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Jumping to Conclusions on the 2012 Elections

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
The winner of the presidential election will almost certainly see his victory as confirmation that Americans support his agenda, ignoring what is likely to be a split decision in the Congressional elections and a presidential election that shows the country evenly divided, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

If there is one thing that you can probably bet on, it is that the winners and losers in today’s balloting will draw the wrong conclusions from the outcome.

The winner of the presidential election — of 270 votes in the Electoral College — will almost certainly see his victory as confirmation that Americans support his agenda, ignoring what is likely to be a split decision in the Congressional elections and a presidential election that shows the country evenly divided.

Yes, the victor gets the right to govern, but instead of the tight contest producing humility and modesty in the camp of the winner, it is likely to be misinterpreted as some sort of ringing mandate. That’s what George W. Bush did after the 2000 election, even though he lost the popular vote to Al Gore.

The losing side will find somebody or something to blame — the media, racism, state voting laws, Hurricane Sandy, super PACs and “outside” money, its own nominee or the lies of the opposition — to explain away the loss. First, there will be disappointment and anger, and then there will be plenty of finger-pointing.

The same goes for House and Senate candidates. Will Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) believe she won re-election because voters approved of her performance or because voters thought she wasn’t as bad an alternative as Republican Rep. Todd Akin? And if she understands that she won only because of Akin, will that affect how she votes during the next six years?

Whatever happens in the presidential contest and in the fight to control Congress, there is no reason to believe that we will enter a new era of cooperation and civility. Bipartisan reaction to the destruction in the Northeast notwithstanding, the two parties have very different views about government and plenty of talking heads who are quite happy to accuse each other of lying and cheating.

Whatever tonight’s results, pollsters will find themselves under the microscope. In a number of races, Democratic and Republican pollsters are producing quite different data, and all of them can’t be right.

In the Indiana Senate race, for example, GOP pollster John McLaughlin showed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) running even or a couple of points ahead of Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) late last week, while Democratic polling had Donnelly well ahead, as did a bipartisan Howey/DePauw poll conducted by Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research (a GOP firm) and Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research (a Democratic firm).

While there are questions about the cycle’s polling, there are some things that are indisputable.

Whether President Barack Obama wins a second term or Mitt Romney pulls out a narrow victory, Republicans would be wise to confront the obvious conclusion that they can’t expect to win future presidential elections unless they start to improve their standing with non-white voters.

Whether that means making inroads into the African-American community or, more likely, gaining ground with Hispanics and Asians, the GOP electoral strategy must change as the nation’s demographics do.

Something else that should change but almost certainly won’t is how journalists talk about “women” voters.

Over and over again, we have heard about Romney’s problems with women and female voters. This is baloney, even though, if Romney loses, you will hear some television personality tonight pointing to the gender gap and crediting the president’s victory to “women.”

Romney, like other recent Republican presidential nominees, has problems with black and Hispanic women, not with female voters in general.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lost his 2008 bid for the White House by more than 7 points, won white women by 7 points, and the Pew Research Center’s Oct. 24-28 poll showed Romney leading by 15 points among white women (54 percent to 39 percent) even as he trailed among women in general by 6 points (50 percent to 44 percent).

Yes, there is a fundamental gender gap — white women are less Republican than white men — but that is not the GOP’s real problem because white voters of both genders favored McCain and will favor Romney by even larger margins today.

Now, I understand that it is in the interest of liberal women’s groups (and Democratic talking heads) to create the impression that all women agree with their agenda and that “women” oppose Romney — in part because of his position on abortion — but when it comes to voting behavior, it is simply misleading to ignore the racial aspects of gender.

Finally, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the last election we will have and that the party that wins the presidency today may find the going rough during the next two or even four years.

For Republicans, a Romney victory could produce a nightmare situation, with a deep schism between ideologues and pragmatists appearing in the GOP and the 2014 midterms offering Democrats a real opportunity to take back the House.

On the other hand, an Obama win would keep Republicans united for at least two more years, giving the party a chance to win the Senate and expand its majority in the House in 2014. And another Obama term would also have Republicans licking their chops for the 2016 presidential election.

Wednesday, after all, marks the first day of the 2014 election cycle and the 2016 presidential race.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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