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Looking Back on 2012 Cycle's Long and Winding Road

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Wow, what a political cycle. It was filled with twists, turns and surprises.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses — until he didn’t (almost two weeks after the actual balloting, when former Sen. Rick Santorum was certified as the winner).

After finishing a distant fourth in Iowa and an even more distant fifth in New Hampshire, former Speaker Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary convincingly and briefly looked like a very serious contender for his party’s nomination. Then the Romney campaign obliterated him.

And eventually, the race for the GOP nomination boiled down to a duel between Romney and Santorum (Rick Santorum!), with Illinois’ late March primary and Wisconsin’s early April primary turning out to be the decisive contests.

The Republican race was a roller-coaster ride for Romney and for political handicappers, who saw a party that didn’t really want to nominate the former Massachusetts governor but didn’t have a serious alternative.

As I expected, some of the political commentary and analysis during the presidential cycle proved to be misguided or meaningless.

All the coverage of the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll was a waste of time, since the winner of that non-event, Rep. Michele Bachmann, finished sixth in the 2012 caucuses — ahead only of those Republicans who didn’t actively participate.

The suffocating attention focused on Romney’s selection of a running mate was largely meaningless, politically that is. Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan had no effect on the results of Nov. 6.

All of the chatter about the president replacing Joseph R. Biden Jr. with Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate was foolish, as was the speculation about a “white knight” riding into the GOP race to give Republicans a stronger nominee for the fall. And Clint Eastwood’s shtick in Tampa, Fla., had no effect on the election’s outcome.

But some events and outcomes certainly surprised me or proved me wrong.

I assumed the national party conventions would have little effect on swing voters. So I didn’t anticipate the impact of Bill Clinton telling a national television audience that since even he couldn’t have fixed the economy in a mere four years, certainly President Barack Obama couldn’t have been expected to pull off that miracle.

I expected the last three jobs numbers (those reported the first week of September, October and November) to have significant impact on the general election. They did not. Instead, the August numbers were overshadowed by the Democratic convention, while the September numbers were overshadowed by Obama’s abysmal first debate performance, which I also did not expect.

I didn’t expect the Obama organization to be as effective as it was in turning out voters. I remember the Democratic hype in 2004 about ACT (Americans Coming Together), which was supposed to swing Ohio into John Kerry’s column, and I figured that the Obama campaign’s confidence in its turnout program this year would be another re-run of 2004. It wasn’t.

I never expected voters ages 18-29 to constitute a larger percentage of the electorate this time than they did in the previous presidential election. Democratic strategists talked repeatedly about their efforts on college campuses to get the Obama vote out again, but I remained skeptical right up until I saw the exit poll on election night. And I was wrong.

I was surprised by how off some of the GOP’s best pollsters were in some of their surveys. In 2010, Republican pollsters caught their party’s wave much earlier and more accurately than did the Democrats’ pollsters, but this time things definitely were reversed. Republican pollsters were overly optimistic (from their perspective) about the makeup of the 2012 electorate, which contributed to overly rosy predictions.

I also was surprised that Democrats won all of the closest House races, most of the tossup Senate races and all of the swing states in the presidential race. No, 2012 wasn’t a partisan wave election, but, either because of turnout, late- deciders or possibly candidate quality, Democratic candidates caught a slight late breeze.

Finally, I was surprised that both Romney and his top strategist, Stuart Stevens, seemed so clueless about why Romney lost. Stevens’ Nov. 28 Washington Post op-ed was amazing in its whistling past the graveyard reflections about the 2012 election and about the problems facing his party.

Would the November results have been different without Superstorm Sandy or with more efficient TV time-buying by Romney’s campaign? Would a different Republican vice presidential nominee have affected the outcome? Would the election cycle have been different without Todd Akin and Richard E. Mourdock? Would Romney have performed better with non-whites had he offered a different tone on immigration during the GOP primaries? Would he have even been nominated?

Every election result leads to dozens of questions. That’s certainly the case this year. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are harder to come by.

Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).

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