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Obama success a story of numbers

  • Article by: DAN BALZ
  • Washington Post
  • November 7, 2012 - 9:34 PM

Politics and presidential elections are stories of people, ideas and numbers. On Tuesday night, as much as anything, numbers told a story of how President Obama won a second term despite a climate that had long favored Mitt Romney and the Republicans.

Through much of the year, Romney was running with winds at his back -- or, more accurately, with winds in Obama's face. What Romney could not overcome was the inexorable power of demographic change.

That alone was enough to confound Republican modelers, who either believed or hoped that the electorate would look more like that of 2004 than 2008 -- both in its racial and political makeup. But it was not the only story. Obama's campaign, the most data-driven in the history of American politics, tweaked the electorate in enough places and enough constituencies to eke out victories in virtually every battleground state that had looked competitive on the eve of the election.

Nothing was inevitable about the president's victory. But against the obstacles in Obama's path was a belief in Chicago in the glacial power of demographic change. If not exactly a secret weapon, it was an under-appreciated asset, and its inexorable quality was seemingly underestimated by Romney's campaign and by many Republican strategists.

Obama advisers were certain that the electorate would have fewer white voters than it had in 2008, just as it had fewer in 2008 than in 2004 and in elections before that. Since 1992, the share of the white vote has fallen from 87 percent to 74 percent in 2008.

On Tuesday, according to exit polls, whites accounted for 72 percent. Obama received 39 percent of that white vote, compared with 43 percent in 2008. In fact, it is the lowest for any Democrat running in a two-way contest since 1984, when Walter Mondale received 35 percent of the white vote.

Obama offset his weak performance among white voters by winning 78 percent of the non-white electorate. He captured 93 percent of the black vote, 71 percent of the Hispanic vote (up from 67 percent four years ago) and 73 percent of the Asian vote (up from 62 percent in 2008).

That's not the best any Democrat has done. But Obama's campaign did not rely solely on the power of demographic change. It set out to maximize it. For the past 18 months, the team invested in what it called Operation Vote, which was aimed exclusively at the key constituencies that make up Obama's coalition: African-Americans, Hispanics, young voters and women (particularly those with college degrees).

The decision to set up a parallel organizing team was one of the upshots of the shellacking Obama and the Democrats received in the 2010 midterm elections. Research showed the Obama team that voters are not only connected geographically but also by what one senior official called "common concerns" of their natural constituencies.

Once they were identified, the campaign communicated with them as directly as possible. For example, it targeted places where these constituencies gathered and bought advertising in niche markets that appealed to them.

Because many votes are yet to be counted, it's not clear whether overall turnout nationally will be as high as it was in 2008.

The coalition Obama assembled in 2008 was unique, doing better among minorities and college-educated voters than other Democrats have done. Democrats must ask whether that coalition will outlast his presidency. On Tuesday, that coalition was reassembled and proved just big enough.

© 2014 Star Tribune