percent of the black vote.
“The real demographic story may be what happens with the Republicans,” Glick says. “It already appears that they are beginning an intraparty discussion of these issues. Whether the voices that say it’s impossible to win with an all-white coalition win out or not will likely shape a lot of politics in the upcoming years.”
Nor did the limping economy break for Mitt Romney, who tirelessly plugged his business experience. Glick and colleague Douglas Kriner, a CAS associate professor of political science, argue that the economy’s trend, rather than its current snapshot, mattered in the end.
“Unemployment is only one statistic,” says Kriner. “One of the more interesting statistics, to my mind, is Americans’ expectations for the future. Recent polls in this vein suggest that a good chunk of Americans, maybe a third, think the economy will be better in the next 12 months, while only a small percentage think it will get worse.” That optimism follows rebounds in job growth, financial markets, and housing since the worst of the recession, he says, and anyway, “a majority of Americans still blame Bush, not Obama, for the collapse.”
Romney was also hobbled by an economic issue of his own making, notes Dino Christenson, a CAS assistant professor of political science: the Republican opposed Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, a deeply unpopular stance in the Midwest, which just happened to be the location of key battleground states like Ohio and Wisconsin. And while unemployment remains hauntingly high nationally, voters filter such news through a partisan prism, says Christenson, with Democrats “more likely to see the economy as making great strides of late.”
That partisanship likewise affected Republicans, says Glick, who saw polling data showing many Republicans buying debunked allegations that government statisticians monkeyed with unemployment data to make it look better for the president.
Still, Obama’s win, magnified by the mathematical workings of the Electoral College, was a squeaker in the popular vote. Christenson chalks that up to tactics, with candidates “getting better at polling and focusing their vast campaign resources,” but Kriner says the race’s photo finish says more about the nation at this moment in history.
“We are an increasingly polarized country along partisan lines. Only in the most extreme cases”—he cites the 2008 election, featuring a retiring and unpopular incumbent presiding over costly wars and a financial crisis—“does it seem possible to have a race that is decided by more than a couple of points.”
If that suggests that Obama will find a mandate elusive in the next four years, Kriner readily agrees. “Neither candidate has run on a very clear and precise program of specific reforms.”48 Comments