02/21/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Election Monitor: Reports of the GOP's Demise are Overstated


A GOP apologist I am not. After the 2008 Presidential election I wrote a memo about the Republican Party's demographic predicament that was widely quoted in a David Broder Washington Post op-ed. This December I authored a Politico piece on the GOP brand problem, the main argument of which was that the Republican electoral problem is as much message and brand as it is math. While the Party's brand and math problems persist, the widespread and somewhat hysterical rhetoric about the last election's implications has gotten out of control. Each day brings a new story about the sorry state of the GOP and the rosy future of the Democratic Party. There is a growing narrative that the Obama team was made up of Google-like geniuses that did everything right and that the GOP is headed for a decade of irrelevance. We have heard this story before and it is a myth.

Think back to the weeks and months after President Bush's 2004 re-election victory. Pundits said that the Democrats were hopelessly misguided. They proclaimed that Democrats would not win another Presidential election in the foreseeable future. They also argued that the GOP likely had a permanent majority in place. These commentators believed that the Republicans had "won" the technology race and that it would be a decade before the Democrats caught up. Guess what? It was almost entirely wrong.

Of course, not everyone bought into the above (David Axelrod and David Plouffe certainly didn't). But the myth existed and probably impacted Republicans at least through the 2006 mid-term elections. The truth was that Bush's team did have a slight technology and turnout advantage...but they also got lucky along the way. Plus they had a candidate advantage (Bush was simply better at politicking than Kerry) and an issue advantage (terrorism). And finally, they had four years to put it all together.

In 2012, Team Obama had significant structural advantages which, when added to an extremely well-run campaign (from both a tactical and strategic perspective), led them to victory. Democrats enjoyed two fundamental built-in advantages that gave them an edge:

  1. Team Obama controlled all of the relational databases for the last four years and used that time to build a comprehensive data system. They were able to merge financial, voter, volunteer, polling and social data into a single database. Yes, they did this in a smart way, but having that kind of time AND owning all of those databases allowed Team Obama to create a system that fed into--and informed--their campaign management decisions. They probably won key states like Ohio and Iowa on turnout modeling, advertising targeting and GOTV alone.
  2. The economy improved during the last 12 months and this sucked the wind out of the Romney alternative. There is no doubt that voters gave credit to Obama for the slowly improving economy. The actual unemployment number didn't really matter as much as the trend. Macro trends always matter.

These advantages--one tactical/organizational and the other macro attitudinal--shaped the election. The Romney team did what it could to build a comprehensive data system between April and November but it did not have the time or the infrastructure to succeed. Yes, Team Obama had terrific brainpower and some of their processes were superior but ultimately this was about having the time to merge different systems and test them prior to election day. As for the economy, there was little the GOP could do about the trending economic indicators.

When you overlay the actual campaign execution (mistakes matter and "47%" was huge) on top of these two advantages the result was a substantial Electoral College victory. Obama won 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. He captured all of the key swing states. But when you look beneath the surface it was not a massive victory.

The President won only 51% of the vote to Romney's (ironically) 47%. Obama won Ohio with 50.7% of the vote. Out of 5.5 million votes cast in the Buckeye state, Obama only won by about 150,000 votes. In Florida the win was even tighter, with the President winning 50.01% of the vote (a popular vote margin of approximately 70,000 votes out of 8.5 million cast). By our count, Obama won five other states with less than 52% of the vote. These wins were the result of Democrats doing a better job of identifying and mobilizing their voters.

Here are some important points:

  • While Obama accrued more than 65 million votes, this was actually nearly 4 million fewer votes than he won in 2008. In fact, his vote share dropped from 53% in 2008 to 51% in 2012. Romney, on the other hand, received about one million more votes than McCain in 2008 but nearly two million fewer than George Bush in 2004. So while Romney bettered McCain's 2008 results it was not nearly enough given population growth and demographic trends.
  • Quite simply, Romney was not a good candidate. That fact, combined with Obama's two distinct advantages, meant almost certain electoral victory. None of this is to say that the Republican Party isn't without its problems. We have been saying for years that Republican policies need to address issues that matter to Latinos, blacks, women and young voters. And even more importantly their rhetoric needs to inspire and resonate.

But 2012 was not a landslide and 51% does not mean that Democrats are in the driver's seat for the next decade. The GOP can come back. Republicans can find their voice (fixing their brand) and a unifying leader (addressing the math problem).

The Republican Party is in a similar position that the Democrats were in after Carter, Mondale and Dukakis. The question is whether they can limit their losing streak to two rather than three.