Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:39 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:39 | SYDNEY

A dismal, myopic campaign ends


Nick Bryant


8 November 2012 09:57

So Barack Obama has become only the second Democratic President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win re-election, although there is little of the same sense of history, excitement or possibility that marked his victory four years ago.

The 'Yes, we can' candidate seen in 2008 ended up fighting a mainly negative campaign. Based on the fear of a Romney presidency rather than the hope of an Obama second term, at times he took the low road rather than scaling the mountaintops as he did four years ago. Vague about his plans for the next four years, he can hardly claim a ringing mandate.

That will certainly be the view of a hostile House of Representatives, still controlled by the Republicans, and GOP Senators, who can thwart him with the filibuster. The dysfunction of Washington, where brinkmanship has replaced bipartisanship, looks set to continue.

Broadly speaking, this was indeed a status quo election. But worryingly for the White House, congressional Republicans are even more partisan. Leading moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana, will not be returning to Capitol Hill after Christmas. Looking ahead to the 2014 mid-term elections, the situation in the Senate could significantly worsen, since Democrats are defending more vulnerable seats than the Republicans.

Now that the Republicans' strategy of obstructionism has failed to limit Obama to one term (the stated aim of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), perhaps there will be more compromise. The ongoing negotiations over the so-called 'fiscal cliff' will be a crucial test.

Wrong side of demography

For the GOP, Romney's defeat is a massive loss. No president since Roosevelt has won re-election when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%, and presently it stands at 7.9% (though crucially it stands at 7% in Ohio). This should have been their year. Worryingly for the GOP, it is hard to think of an alternative Republican out of 2012's lacklustre field of candidates who could have performed better.

The Republicans really are on the wrong side of demography. In 2008, 67% of Hispanics voted for Obama. Romney did even worse, winning only 27% of the Hispanic vote. Hispanics now make up America's largest minority. In 1992, as the BBC's Jonny Dymond notes, they made up 2% of the electorate. Now its 10%.

The GOP's success in the late sixties to late eighties, when it won five out of six presidential elections, was based on the 'southern strategy', targeted at disgruntled white voters. Now it needs a Nevada strategy (a once reliably Republican state trending Democrat, where Hispanic population has grown 80% over the past ten years) or a California strategy.

Certainly, the party needs to reach out to new constituencies. Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, puts it best: 'We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.'

A national election?

Oh for the races of old, voters in the battleground states must be thinking, after being carpet-bombed these past few months with negative advertising and presidential candidates. The battleground is shrinking to such an extent, as Adam Liptak notes, that this is no longer truly a national election. To bastardise Obama, it is not a blue states of America, or a red states of America, but a battleground states of America. In 1960 and 1976, 30 states were up for grabs. This year the focus has been on just ten: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The political myopia is depressing turn-out, as Liptak notes, and having a distorting effect on policy. The biggest states in the union, New York and California, are completely ignored.

Small wonder that veteran commentators like Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker have repeated their calls for a national popular vote, something, of course, which will never happen.To boost turn-out, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has even called for America to adopt Australia's compulsory form of voting. Again, a non-starter.


I was among the many commentators who argued that, historically speaking, the televised debates rarely deserved the hype they now receive. This time, the first debate really did alter the dynamics of the race, though not enough, we will continue to note, to alter the outcome.

The debates do seem to growing in importance, perhaps because we are seeing the marrying of political culture and popular culture: an 'American Idol' effect. Television talent shows, in harness with social media, have greatly empowered viewers. They are also very in-the-moment; the focus is on a singular performance, rather than on what has come before. Is not the same now true of the televised debates? It helps explain why, in the space of ninety minutes, Romney could successfully reposition himself as 'Moderate Mitt'. We also saw something similar in the Republican primaries, where the 27 debates constantly changed the complexion of the race and made it so volatile.

Good policy makes good politics

It is an old adage in political circles, and one that seems to have been borne out by this election. A key moment of this race came not in 2012, but 2009 with the bail-out of the auto industry. It helped keep Michigan, Romney's home state, solidly Democratic. Crucially, it helped Obama win Ohio. We talked before the election about Obama's 'Midwest firewall'. The auto bail-out was one of the main reasons why it proved so flame-resistant.

Big issues

The fiscal cliff was barely discussed, nor climate change until Super Storm Sandy ripped through the north-eastern seaboard. Contrast that with the lavish coverage of trivialities, like the treatment of Romney's pooch, and 'gotcha moments' like the 47% tape. Foreign affairs hardly got a look in.

Overall, this was a fairly dismal campaign. As I have written elsewhere, for those predicting America's decline, this campaign will not only have provided new footnotes, but entire new chapters.