A Silver Lining and a Conundrum [Updated]

I can see only one good outcome from yesterday’s election: the fact that Barack Obama will be the president who inherits the mess left by Barack Obama. The economy is in awful shape; it won’t get much better given Obama’s policies, and may get worse. Many billions of dollars in capital that have been sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the outcome of this year’s election, will now give up on the United States and go elsewhere. Plants will be built in Korea and Brazil that would have been built here if the election had gone differently. The chronically unemployed–a group that is larger now than at any time since the Great Depression–aren’t going back to work. Nor are the millions who have signed up for permanent disability. Incomes will continue to stagnate. I don’t understand why anyone would vote for four more years of unemployment and poverty, but that is what the American people voted for, and that is what they are going to get.

But I digress: back to the silver lining. Obama will now have to reveal his agenda for a second term, heretofore a closely-guarded secret. In particular, what is he going to do about the nation’s $16 trillion debt? Obama’s answer during his first term was “nothing.” His budget, incorporating any number of optimistic assumptions, called for the debt to rise to $20 trillion. I don’t see how Obama can get through his second term without articulating some plan, however half-baked, for dealing with the debt. Ben Bernanke can’t keep interest rates at zero for another four years; at least, I don’t think he can. As soon as interest rates start to rise, the budget–no, wait, we don’t have a budget, but you know what I mean–is blown. It will be difficult for the press to conceal from the American people the fact that we are broke.

Obama’s default idea is to raise taxes on the rich, but that approach has a fatal defect. We suffer from a severe shortage of rich people. You could confiscate every penny belonging to every rich person in America, and not make a dent in the national debt. So, Barry, over to you: what’s your plan? I confess that I am looking forward to watching Obama squirm.

Now for the conundrum. Turnout this year was 14 million voters fewer than 2008. Obama’s total was down around 9 million votes, and Romney got about 5 million votes fewer than John McCain.

[UPDATE: These were round numbers I heard on the radio early yesterday morning. As more votes have been counted, they have been refined. I think the following is an up to date comparison. First, the official numbers from 2008:

Obama: 69,456,897
McCain: 59,934,814

I think these 2012 numbers are close to final; someone may be able to come up with more recent ones:

Obama: 60,663,462
Romney: 57,822,376

So if those are the right numbers, Obama drew around 8.8 million fewer votes than in 2008. That’s not the mystery. What is hard to understand is how Romney could have gotten over 2 million votes fewer than John McCain, given Romney’s far better financed campaign and the seemingly much greater enthusiasm among Republicans this year. I will have more thoughts on this later in the day.]

I can understand why Obama’s vote total was down sharply, but how in the world did Romney, with a well-run, well-financed campaign and an energized Republican base, get 5 [2] million fewer votes than McCain? These numbers astonished me when I heard them this morning, but I think I may be able to explain them.

This year’s presidential election represented the culmination of a trend that has been developing for several cycles, in which the campaign barely exists outside of a handful of swing states. This year, it got ridiculous. If you lived in 35 or 40 states, you barely knew that it was an election year, at the presidential level, anyway. The result was a foregone conclusion across a broad swath of America. Undoubtedly that depressed turnout in the non-swing states. It would be easy to test my hypothesis; did turnout remain high in the contested states, and drop off in the others? If so, I think that is the answer. Still, the fact that Obama’s turnout dropped so much more than his Republican opponent’s shows that at least a few million Americans have wised up since 2008.

UPDATE: I haven’t yet had time to compare 2008 and 2012 turnout numbers in swing vs. non-swing states to confirm or refute the above hypothesis, but Dan Blatt writes to say that my theory doesn’t work for Ohio:

Like you I was puzzling about the decline in turnout this election cycle. All signs pointed to a supercharged GOP turnout. I thought your explanation made sense (in your Silver Lining and a Conundrum post), so I checked two states, Ohio and Oklahoma and compared their turnout in 2008 to that this year.

Turnout was down in both.

Obama in 2012 (2,686.609) ran barely ahead of McCain’s 2008 tally in Ohio (2,677,820) — and well behind his own 2008 tally of 2,940,044. Romney had only 2,586,467.

In 2008, the two party tally 2,940,044 (Obama) + 2,677,820 (McCain) is 5,617,864.
In 2012, it was 2,686,609 + 2,586,467 =5,273,076.

In the “swing” state of Ohio where both candidates invested vast resources, two-party turnout was down 344,788.

If Romney could have gotten just half of those to vote (disaffected McCain and Obama 2008 voters), he would have won the Buckeye State.

Here is another way of phrasing the conundrum: how in the world could turnout have been down in Ohio, given the resources the candidates invested there and the fact that Buckeyes were constantly being told theirs was the key state? As noted above, more to come on this later.

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