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The Globe and Mail

Five lessons we’ve learned from Obama's victory

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks on election night in Chicago.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Barack Obama seized his place in history last night, ensuring his health care reform survives and vindicating the Keynesian response to the financial crisis of 2008.

But the nature of his victory leaves the President with an uncertain path forward.

The Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives, forcing compromise (or gridlock) in Washington. The soaring rhetoric of 2008 was replaced with grinding negativity in 2012, leaving a mandate for Mr. Obama defined in the opposition to Governor Mitt Romney. There is even grumbling from Democrats that the Obama campaign didn't do enough to support them in Congressional races, potentially complicating the legislative calculus.

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There are five major lessons from the election, but it is defeat that helps us learn the most, so let's start with the two on the Republicans.

1. The Republicans, immigration and Hispanics

Hispanics are a vast rising demographic group, strongly aligned with the Democrats.

According to the Globe, "NALEO, a group dedicated to promoting Hispanics' political participation, projected their vote would increase 26 per cent from 2008, to 12.2 million."

Key states that Gov. Romney needed to win but lost can be attributed to this rising Hispanic vote and its pro-Democrat voting pattern.

Florida was the bedrock of Gov. Romney's strategy, including hosting the Republican convention in Tampa. It appears to have been lost.

Colorado was a reliable Republican state, consistently red except for 1992. Now it has voted twice for Mr. Obama.

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Nevada has shifted from reliably Republican to leaning Democrat. New Mexico has shifted even further into the Democrat camp.

Even look at California. She elected favourite sons Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan while voting Republican in nine out of 10 elections between 1952 and 1988. It is now the cornerstone of the Democratic majority.

Hispanics have anchored this shift in formerly Republican states into the Obama coalition.

If you want to find the day the 2012 election was lost, don't look to hurricanes or debates or conventions or even Mr. Romney's nomination in the spring.

Go all the way back to June 28, 2007, when the Senate killed George W. Bush's immigration reforms, and – in a heated debate between conservative and moderate Republicans – confirmed the intemperate and short-sighted attitudes in the Republican Party.

Without the support of Hispanics – many religious conservatives who vote Democrat because of cultural and immigration policies – the Republicans will continue to shrink and lose elections.

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2. The Senate and the Tea Party

The second strand of the Republican loss is the Tea Party.

A linked phenomenon to the immigration reform, this small-government, live free or die movement toppled sitting Republican Senators and imposed unelectable candidates on the ballot.

Joe Donnelly had no business winning a Senate seat in Indiana, but his Republican opponent was so far out of the mainstream the Democrat picked up the win.

Todd Akin failed to win a vulnerable Democrat seat in Missouri, again because he was too far outside the mainstream.

Tea Party orthodoxy drove Olympia Snowe out of the Senate, allowing that safe Republican seat to fall to an independent likely to caucus with the Democrats.

The real tragedy is that Tea Party candidates won in ultra-safe races like Texas, giving the movement a false sense of success.

The spin was underway before voting began, with Tea Party supporters attributing the Indiana loss to remarks about abortion rather than the fiscal positions of the movement.

But it is exactly that fiscal intransigence that puts the Republican Party in the minority position.

Refusal to engage and demands of orthodoxy are the hallmarks of an insecure losing coalition. This path in politics leads to an ever narrowing appeal, particularly as the demographic groups that support economic austerity are superseded by the changing face of America.

It appears the Tea Party will need more defeats before it learns the value of compromise in expanding the appeal of a political party by adapting to new conditions.

3. State-level polling matters

One of the stranger debates during the closing weeks of the election was a backlash against quantitative analytics by pundits.

This article by Dylan Byers at Politico kicked off a spirited media wolfpack.

The target was New York Times analyst Nate Silver, who was attacked for the crime of using state-level polling data to find that the election was actually pretty stable and Mr. Obama was always more likely than not to win.

Mr. Silver's quasi-academic position derived from the polls ran against the dominant media paradigms at key points in the race. Mr. Silver put forth that Mr. Obama had a better than 61% chance of winning even when headlines were screaming that Mr. Romney was taking control after the first debate. When headlines were calling the race "too close to call" Mr. Silver was saying President Obama had a better than 90% chance of winning.

There was a conservative tint to the criticism, as Mr. Romney supporters refused to believe they were not winning.

What is more, it was remarkably similar to the movie Moneyball, and the rage hurled at quantitative analysts who refused to see the importance of gut and experience in selecting ball players.

The reality is the political analysis the public sees is too often dominated by old chestnuts and insider spin and – pretty much – nonsense.

The fact that no Republican has won the Presidency without Ohio is an interesting piece of trivia but this rear-facing fact renders little help in predicting the future outcome of the election.

The fact that state-level polls show Ohio is consistently backing Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney, and that enough other swing states remain consistently Democrat leaning to get to 270 electoral votes, is crucial in predicting the election.

In the end, Mr. Silver projected every one of the 50 states accurately, and made accurate predictions on most if not all the Senate races. Some will characterize this as a modern re-enactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial, with science victorious over mythology. But I think it proves only that Mr. Silver has the right idea, a good model, and got lucky in places like Florida where he only assigned Mr. Obama a 50.3% probability of winning.

Getting them all right isn't the point because probability isn't about getting it right 100% of the time. It's more about the shape of the race, and the likelihood of certain scenarios.

The role of analytics driven state-level poll aggregation is informative in U.S. Presidential elections precisely because it more accurately follows the process of selecting Presidents than other methods.

Presidents are not picked by Gallup polls, or national vote, or pundit analysis, or media appearances. They win by winning 270 electoral college votes through a coalition of state-level victories. Analysis that focuses on state-level dynamics and aggregates that to the national level with rigour has value beyond the horse race, to better track what is happening and consider the possible outcomes.

This race was not "too close to call." Actually, it was pretty likely Mr. Obama was going to win throughout, and for reasons we will get to now.

4. The new Democrat majority

The term "realignment" gets thrown around a lot.

V.O. Key originally defined the term as a single "critical election" that dramatically shifts the dominance of the political system from one party to another. 1932 is a prime example, when the old Republican dominant coalition collapsed and the New Deal Democrat coalition held the Presidency with few exceptions until 1968.

Realignment since 1932 is harder to detect. Elections from 1964 to 1980 were part of a long process that saw the South move from Democrat bedrock to Republican bedrock. Certainly, realignment took place but it was not packed into a single election.

Bill Clinton picked the Republican lock on the Presidency in 1992 and 1996, reliably adding states like Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Missouri to a growing Democrat coalition anchored by California. But all those states slipped back to the Republicans in 2000.

Mr. Obama may have created a more durable coalition.

Cast your mind forward to 2016.

Barring catastrophe, a competent Democrat candidate should arrive in the race with almost 257 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win leaning their way. Places like Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire are likely to trend more Democrat, not less. Regions like the Upper Mid-west or New England or the West Coast aren't likely to suddenly embrace hard-edged conservatism.

That allows the Democrat nominee to win simply by adding any ONE of the following states: Ohio, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, or the combination of Colorado and Iowa.

In contrast, the Republicans must win ALL of those states to win the election.

To make matters worse, demographics are pushing all of those states except Ohio and Iowa quickly into a more pro-Democrat position, either because of an influx of Hispanics or white-collar professionals. They are also pushing Arizona away from the Republicans, and to a lesser extent Georgia.

Consider this: the Democrats won the election despite losing among political Independents. There are enough self-identified Democrats in the United States to take the election if they can be brought to the polls.

This is not to say the next election is guaranteed to be won by the Democrats.

The Republicans could adapt to reality and make a real push to win over Hispanics, say by nominating Marco Rubio.

The economy could go back into recession, defeating the Democrat nominee even before the primaries begin.

War or terrorism or disaster or scandal could engulf the country.

But the macro-trends in the United States are tipping in the Democrats favour, and in a way that will likely accelerate in the coming years.

5. Back where we started

While the election consumed billions in treasure and time, it didn't change anything in Washington.

Unlike Canada, where a majority government can impose its will on government via the legislature, the checks and balances of the U.S. system hobble the President's ability to make policy.

The Democrats control the Presidency and the Senate.

The Republicans control the House of Representatives, and their ideology holds more sway with the Supreme Court.

The GOP is intransigent and hard-line, likely to block bills in the Senate and obstruct government with the House.

The fiscal cliff is fast approaching, with the automatic cuts agreed to in the earlier budget plan now scheduled to pass.

The deficit is unimaginably large, and growing.

The economy is stuck in second gear, and needs constant attention.

The War in Iraq is over, but Afghanistan is still bleeding and challenges requiring potential U.S. intervention range across the globe.

Many of the key players from the first Obama team are likely to move on, including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.

There is an opportunity for renewal in this election.

But it will require innovation and compromise from both sides of the aisle and active citizenship from the people of the United States.

The budget challenges are simply too large to avoid, and the consequences will be felt across the planet.

Hopefully, Mr. Obama will use his second term to complete America's recovery from the financial crisis, modernize the social safety net, and heal some of the tension in the nation.

If so, he will have turned the hope for change from 2008 into a reality by 2016.

Andrew Steele is a social entrepreneur and political observer in Toronto.

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