Why Obama Won

11/08/2012 09:15:00 AM
There's already been a lot of post-election analysis, but it all seems to be missing something, which is that this election confirmed all the conventional wisdom about elections. It is very hard to unseat incumbents.

One point in particular really stands out to me. Prior to this election, the conventional wisdom in political science was that its the rate of change in economic indicators like unemployment, not the actual levels, that matters. This was something I doubted. After all, Obama is the first president since FDR to be re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7.2%, so I concluded that Obama's re-election depended on the level of the unemployment rate. But I was proven wrong. Ultimately, what impacts re-election chances is the rate of change, not the levels. The conventional wisdom was right.

Something else worth noting is that this wasn't an exceptionally close election. For one thing, the views of the electorate were pretty well cemented from the start--Obama has consistently been ahead in more than 70% of all the Romney/Obama polls since 2010, and this really didn't change over the course of the two-year campaign. Also, if you look at the electoral college, it would have taken a Romney miracle to pull out a win--even if Romney had won all of the "big three" battleground states of Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, he would still have lost.

Now, one point I've been thinking about this morning is the 2.4% margin of victory in the popular vote. To be sure, this is on the low end of the spectrum. But at the same time, he won more than 50% of the popular vote, which isn't as common as you might think. Obama's 50.4% of the popular vote in 2012 is actually more than Bush Jr (2000), Clinton (1992 and 1996), Carter, Nixon (1968), Kennedy, and Truman. Something worth noting is that comparing the margin of victory between the Democrats and Republicans isn't a particularly fair measure, since that figure will generally be smaller in elections where third party challengers did poorly. In this case, the third party vote was almost non-existent, so we would expect the margin to be much closer between Obama and Romney than, for example, Clinton and Dole.