I want to focus on the data about the economy, since the exit poll confirms that this was, primarily, an election about the economy.
To understand how President Obama won an election about the economy is this weak economy, consider two sets of numbers. First, 39 percent of voters think the economy is getting better; 30 percent think it’s getting worse; and 29 percent think it’s staying about the same.
Obama received 88 percent support among those who believe the economy is getting better, while Romney received 90 percent of the vote among those who think it’s getting worse. Romney won among those who think it’s staying the same by a 57-40 margin. But because of the plurality that thinks the economy is getting better, Obama comes out slightly ahead overall.
Second, on the question of who is mostly to blame for the current economic situation, Obama or former President Bush, 53 percent assign the primary blame to Bush compared to only 38 percent who mainly blame Obama. The answer to this question seems significant because, although in theory one can blame Bush more and still oppose Obama, in practice those who blame Bush more went for Obama by a margin of 85-12.
Many of these voters presumably blame Bush because they want to vote for Obama notwithstanding the economic situation, as opposed to voting for Obama based on a reasoned allocation of blame. Still, I think it’s clear, and not really surprising, that (whether fairly or not) the Bush administration cast a shadow over this election. Democrats won’t be able to run against Bush for as long as they did against Herbert Hoover (or Republicans did against Jimmy Carter). But it was unrealistic to believe that Bush wouldn’t be a factor in this election.
But the big factor, I think, is that almost 40 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting better, while only 30 percent believe it’s getting worse. Is the plurality correct? It’s not clear. But 2012 has been a better year than 2011, so at a minimum, it isn’t irrational to hold the plurality view. And that view, even if not held by a majority, coupled with the majority’s understanding of how bad things were trending when Obama took office, provided Obama with just enough of an argument to prevail.
The Romney view presumably did enough polling and focus group testing to know what the exit poll reveals to the rest of us. This probably explains why Romney kept saying talking about the “weak recovery” and why he told voters that we don’t have to settle for the high unemployment we’re experiencing — that we can do better. The positive response Romney seemed to get from this line of attack in the debates, especially the first one, made me believe it might well carry the day.
It almost did, but fell a little short. And that, I think, is the main reason why Romney fell a little short of winning the presidency.