2016 and the Coalition of the Uninspired

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It has now been over two months since the morning of Nov. 5, when President Obama awoke to the smoldering wreckage of failed Democratic campaigns left behind by the 2014 midterm elections. And the wreckage is impressive. Republicans took the Senate, gained their largest House majority since 1928, increased the number of governorships they hold to 31 and seized control of another 10 legislative bodies, growing the total number of Republican-controlled state chambers to 68. According to many Democrat strategists, this simply wasn’t supposed to be mathematically possible.

After the 2008 presidential election, Democrats crowed about their "coalition of the ascendant." The shorthand for this theory states that the winning Democratic coalition is made up of large demographic segments on the rise, which all but ensures electoral victories as far as the eye can see. Specifically, the theory points to increasingly strong showings for Democrats among Hispanics, women and young voters. Let’s begin with the first.

While it’s certain that Hispanic voters will constitute a progressively larger portion of the electorate for the foreseeable future, what’s now very much in doubt is whether Democrats will consistently win oversized majorities among Hispanic voters. Moving on, of course women will continue to make up 51 to 52 percent of the electorate. The problem for Democrats is that their efforts to replay their 2012 “war-on-women” strategy fell flat in 2014, which certainly calls into question its effectiveness in 2016. Lastly, there’s no question that the young people who voted in 2008 or 2012 will have many more elections to participate in over their life span. However, the left’s hope that younger voters will act like hatching ducklings, forever imprinted by the first presidential vote they cast, is proving largely incorrect. That makes sense when one considers that young voters inspired by “hope and change” in 2008 have been treated most harshly by the reality of the Obama economy. In short, the downside of this theory is that it relies on the Democratic share of these demographics increasing, or at least remaining static, and that simply wasn’t the case in 2010 or 2014. 

Of course, many Democrats will argue that presidential electorates are different from midterm electorates, and thus any comparison is apples to oranges at best. This seems reasonable until we look a little closer at presidential elections in the modern era. The catch is that the waning dominance by Democrats among young voters, minorities and women did not debut in 2014; it began in the 2012 presidential election. Here’s how.

Since the record of the popular vote has been kept, there has only been one president who has been re-elected to a second term with fewer raw votes than he received in his first race – President Barack Obama (FDR was elected to his third and fourth terms with fewer raw vote than his second, but this unique situation is hardly comparable to modern politics).


In 2008, riding a “hope and change” wave of his own making, then-Sen. Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, defeating John McCain handily, receiving 52.9 percent of the vote and a substantial 69,456,897 raw votes. Fast forward to 2012, and President Obama wins re-election despite a rocky first term, including a disastrous midterm election, defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by a comfortable 4 percent with a raw vote count of 65,917,258. Wait a second. That’s 3,539,639 fewer votes than Obama received in 2008. So, how is it possible that a president can win re-election by a relatively comfortable margin while receiving fewer raw votes than his first election? Enter Mitt Romney.

The numbers would strongly suggest that Romney’s candidacy took the Republican Party a step backwards in 2012. The data makes it hard to draw any other objective conclusion. Coming on the heels of the 2010 midterms, when Republicans took back the House, netting a historic 64 seats, it’s safe to say the GOP was well-positioned to take back the Oval Office in 2012. Additionally, both President Obama’s approval ratings and Obamacare were consistently in negative territory for the better part of 2012. However, despite these formidable advantages for Republicans, on Nov. 6, 2012, President Obama was easily re-elected. And that happened while the GOP held on to a significant majority in the House. Here’s why.

A simple data comparison is very telling. That comparison is the Romney raw vote vs. all votes for congressional Republicans in a given state. Crunching the numbers, Romney significantly underperformed the Republican congressional vote totals in multiple states. In North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin -- all presidential swing states -- Mitt Romney underperformed the total raw votes cast for all Republican congressional candidates by an average of 3 percent. That means that in 2012, an average of 55,000 Republican voters in each of these key swing states voted for the Republican congressional candidate but not for Mitt Romney. Whether these voters voted for Obama or skipped the presidential ballot is more difficult to determine, but we know for certain that they voted for the Republican candidate for Congress but did not vote for Romney. That’s simply remarkable.

In American politics it’s a given that in a presidential year, the presidential ballot drives turnout. Again, Obama is the only president to win a second term with fewer votes than he received in his first election. In the aftermath of a presidential election cycle, we often analyze the undervote, which refers to voters who vote for president but skip much or all of the remaining ballot. In 2012 we saw the undervote in reverse, and there’s very little analysis of this phenomena because it almost never happens. 

Compared to Bush and McCain’s average advantage over the Republican congressional vote totals in 2004 and 2008, Romney received 12.5 percent fewer votes in North Carolina, 8.3 percent fewer votes in Ohio, 13.1 percent fewer votes in Virginia and 5.7 percent fewer votes in Wisconsin. Even in Colorado, while Romney received 3.5 percent more raw votes than Colorado’s Republican congressional candidates, he still grossly underperformed Bush and McCain, who averaged 14.1 percent more votes than the Republican congressional candidates in 2004 and 2008. That’s a game changer. 


This all begs the question, why? Why did Mitt Romney trigger this response among voters clearly predisposed to vote Republican? If we look at history dating back a century, there are only four presidential election cycles where the total raw vote was less than that of the previous presidential election: 1940-1944, 1984-1988, 1992-1996 and 2008-2012. If we exclude the 1944 election due to the fact that 3.5 million eligible voters were fighting oversees in World War II, a clear picture emerges.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term in a landslide election over Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, winning every state except for Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Following the Reagan high of 1984, Republicans had a poor midterm election in 1986, losing the Senate and suffering further losses in the House. Then there was the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, which put President Reagan in the hot seat for much of the rest of his second term. Despite the negativity surrounding Republicans in 1986 and 1987, in 1988 the Democrats nominated a listless and uninspiring candidate in Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. George H. W. Bush went on to crush him, winning by 8 percent, even though an overall 1.1 million fewer votes were cast nationwide in comparison to 1984.

Turning to 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton pulled an upset, easily defeating Bush by 6 percent. Then tax increases and Hillary-care hit a very sour note with voters, resulting in a Democratic shellacking in the 1994 midterms, which saw Republicans win control of both the House and the Senate to gain the first Republican majority in Congress since the 1950s. Fast forward two years and President Bill Clinton defeats the very uninspiring campaign of Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. However, a significant 8.1 million fewer votes were cast compared to Clinton’s first election.

Lastly, on Nov. 4, 2008, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama defeated Arizona Sen. John McCain by 9.5 million votes. Then, in Clintonesque fashion, President Obama lurched left, passing Obamacare and all hell ensued for congressional Democrats, which, as mentioned earlier, resulted in a historic midterm election for Republicans. Heading into the 2012 presidential election, things were looking grim for President Obama as the health care law continued to sour along with the president’s promises regarding jobs and economic recovery. Yet, on Nov. 6, 2012, Obama defeated Romney by 4 percent, even though over 2 million fewer votes were cast than in 2008.


So, what do these three elections have in common? Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole and Mitt Romney, three nominees who form the coalition of the uninspired. All three not only failed to motivate swing voters, but actually depressed their own bases. Of course, we are now departing statistical analysis and heading into more subjective territory. Even so, the data clearly shows that in the modern era, both Democrats and Republicans have fallen short in presidential races in favorable political environments. The data demonstrates that such shortcomings cannot be explained through demographics alone. If that were true, Republican congressional candidates would not have over performed Romney in key battleground states. The presidency was in reach for Democrats in 1988, as it was for Republicans in 1996 and 2012, but once again we learn that candidates and campaigns matter. American voters want to believe in the person they vote for when casting a presidential ballot. In fact, they demand it, and in 2012, millions of them went as far as skipping the presidential ballot instead of voting for a candidate that left them uninspired. 

As we head into 2016, it’s crystal clear the Grand Old Party has an opportunity to put a Republican in the White House. The Democratic theory of the "coalition of the ascendant" lies on history’s cutting room floor. The GOP nomination is something of great value heading into 2016. That said, 1988, 1996 and 2012 stand as stark reminders that who Republicans nominate will make all the difference. It seems inevitable that should Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney run, they will both raise a great deal of money. What is not at all clear is whether or not their candidacies will inspire anyone. And the same could be said of the Democrats. Can Hillary Clinton inspire her own base, let alone swing voters? Would either a Romney-Clinton or Bush-Clinton contest be the ultimate exercise in voter suppression? Only time will tell, but with the past as prologue, neither of those contests are likely to light a fire with many voters. 

Wes Anderson is a leading GOP pollster with over 20 years of experience in opinion research. As a founding partner Wes now leads the polling divisions of OnMessage Inc. and OnMessage Sports.

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