Politics & Policy

Lessons Learned

What can we learn from Election 2012? Some reflections

What can we learn from Election 2012? Some reflections: 


Some are feeling despair: If Republicans gave it their all, and couldn’t beat a polarizing president in a terrible economy, maybe they can never win again.This is bad political analysis, for four reasons. First, many perceive the economy as no worse than when Obama took office, and so they don’t see him as incompetent. Months ago, several political-science models that emphasize economic factors predicted a slender incumbent victory. Second, Obama won with 51 percent, which even the New York Times headlines acknowledged was a slim win. Third, Romney mobilized fewer votes overall than McCain four years ago, which means that Republicans didn’t really give it their all, and have room to grow. That explains some down-ticket losses as well as the defeat for the presidency.

Finally, ask yourself: What Democrat with national stature will be able to replicate Obama’s ability to enthuse and mobilize such a wide and deep coalition? Not Biden, not any of the congressional leaders, nor the governor of any large state. In contrast, we can already see Rubio, Ryan, and (yes) Christie on the GOP side.

Conservatives have a lot to worry about over the next four years. Permanent minority status is not one of them.

— Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.


Mitt Romney ran an excellent campaign. I congratulate him on investing in the hard work of leadership rather than living it up in some island paradise. He is an American hero. Regrettably, he was the wrong person to run in a year when the single greatest challenge Republicans could make rested on the repeal of Obamacare. Anti-Obamacare sentiment was enough to elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts. It might well have been enough to put the right Republican over the top nationwide. But Mitt Romney could not make a convincing case against Obama’s law when it so closely resembled his own work in Massachusetts. His federalism distinction was technically accurate, but it made little sense to the typical voter, who just saw an apple that looked like the apple everyone was yelling about.

We may also have learned something about Americans and religion. Romney underperformed McCain by 2 to 3 million votes. That is astonishing. President Obama’s support practically collapsed, as he brought in about 9 million fewer votes than in 2008. Had Romney been able to build on McCain’s overall base, he would probably have won the popular vote and possibly the White House. I can think of a couple of theories to explain Romney’s underperformance in total votes. One is that many conservatives refused to vote for a moderate Northeastern former governor who was the prime catalyst for a huge government health plan in his state. The second theory is less attractive. Many Republican voters may have refused to support a member of the LDS faith.

Third, it is clear Republicans must crack the code of appealing to minorities. They lost African-Americans, as usual. But the GOP also performed terribly with Hispanics and — to my surprise — with Asian-Americans. Somehow, Republicans have ended up on the wrong end of some kind of us v. them notion regarding race that is totally unjustified, but apparently has some currency of perception. This issue may have to become the top priority, because it is by far the best way to change the electoral math. I don’t have the answer here, but it is time for a Manhattan Project for Republicans on breaking down the racial barriers in a durable fashion.

Finally (and related to the third point), I have also concluded that George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” has been the recipient of too much vitriol. In this race, Mitt Romney did not have a rhetorical or programmatic shield to protect him from the usual charge of Republican unconcern for the plight of ordinary Americans (and minority Americans). George W. Bush’s campaign was able to argue effectively for the role of civil society in addressing the problems of those who fall behind. In Britain, David Cameron argued from similar premises with his Big Society (as opposed to Big Government) and became prime minister. Back in Bush’s first term, I can recall NPR liberals complaining about the compelling nature of the conservative social-science arguments on the ability of marriage and family to blunt social pathologies, increase economic mobility, and break cycles of poverty. I didn’t hear many of those arguments this time around. I think it is time to revisit them.

— Hunter Baker is associate professor of political science at Union University and author of the forthcoming The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.


The hardest thing for conservative elites to assimilate from this election is the rejection of Romney’s economic message by the voters. At a time of high unemployment, with four years of economic failure and burgeoning deficits, it should have been impossible for Obama to win reelection.

The fundamental problem is that the middle class did not hear the conservative economic message as addressing directly their two primary anxieties: unstable employment and a decline in real income.

Here is the current disconnect in a nutshell: 37 percent of voters in exit polls named rising prices as the biggest economic problem, basically tied with the 38 percent who named unemployment (only 15 percent named the deficit, and 14 percent named taxes). It is time for the conservative movement to think seriously about the forgotten prong of the Reagan economic agenda: better monetary policy — specifically, a gold-linked dollar as a means of fiscal discipline and price stability. In reality, as well as politically, only a program of monetary reform can provide a plausible case that wage-earners will not continue to fall behind, that steady and consistent growth will not be undermined by the fiscal policies of government.

Finally, in addition to appealing to Latinos, it is critical that the GOP get the social issues right. The truce strategy is the most politically ineffectual position possible. Republicans this election cycle adopted pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-religious-liberty positions while showing voters they would not publicly promote or defend them. This enables liberals to define the public debate on social issues on their terms, not ours.

So we argue social issues on our weakest political ground (rape exceptions) and take a political hit, while reaping none of the political benefits the social issues have in attracting new voters (including Latinos) into the coalition.

An economic policy that addresses middle-class economic decline, a more substantive appeal to Latinos, and an integrated American conservatism that defends fundamental values fearlessly: That’s the pathway to victory moving forward.

— Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project.


To extract lessons from this election from the Catholic perspective, one need look no further than Ohio. In exit polls, 25 percent of voters identified themselves as Catholic, and they went 55 percent for Romney and a mere 44 percent for Obama. These numbers are quite different from the national Catholic vote, which split pretty evenly, and it is highly unusual for the Catholic vote not to be with the winner. The spread favors Romney even more among church-going Ohio Catholics. Why so different in Ohio? The Life and Liberty coalition had an extensive grassroots ground game in Ohio. Where the battle was fully engaged, where voters saw the stark contrast between the two candidates on life issues and religious liberty, the outcome was different.

The next lesson does not apply only to Catholics. Catholic outreach needs to include a strong emphasis on Hispanic Catholic outreach. Forty percent of Catholics are Hispanic. The Church teaches us to be welcoming to the immigrant — this is a natural complement to the pro-family, pro-religious-liberty, pro-life coalition. We must find a way to do this better — it is likely to be a major policy debate in the years to come, and the Hispanic population continues to grow as a key constituency in American politics and in the pews.

— Maureen Ferguson is senior policy adviser for the Catholic Association.


It’s virtually impossible to construct a conservative political majority out of a liberal culture. Thus — paraphrasing Daenerys Targaryen from George R. R. Martin’s outstanding Game of Thrones books — to go forward, we must go back. We must go back to the hard work of rebuilding our culture. Can conservatives truly hope to prevail if we can’t arrest the growth of illegitimacy and the decline of marriage? Or if we leave the education of our children to those who reject and scorn conservative values? Or if the entire pop culture outside the conservative cocoon reinforces that scorn?

Even a singular political talent like Ronald Reagan would have difficulty winning in our current cultural environment. Yet conforming is not an option. Conservatives should reject any political movement that responds to negative cultural changes simply by making peace with those changes and becoming merely a slightly less malign cultural force.

In essence, we must become a missionary force in our own culture. We can’t outsource cultural transformation to even the most charismatic politician. Our liberal friends don’t read our websites, watch our television, or listen to our radio, but perhaps they’ll listen to the neighbor who brought them a hot meal when their mother was sick, or to the co-worker who stayed late to help them meet an urgent deadline.

At the risk of lurching from geekery (the Game of Thrones reference above) to the trite, I’m reminded of the somewhat silly, yet also profound, “Southwest [Airlines] Way” — where employees are asked to demonstrate a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude. In true conservative spirit, we can learn a lot from the culture of one of America’s most successful businesses. After all, as Ronald Reagan understands better than anyone, there’s no warrior quite as effective as the happy warrior.

— David French is co-founder of Evangelicals for Mitt.


After President George H. W. Bush led the nation to victory in the 1991 Gulf War, some Republicans thought that they would get a political bonanza. Representative Mickey Edwards (R., Okla.) was skeptical. Warning against “our own tendency to engage in wishful thinking,” he said: “The fact is, voters think what they think, not what we want them to think.” Bush’s 1992 defeat confirmed the wisdom of that observation.

It’s even wiser today. During the 2012 campaign, conservatives and Republicans generally fell prey to wishful thinking. We often heard that beating President Obama would be a cinch if only the GOP had the right message and messenger. As I wrote here in September, it was never going to be a cinch. Incumbent presidents are hard to beat, especially when the economy is growing, albeit slowly.

In the future, we have to pay attention even when the polls tell us things we don’t like.

But just as we have to guard against wishful thinking, we also have to beware the current temptation to despair. Yes, President Obama won a victory, but he barely topped a majority of the popular vote, and his share of the electoral vote was actually below average for a winning candidate. Republicans held the House, where they will serve as a check on the president.

Thank you, James Madison.

—  John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.


The 2012 election both was sobering for conservatives and provides a path forward.

First, voters of faith turned out in record numbers, and they voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney. Conservative Christians made up 29 percent of the electorate and voted 80 percent for Mitt Romney and only 19 percent for Barack Obama. Evangelicals turned out in the largest numbers ever recorded in a modern presidential election and voted as heavily for Romney as they did for George W. Bush, a fellow evangelical. Few would have predicted that outcome even a few months ago. Faithful Mass-attending Catholics made up another 10 percent of the electorate, and they voted 67 percent for Romney and only 32 percent for Obama. These two groups — faithful Catholics and evangelicals — gave Romney 59.7 percent of all the votes he received.

But it wasn’t enough. Romney underperformed with younger voters, Hispanics, Asians, single women, and African-Americans. Given the increasing diversity of the country and the demographic realities of a majority-minority population by the year 2050, Republicans must do better among these non-traditional voting groups.

The good news is that many of them share our conservative principles. According to a post-election survey by Public Opinion Strategies, for example, 32 percent of Hispanic voters identify themselves as evangelicals or conservative Christians. The next GOP presidential nominee must win at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Adding entrepreneurial Hispanics and women who own their own small businesses to the one-third of Latinos who are conservative Christians would add approximately 4 percent to the national popular vote for a conservative candidate.

We must not surrender our core conservative principles. But we must recruit and run candidates who can appeal to voters who ve not always felt welcome in our ranks. That work begins now.

― Ralph Reed is president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. 


Romney lost because of Obama’s dominance in the ad wars (in terms both of number of ads aired and their effectiveness in moving the vote) and the far more sophisticated and effective GOTV efforts on the Left.

The crafts of campaigns and campaigning, argument and persuasion, are currently driven on our side by static microtargeting models, good storytelling, and political palm-reading done with dials and polls and robo-calls instead of solid, thoughtful science.

Voting is an act born not of cost-benefit analysis but primarily of social motivations. And, as I’ve written before, with great anxiety, Progressives understand this, have studied this seriously, and have worked hard to perfect the science and art of persuasion and turnout.

The conservative/free-market movement and the Republican party need to take social science seriously and catch up as quickly as possible on this front.

It won’t be easy; Progressives have a huge reservoir of social/behavioral scientists who can move back and forth between academia and politics. We don’t, so we will have to do more with less as we build our capacities.

Here’s what we need to do:

1. Experiments, experiments, experiments. And I mean careful randomized, controlled experiments and serious analysis of the data. Message experiments within online surveys, big data experiments online, field experiments, and blended online/field experiments. Big ones, small ones, simple and complicated. Test everything. Testing isn’t an add-on or a luxury, it is a necessity. We need to move from the Era of Gurus into the Era of Science.

2. Identify young social scientists to recruit to our causes and encourage and support graduate education in political psychology/behavior, psychology, etc.

3. Don’t write off the American public. I’ve heard a lot of despair and bitterness about the fact that voters returned Obama to the White House. We can’t give up on our country. The answer is to work harder, to work smarter, to explain more effectively what’s right and why, and to make sure every last voter on our side goes out and votes. Every time.

— Adam Schaeffer is co-founder and director of research at Evolving Strategies.


There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Despite my prediction earlier this week that the War on Women narrative would backfire and the GOP would increase its margin of the female vote, the election was a disaster when it came to women.

Romney did almost no better with women than John McCain did in 2008. He did approximately the same with married women (a core constituency for Republicans), and Obama once again had a landslide victory with unmarried women.

Sadly, the GOP lost all the gains on this front that it made during the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans managed to close the gender gap and elect a slew of strong, conservative female lawmakers to the House, the Senate, and state legislatures.

Conservatives shy away from playing gender politics — which is a good thing — but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to think seriously about how to talk to women.

It’s certainly our goal at the Independent Women’s Forum to reach women about how limited government, personal responsibility, and free markets will actually give them more freedom, more choice, more opportunity, and more security.

The bottom line is that conservatives — and, by extension. Republicans — have a great message, but it’s not reaching voters. As Adam Schaeffer wrote (above) there is a giant need for more experimentation; but Republicans have to develop a respect for organizing and turnout efforts comparable to the Democrats’.

In the end, we need to get out there and talk face-to-face to women and make it clear that Liberty Is No War on Women.

— Sabrina Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum and co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women.



This is not a lesson learned, but it bears repeating as context: It’s an uphill climb against a demagogue with a loose relationship with the truth, working in the warm bath of the Fourth Estate Booster Club. In this election, we saw life-ending drugs falsely touted as “women’s health”; radical abrogation of conscience rights promoted as “compromise”; and opposition to protection for infants born alive promoted as “compassion.” And the result was that 67  percent of single women voted for the Abortion President. We have serious work to do.

We know that abortion harms women. But apparently these women do not. In the middle of the election season Tonya Reeves, a young black mother, died from a botched abortion. Tonya walked into a Planned Parenthood facility on Michigan Avenue in Chicago — the president’s back yard — and was left to hemorrhage, right across the street from the Art Institute, for five hours before her death. The self-appointed arbiters of women’s well-being organized no marches and no demonstrations, and called for no investigations. The president said nothing.

What did we learn in this election? We learned that Tonya Reeves did not look like Barack Obama’s daughters. And if he won’t defend her, we will.

― Charmaine Yoest is president of Americans United for Life.

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