Cheer up, conservatives. Election night was gruesome, but it produced neither a landslide for President Obama nor a wipeout of the GOP. Judging by the numbers alone, the message was not so much "Forward!" as "Sideways!"
The president's 332 electoral votes (counting Florida, which fell eventually into his hands) amounted to a convincing victory. Measured against all the presidential contests since 1896, however, the year which political scientists often regard as the beginning of "modern" American politics, Obama's winning percentage (61.71% of the electoral vote) was below average, ranking 22nd out of 30.
Likewise, his percentage of the popular vote, which is not all counted yet, will probably put him 20th among the 30 presidential victors. Jack Pitney, the political scientist who has made these calculations, points out that in races with a serious third-party contender the winning percentage of the popular vote will be unusually low. Better, then, to adjust for that anomaly (prominent in 1912, 1980, 1992, and other races) by looking at the winner's margin of victory in the popular vote, rather than his overall percentage of it. By that standard, Obama's winning margin over Romney (3.2%) will rank even lower, only 24th out of 30—which is less than half his 7.3% victory over McCain in 2008.
So much for the notion that this was an electoral earthquake. Though he hasn't managed to heal the planet and stop the rise of the oceans (ask New Jersey), Obama has succeeded in stopping and even reversing the rise of his popularity with voters.
The Republican Party lives to fight another day; and it retains control of the House of Representatives. Divided government, the status quo ante, was the electorate's decree again. At the state level, however, Republicans added a governorship and kept control of a majority of state legislatures, which bodes well for their farm team for future presidential and congressional contests.
In politics as in life, of course, the numbers don't tell the whole story. What dismayed Republicans was their belief they had the election won, and that they deserved to win. After Mitt Romney's vigorous performance in the first debate and his winning turn at the Al Smith dinner in New York, he surged into a lead in the polls. He had the Big Mo, as George H.W. Bush once called it. But his momentum stalled, and Obama began closing the gap long before the superstorm blew in. By election eve it was a dead heat, and many polls, accurately it turned out, had the president ahead.
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Romney's campaign, especially his decision to sit on his lead, has already been ruthlessly dissected. In many ways he was a gallant candidate who deserves to be remembered better. But neither he nor his party learned from the example in front of them: Meg Whitman's losing 2010 gubernatorial race in California. A billionaire businesswoman who found it hard to connect with ordinary people, Whitman allowed herself to be pummeled by ads featuring former employees she had fired heartlessly, so they said. Her reputation never recovered, and she got fewer votes than the losing initiative to legalize marijuana.
Romney was similarly disparaged by negative ads in the battleground states, and waited a long time to reply. His political instincts were better than Whitman's, and he came much closer to victory. Still, his difficulties, on top of hers, ought to shake the long-held but irrational Republican faith in the businessman's skills as the one thing needful to solve our problems (or even to get elected). With it should go, too, the inclination to purge politics as much as possible of abstract questions like justice in favor of concrete issues of dollars and cents and efficiency. Such false practicality merely cedes to liberals the right to define America's first principles—not exactly a winning strategy, as the uninspired debate over Obamacare showed.
Liberals won't be inclined to much soul-searching after this election, which will be the root of their future undoing. They succeeded, more than conservatives are willing to admit, in Hooverizing George W. Bush's administration—turning it into a symbol of economic collapse, loose morals, and failed foreign policy. W's second term, alas, proved helpful to this endeavor. Romney never came to terms with this problem—the elephant in the room, so to speak.
But Democrats have already cast Obama as the new FDR, a role he was born to play, at least in his own imagination. They view 2012 as a confirming election, the American people's blessing on the sharp leftward turn executed since 2008. The Age of Obama is well underway, they tell themselves and the people. Hope lives, but unfortunately for them, so does Change.