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The case of the missing voters [With Comments by John]

In the new issue of the Weekly Standard Jay Cost undertakes a retrospective on what happened in the election just passed. Cost detects a mystery. It’s the case of the missing voters:

In 2008, some 131.5 million Americans went to the polls; while the votes are still being tallied, this time around there probably were between 127 and 130 million votes cast. Most of the decline came from white voters; in fact, between 6 and 9 million white voters went missing this year, relative to 2008. It is a reasonable guess that the number of white votes in 2004 roughly equaled the number in 2012, despite the fact that millions of new whites have become eligible to vote and the aging white population has entered peak voting years.

Much has been made of the increasing whiteness of the GOP coalition, with the implication being that Mitt Romney lost because he failed to attract enough support from ethnic or racial minorities. Without doubt, this was a problem for the GOP nominee and certainly made a difference in key swing states. In Colorado and Florida, Romney’s support among Hispanics was lower than that of George W. Bush and even John McCain.

But Romney’s problems were much bigger than this, as he failed to pull enough white voters into his coalition to win. In Colorado, Florida, and Ohio, Romney improved on McCain’s share of white voters, but these states saw notable declines in white turnout. Meanwhile, in Iowa and Virginia—where white turnout was roughly constant—Romney failed to match the levels that Bush pulled when he won both states.

This suggests that the identity politics explanation is insufficient to explain Romney’s electoral problem. It was not merely a failure to attract Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, African Americans into the GOP coalition (preliminary data actually suggest that Barack Obama won fewer African Americans in 2012 than he did in 2008). There seems to have been an overall hesitation among many types of voters—white or not—about entering the GOP coalition. It looks as though many backed Obama over Romney, and many more simply chose not to vote.

An examination of the exit poll makes it easy to see why. Obama’s campaign against Romney, which portrayed him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, appears largely to have been successful. Romney’s favorable rating in the exit poll was just 47 percent, with 50 percent holding an unfavorable view. By 53 to 43 percent, voters said that Obama was “more in touch with people like” them, and by a staggering 53 percent to 34 percent, they said Romney’s policies would favor the rich instead of the middle class.

In other words, Romney lost in large part because of a yawning empathy gap. Typically, this plagues Republican candidates to some degree, even victorious ones, but it was pronounced this year, and appears to have been determinative. The voters who showed up on Election Day identified more closely with Obama than Romney, and those who stayed home presumably identified with neither. Importantly, this problem transcended age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Compared with Bush in 2004, Romney simply failed to connect with people.

What of the Democratic performance? There is little for the left to celebrate here beyond the fact that their candidate won a second term in the Oval Office. After all, President Obama won fewer popular votes, a smaller share of the popular vote, and a smaller share of the Electoral College. The last president to be reelected with such a diminished coalition was Franklin Roosevelt in his third and fourth terms. No president in American history but Barack Obama has ever entered a second full term with his coalition diminished across the board.

Cost’s analysis suggests to me the devastating effect of the Obama campaign’s personal attacks on Romney during the months after Romney sewed up the GOP nomination. The Obama campaign turned Romney into dead man walking.

The Romney campaign had no funds to respond to those attacks. Prior to the convention, Romney was prevented by law from accessing the funds he had raised for the general campaign. After the convention, Romney had plenty of money, but many voters had tuned him out. Why didn’t Romney self-fund a response to the merciless attacks he was sustaining from the Obama campaign in the battleground states prior to the GOP convention? That is a mystery for another day.

Cost offers this to unravel the case of the missing voters: “Voters did not trust Obama to handle the tough issues, but even less did they trust Romney to represent them in the Oval Office.” Looking ahead, he sees both hazard and opportunity: “It is not hard to see how the nation’s deep disgruntlement could produce a major upheaval in two or four years’ time.”

FOOTNOTE: For a good companion to Cost’s retrospective, see John Podhoretz’s Commentary essay “The way forward,” while Pat Caddell offered a variety of related thoughts in his post-election analysis at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend earlier this month. And Michael Barone is wrestling with the case of the missing voters as well.

JOHN adds a couple of thoughts: First, Romney’s tactical error went beyond not using his own funds pre-convention. Money that was raised after Romney had the nomination sewed up could nevertheless have been designated for the primary phase of the campaign, but the Romney campaign believed that money spent during the summer is basically wasted, since undecided voters don’t make up their minds until October. The two campaigns followed opposite strategies here, and it seems that the Romney camp was proven wrong.

Second, I fear that Republicans are making a serious mistake if we blame the election’s outcome on Romney’s failure to connect with voters. Obviously that happened to some degree, but the real question is, why? The most alarming statistic quoted by Jay Cost is that, by a wide margin, voters believed Romney’s policies would benefit the rich and not the middle class–this despite the fact that Obama’s policies had already proven to be a disaster for the middle class. I am afraid that this demonstrates, not just a lack of support for Romney, but a lack of support for free enterprise.

Despite all of the nonsense that surrounded the campaign, I think nearly all voters understood that Romney’s policies favored smaller, less intrusive government and more reliance on free enterprise, while Obama stood for more government. A generation ago, the idea that free enterprise only benefits the rich would have been regarded as ridiculous in the light of history. Today, I fear that a great many Americans believe that free enterprise only favors the rich, or something close to that proposition. This is reflected in the survey done a few months ago that suggested young people have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.

When Ronald Reagan said that in the present crisis, government isn’t the solution, government is the problem, he was appealing to something that most Americans already believed. I am concerned that the bedrock belief in free enterprise that was taken for granted in our youth may now be mostly gone. It is not hard to see why that might be the case, since all of the organs of our culture, from the public schools to the television networks to the comedy industry to Hollywood to higher education to the women’s magazines have been diligently working to undermine faith in economic freedom for several decades now. I fear that what failed to connect with voters in 2012–with enough voters, anyway–was not Mitt Romney the man, but rather free enterprise, the philosophy. There is no way conservatives can undo the baleful effects of our culture on political assumptions in the course of a presidential campaign, no matter how eloquent our candidate may be. And, of course, the problem is compounded by the fact that increasing numbers of Americans live outside the free economy, either as public employees or as dependents on government benefits.

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