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Dispelling Myths About the 2012 Election

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Every election campaign perpetuates its own myths about the American electorate, and this year was no exception. Before such spin becomes treated as fact, we review some of the biggest misconceptions of the 2012 presidential election.

Obama Cannot Win With a Bad Economy

Numerous political analysts argued that the faltering state of the U.S. economy would undermine President Barack Obama's electoral prospects. The October unemployment rate of 7.9 percent was higher than any reelected incumbent since World War II. The incumbent party lost the White House in the last five election cycles in which gas prices spiked as much as they did in the last year. And, the modest growth in real income per capita was predicted to spell defeat for Obama.

The problem with all these narratives was that voters clearly did not make their decision based on the absolute state of the economy. The exit polls showed that voters were willing to support Obama in the face of a poorly performing economy. More than three quarters of voters (77 percent) thought the condition of the nation's economy was not so good or poor. Nearly 6-in-10 voters thought the U.S. economy was staying the same or getting worse.

Much more important than the state of the economy was who voters blamed for it and which nominee they perceived would be able to help the most people navigate it. Four years after he left office, 54 percent of voters still blamed George W. Bush for current economic problems, compared to only 38 percent who blamed Barack Obama. Of those fingering George W. Bush as the culprit, they favored Obama to Mitt Romney 85 percent to 12 percent. Moreover, three-quarters of voters thought Obama's policies would favor the middle class or the poor; whereas, a majority of voters thought Romney's policies would favor the rich.

Obama Could Not Win Without Independents

Conservative political observers argued that Obama would lose the election because of his unpopularity among partisan independents, the so-called hidden vote. Relying on forecasts from prominent pollsters such as Gallup and Rasmussen, they argued that Democrats and Republican voters would make up similar proportions of the active electorate and cancel each other out, leaving the race to be decided by independent voters.

As the exit polls showed, Obama won the popular vote despite losing to Romney handily among independents. Independents preferred Romney to Obama 50 to 45 percent. This was only the second time in the last 10 elections that the winner lost the independent vote, and in the only other time it occurred the margin was much closer, as Bush lost independents to Kerry by just 2 points, 51 to 49 percent.

The reason Obama was able to overcome this deficit was that many more Democrats than Republicans turned out to vote. The Democrats held a 6-point advantage over Republicans among voters in 2012, down only a single point from 2008. Since Democrats supported their nominee by a whopping 92-7 margin, Obama was able to overcome losing independents, even by a significant margin.

Young People Would Turn Out Less Than in 2008

Last month, Harvard University's Institute of Politics released a poll of young people that reported enthusiasm for Obama was down considerably from four years earlier. They found that the proportion of 18-24 year olds who were registered to vote dropped from 79 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2012 and the proportion who said they were definitely voting dropped from 63 percent to 48 percent. From these numbers they concluded that turnout for young people would be lower than 2008 by "a significant margin."

While it is still too early to know the turnout rate among young people, we do know what proportion of voters they comprised at the polls, and these numbers give every indication that young people participated as much as they did in the last election. In 2012, 11 percent of voters were 18-24 years old and 8 percent were 25-29 years, compared to 10 percent and 8 percent respectively four years earlier. In fact, young people comprised the largest share of the electorate since the 1992 presidential election between Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot.

Hurricane Sandy Cost Romney the Election

Some campaign operatives, including Republican strategist Karl Rove, contended that Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the eastern coast of the United States on October 29, was costly to Romney's prospects. They claimed that it slowed Romney's momentum, depriving him of valuable news coverage as the approaching storm and its impact dominated the airwaves. Although both candidates suspended their campaigns, President Obama appeared on television orchestrating the relief effort.

The exit polls, though, told another story. When asked about when they made up their mind for whom to vote in the presidential election, a whopping 78 percent of voters said in September or earlier. Less than 1-out-of-10 voters decided in the last week of the campaign, the lowest proportion of final week deciders in the last four decades. Moreover, when voters were asked directly about the importance of Hurricane Sandy in their decision, a majority said it was not an important factor, and nearly a third reported it was not a factor at all.

The Election Revealed a Nation Divided

One of the major headlines from the 2012 election is that the electorate is deeply divided along ideological lines. Voters split their ballots nearly 50-50 between Obama and Romney, and more than 9-out-of-10 partisans chose their respective party's nominee. However, the exit polls show that voters adopted centrist positions on most policy questions; once again, substantiating the argument originally articulated by political scientist Morris Fiorina that the electorate, unlike its leaders, is not deeply divided on issues despite being closely divided in their candidate preferences.

The exit polls showed that voters were in considerable agreement on the leading issues of the campaign. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans think the 2010 health care law should be left mostly or entirely intact. Sixty-five percent of voters believe that illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. Six-out-of-ten voters think income tax rates should be increased on individuals earning more than $250,000. Even on the question of abortion, 59 percent of voters thought abortion should be legal in most cases, with only 13 percent believing it should illegal in all cases.