by Bridget Welsh
Nov 8, 2012
When the presidential election was finally called, the results confirmed what most people expected – Barack Obama was returned to office for another four years.
It was not quite the nail-biter the media hyped it up to be, but there certainly were moments of uncertainty and anxiety on both sides.
In terms of the popular vote, Obama’s margin was extremely slim, although the electoral college system gave him a comfortable margin as he picked up the key swing states, including Florida (where I voted).
The election had a record turnout as Americans took their right to vote seriously (with some queuing for hours) and the process carefully monitored by observers.
The US 2012 election offers some simple lessons on understanding electoral behaviour and what can deliver political victory in close contests.
Women, minorities and the youth
Obama’s victory shows that in order to win you have to be careful not to alienate powerful constituencies. Among the groups that were critical to Obama’s victory, women were one of those at the top of the list.
The gender gap was large – 55 percent of women supported Obama with only 44 percent voting for Romney. The reason was simple – members of Romney’s party repeatedly and disgracefully suggested that rape was legitimate and went further to argue for the denial of a women’s right to control her own body after she was raped.
NONEAbortion, birth control and equal pay – issues at the core of women’s right in the United States – were prominent in what became a ‘gender war’ in the campaign. Ultimately, the Republicans alienated a majority of women.
It did not help matters that Republicans also went on the offensive against women candidates, crossing the line of acceptability. Previous studies show that attacks on women politicians can backfire, especially if they are seen as unfair or unsubstantiated.
The women that were unfairly attacked – such as senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin – won in close races and were made stronger by the attacks.
It is not a coincidence that this election saw an unprecedented number of women running for Congress, and large numbers were elected, notably for the Senate. Women also make up the majority of voters in most electorates.
They are loyal and they came out to vote. In this US election, they showed they have power!
It was a historic moment when an African American was elected US president in 2008. This election may not have been a barrier breaker, but it is perhaps even more meaningful.
To re-elect an African American – a minority candidate who was vilified disgracefully by the birther movement that challenged his citizenship in a climate where racism was a not-so-subtle undertone in the campaign and the economy is still recovering – illustrates that Americans are moving toward greater tolerance.
An important facet of this campaign is greater acceptance of minorities in political leadership and an embrace of ethnic diversity.
Much has been written about the end of the American dream amidst a broader economic decline. This election suggests that this view is premature – that minorities can rise, and be supported in their advancement. Obama’s campaign this time may not have had much of the rhetoric of hope and change, but the final result illustrates that hope and change are very much alive.
This is not to say that ethnic identity was not important in this campaign. Racial voting played a role. African Americans came out in large numbers to support Obama, and these numbers in part comprise the record-breaking turnout.
Latinos who now comprise 16.7 percent of the population contributed to the incumbent’s victory, especially after the Dream Act which gave citizenship to children of immigrants. Whites, on their part, disproportionately made up the Romney base.
The picture of supporters in the halls when the election was announced shows however that there were two Americas – one embracing diversity and the other holding onto the past of a white-majority America. Diversity won out.
To think that you can win without minority support in a close contest is foolhardy.
Money alone is not enough
The third group that played a vital role was young people. Many youth were undecided. But when it came time to touch the screen, they voted for inclusion and Obama.
His campaign continued to inspire young people to a greater degree than his opponent. Youth disproportionately did the ground work in the campaign and energised the campaign by making sure the machinery stayed well-oiled.
Part of the reason that Obama’s campaign was so successful was that it relied on this network of young people, tied together through social media and smart phones.
This was the most expensive campaign in history of the US, and the Republican campaign had millions of dollars in advantage. But in the end, the money was not enough.
What Obama did better was to get his machinery to work effectively, to reach out and to bring people out to vote. Make no bones about it – the election was about hard labour, not spending money.
Obama’s victory speech highlighted a central tenet of his campaign approach – the election was not about what the government could do for citizens, rather it was about what citizens could do for others. This belief in the power of people brought people together and assured that campaign offices performed. Indeed, empowerment inspires people.
Inspiration was also part of Obama’s final campaign approach. He finished his campaign with positive clear and dichotomous messages: Hope not hate. Unity not division. People not politics first. Needless to say, he was aided by Hurricane Sandy that allowed these positive messages to reach a wider audience.
Graciousness in defeat
Mitt Romney showed graciousness in his concession speech and highlighted that elections are a means toward governing. Power is not just about acquiring it or holding onto it, but knowing how to use it and when to let it go.
An election is judged by the actions of all sides, and a respect for the process as a whole is essential – especially in defeat.
Obama will face a difficult second term, and he is bound to disappoint many in the contested polarised political reality of US politics and on the increasingly complex international stage.
He does have a mandate, however, to bring people together and focus on bringing sustainable and meaningful benefits to ordinary citizens.
Yesterday’s election shows that the competition for power – even a fierce one – does not have to be a zero-sum winner-take-all game. Such a competition can open the way to compromise and empowerment, and the process itself holds promise.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at [email protected] She voted for Obama by absentee ballot and received an email acknowledgment that her vote was counted.