Scorecard of the 2012 Presidential Election

All the votes have not yet been counted and certified from the 2012 Presidential campaign. However, we know who the winner is and the post-election analysis is nearly complete.

Before we all forget the election ever took place, I want to make sure we dive into some data to learn a few political lessons from the season that just ended.

Political operatives look at a few critical poll numbers, data points and electorate information when they craft a campaign strategy.

Here is a look at how those measurements played out:

Presidential Approval Rating:

On the Election Day poll average calculated by Real Clear Politics, the President maintained a 50.1% job approval. It was his highest number of the entire election season. Exit polling on Election Day showed a 54% approval amongst those who showed up to vote.

Favorability/Likability Ratings:

The exit polling showed President Obama with a 53% favorability rating compared to Mitt Romney’s 47%.¬† Prior polling showed both men at nearly 50% favorability with a handful of polls even showing that voter’s view of Romney was better than their opinion of Obama and several showed Romney over 50%.


The unemployment rate on Election Day was 7.9 percent.

Demographics of the Electorate:

According to exit poll data, 53% of the electorate was made up of women which was the largest gap between the genders in exit poll history. 19% of voters were under the age of 30 and just 16% were age 65 and older. 13% of voters were African American, 10% Latino and 3% Asian. The single largest voting sub-group were white women.

Party ID:

Exit polling showed 38% of voters were Democrats, 32% Republicans and 29% Independents.

Voter turnout:

57.5% of eligible voters participated according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. This is less than 2008’s 62.3% turnout and 2004’s 60.4% but higher than 2000’s 54.2%.

The formal voter turnout of registered voters will be a higher number when it is released but it is clear that more Americans sat out this election than the previous two.

Track of the Country:

On Election Day, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed 54.1% of the country felt the nation was heading on the wrong track. It was the lowest that number had been all election season.

Top Issues:

According to exit polls, 59% of the electorate said the economy was their primary concern while 18% cited health care, 15% said the deficit and 5% said foreign policy.

October Surprise:

Hurricane Sandy and the President’s response.

Campaign Spending:

Barack Obama’s campaign spent over $540 million to Romney’s $336 million. However, if you factor in the national party spending and outside Super PACs, team Romney actually outspent team Obama $1 billion – $932 million. Romney’s campaign and Super PACs also outspent team Obama on the airways with commercial ad spending.


The vast majority of national polls had the race tied or with one candidate or the other holding a one point edge. Pew, ABCNews/Washington Post and the National Journal polls were closest to the final result. Gallup and Rasmussen both put out polls in the final hours of the campaign that showed Romney ahead.

Historial Note:

It is very difficult to dislodge an incumbent President.

The election was close and President Obama only won by 2.7% points. However, the key indicators listed above tell a simple story of how he pulled off the thin win:

His fundamentals were strong and the trends were moving in his direction.

The unemployment rate was high, but the last two reports from the Bureau on Labor Statistics for September and October were the best of his entire presidency. 7.9% is a bad number for an incumbent, but the trend matters more than the number and Obama was riding a short term upswing. While many people still felt that the county was heading the wrong way on Election Day, the numbers of people who thought the country was heading in the right direction  was at a 1 year high. Again, trends matter.

Obama’s approval ratings were also as high as they had been in a year. If an incumbent can kiss 50% approval on Election Day, he will almost always win. Obama hit that mark on the day itself and the electorate was skewed for Democrats, thus making his approval rating higher in the exit poll.

The President also maintained a high favorability rating. Romney caught up to Obama on this measure toward the final days of the race, but Obama rarely slipped below 50% through the entire election cycle. Romney’s attacks simply were not very effective.

Voter turnout was down from 2008, but the electorate was more Democratic, made up of more women than men and many more minorities that past electorates. The Democrats had a superior get-out-the-vote operation and the numbers of self-identified Republicans declined. Perhaps some Republicans did not show up, but it is clear that Democrats have expanded their party coalition and the Republicans were either stagnant or perhaps lost some members.

The Romney campaign accurately predicted the economy would be the primary issue of the election. Unfortunately, the wildly successful businessman from Massachusetts only won 51% of the votes from those who said the economy was their top issue. His debt and deficit arguments were much more effective, but his health care message fell apart.

It is clear that the money spent by both candidates was a wash. Neither had a notable advantage in their spending.

The October surprise did materialize and it wasn’t man made. President Obama’s response was rather simple, but the fact that he did not completely drop the ball was enough to knock Romney out of the news for 3 full days. Obama had full access to American TV screens in a leadership role during a national tragedy. His ability to navigate the crisis without a major hiccup was enough to stop Romney’s poll momentum and freeze the race with the President slightly ahead.

There is no single event that won a second term for the President. The fundamentals were in his favor, including the fact he was an incumbent. In order to defeat an incumbent President who has 50% job approval, 50% favoribility, a favorable electorate, and slightly positive economic trends you need to field a great challenger to run an outstanding campaign.

Instead, the GOP had a good challenger who ran a decent campaign. Not good enough.

Romney’s favoribility was hit hard early in May when the Obama team successfully painted him as a greedy Wall Streeter without a soul. Romney had no money to defend himself following a bruising primary and there is nothing he could do as Obama was pounding way at his reputation.

He never fully recovered. As unemployment numbers slowly came down, Romney’s economic argument started to fall on deaf ears. By the time he debuted his 5 point plan, many people were already too lost on his positions to understand what he wanted to do as President. Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign harped on wedge issues like contraception, gay marriage and illegal immigration to distract voters from the economy while casting Republicans as fringe right wingers, outside the mainstream.

With fundamentals on his side and the politics of division and fear in his campaign toolbox, President Obama was probably confident of his win on election night.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were the last two people to defeat an incumbent. It would’ve taken a similar candidate of their political skill and charisma to defeat Barack Obama. Romney did not have it and his campaign could not overcome its shortcomings.

It was close and considering what we know about the electorate now, perhaps close is the best Mitt Romney could have ever come in 2012.


Leave a comment
  • I probably have as much interest in exit polls as in the hot stove league, i.e. maybe 2%.

    However, 2 things mentioned here were not fully developed:

    1. "a greedy Wall Streeter," i.e. did Bain create jobs or offshore them? What does that say about what Romney would have really done?

    2. "while casting Republicans as fringe right wingers, outside the mainstream." Did candidates like Mourdock and Aiken, who dropped 10 points in the polls when they opened their mouths, drag down the top of the ticket? Did their supporters bother to vote for the much more liberal (to them) Romney?

Leave a comment