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Michael Barone
Michael Barone
12 Feb 2016
New Hampshire's Rebuke

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Obama's Numbers Went Down, but Romney Never Inspired Voters to Vote


In combing through the results of the 2012 election — apparently finally complete, nearly two months after the fact — I continue to find many similarities between 2012 and 2004, and one enormous difference.

Both of the elections involved incumbent presidents with approval ratings hovering around or just under 50 percent facing challengers who were rich men from Massachusetts (though one made his money and the other married it).

In both cases, the challenger and his campaign seemed confident he was going to win — and had reasonable grounds to believe so.

In both elections, the incumbent started running a barrage of negative ads defining the challenger in the spring. And in both elections, the incumbent had at least one spotty debate performance.

In both elections, each candidate concentrated on a more or less fixed list of target states, and in both elections the challenger depended heavily on outside groups' spending that failed to achieve optimal results.

The popular vote margins were similar — 51 to 48 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, 51 to 47 percent for Barack Obama in 2012.

The one enormous difference was turnout. Turnout between the 2000 and 2004 elections rose from 105 million to 122 million — plus 16 percent. Turnout between the 2008 and 2012 elections fell from 131 million to 128 million — minus 2 percent.

Turnout is a measure of organization but also of spontaneous enthusiasm.

In 2004, John Kerry got 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore had four years before. But he lost because George W. Bush got 23 percent more popular votes than he had four years before.

Kerry voters were motivated more by negative feelings for Bush than by positive feelings for their candidate. They disagreed with Bush's major policies and disliked him personally. The Texas twang, the swagger, the garbled sentence structure — it was like hearing someone scratch his fingers on a blackboard.

Bush voters were more positively motivated. Political reporters had a hard time picking this up. His job rating was weak, but Bush voters tended to have a lot of warmth for him.

He had carried us through 9/11, he had confronted our enemies directly, he had pushed through with bipartisan support popular domestic measures like his education bill and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

His criticism of his opponents was measured and never personal, and he blamed none of his difficulties on his predecessor (who had blamed none of his on his).

This affection evaporated pretty quickly, in the summer of 2005, with scenes of disorder in the streets of Baghdad and New Orleans. But it was there in 2004, and you can see it in that 23 percent turnout increase.

The 2012 election was different. Barack Obama got 6 percent fewer popular votes than he had gotten in 2008. And Mitt Romney got only 1 percent more popular votes than John McCain had four years before.

In retrospect, it looks like both campaigns fell short of their turnout goals. Yes, examination of election returns and exit polls indicates that the Obama campaign turned out voters where it really needed them.

That enabled him to carry Florida by 1 percent, Ohio by 3 percent, Virginia by 4 percent, and Colorado and Pennsylvania by 5 percent. Without those states, he would have gotten only 243 electoral votes and would now be planning his presidential library.

But the conservative bloggers who argued that the Obama campaign's early voting numbers were below target may have been right. If Mitt Romney had gotten 16 percent more popular votes than his predecessor, as John Kerry did, he would have led Obama by 4 million votes and won the popular vote 51 to 48 percent.

Romney, like Kerry, depended on voters' distaste for the incumbent; he could not hope to inspire the devotion Bush enjoyed in 2004 and that Obama had from a diminished number in 2008.

But to continue this counterfactual scenario, if Obama had won 23 percent more popular votes this year than in 2008, he would have beaten Romney by 85 million to 69 million votes and by 54 to 44 percent.

In reality, Obama's vote and percentage went down. Considering what happened in Bush's second term, that suggests a course of caution and wariness for the re-elected president and his party.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




5 Comments | Post Comment
You can analyse the election results all you want but does it really matter? No election will be the same as this one was. I'd focus more on how to re-shape the party to win elections in the future. Hint: it involves getting out of wars and foreign messes.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Thu Dec 27, 2012 6:34 AM
Sir;... Ditto Chris; but then your excuse for running up the debt making your friends rich would end...There were many ways in which Mr. Romoney blew the election; but his friends in the media along with other republican candidates absolutely energized the democrats... If you knew better how to call a spade a spade in a more reviling way, none of you showed it... You did not have to get out the hard core knucklehead republicans, so you should have worked more at bringing around a few fence sitters, and instead, you drove people away...You do what you think you are paid for... I get it... Simply consider the next time, that we are not the enemy, and we are not stupid, and we have rights and especially a right to our opinion, which we vote...If you do not like some of what the democrat party stands for and has done, then be specific and be willing to advance a rational argument for your case...Do not forget that the emotional argument has a place, but that it works both ways...And that is all that you offered: Junk arguments for republican junkies... So you lose... If you do not figure out how to fix your party, give up on fixing America...
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Dec 27, 2012 4:01 PM
Mr. Sweeney. Your argument seems to run counter to what the article states. You propose that the media and other Republican nominees energized Democrats but the article stipulates President Obama lost voters. You state "Simply consider the next time that we are not the enemy, and we are not stupid, and we have rights and especially a right to our opinion, which we vote" yet you seem to be the one who is constantly berating Conservatives for their opinion. You also state "but then your excuse for running up the debt making your friends rich would end..." and yet you ignore President Obama running up the debt while making his donors rich. Once again you are the one who is providing the "junk argument".
Comment: #3
Posted by: david
Fri Dec 28, 2012 9:26 AM
This is true. Obama made a lot of people rich and gave out subsidies like candy to his donors. Of course in cases like solyndra, it wasen't the investors that lost their money like they should have, it was the taxpayers who foot the bill. Obama has a long, long track record of protecting his cronies. Reps and dems are both parties of the rich, they just have different rich friends.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Dec 28, 2012 9:34 AM
Re: david.... Mr.Obama had some facts working in his favor, but the biggest fact was human psychology... People and expecially men nearly always refuse to admit a mistake, and if given the opportunity will almost always make the same mistake twice rather than change their ways, and this worked to the re-election of Mr. Bush the lesser, for one example...
People are very conservative, fear change, and will usually stick with the devil they know rather than vote for the unknown... Still, it was close, and some times in doubt when it should never have been -given the economy and the way Mr. Obama tried to govern from the non existent center and be everybody's president..
Mr. Romoney could have made a great case for change and himself as the agent of change, if the change he offered was not un-change, a return to the status quo ante...The need for real change in our society is evident and that need elected Mr. Obama to begin with... Mr. Romoney could have been more forthcoming about his plans if he had any, and let the people decide... He could have done more to prove his personal honor with a show of his income taxes, and it is true that we look at wealth as honor and poverty as dishonor, but we need that evidence before making a critical choice and it cannot be taken for granted...
Now, we had no reason to vote for Mr. Obama, and every reason to stay home... The stuffed shirts and pundits of the right put the cart of celebration before the horse of election... We all did the same thing with the child of Bush..When we called him a clown and a monkey we all but made certain that former Bush voters whould again vote for him...The particular attacks upon Mr Obama, attacking his age, his intelligence, his morality, and his citizenship are echoes of attacks always made against blacks in part going all the way back to Dred Scott...I think, that more than anything Mr. Romeny did or said or did not do, or did not say, that these constant attacks often repeated by the reliable right religious fringe were the most telling cause of the election of Mr. Obama against long odds... It may be that few numbers voted for Mr. Obama; but as a result of government actions to limit the vote, many people over came obstruction and stood in long lines for many hours to cast their vote... Do you think they were not voting against the very impediments placed in their way by republicans??? There is a lesson in respect and civility here that should not be lost by either side...
Even if you believe some one suffers their ignorance as penalty for their immorality; before you can heal the sick you must forgive them... What does it take to forgive your fellow Americans by thinking their ignorance was honestly arrived at... I attack these pundits for pushing nonsense and prejudice, but I do not attack citizens for believing as is their right when they have not had an opportunity to be exposed to other lines of thought...
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Dec 29, 2012 7:40 AM
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