Opinion Research - Strategic Communications Consulting
Polling for Business • Politics • Media • Education • Government

The 2012 Elections: What the Heck Just Happened?

November 8th, 2012 by Fritz Wenzel

NOVEMBER 8, 2012-There is a book recently published by Monica Crowley that is popular with conservatives that asks the question lots of Republicans have been asking for the last four years: “What the Bleep Just Happened?”

Republicans and conservatives are pondering that question anew in the wake of the November elections. The answer is slowly emerging.

What has been missed is who in this past election became saddled with the mantle of incumbency. In good times, incumbency is a warm blanket that insulates candidates from any bad decisions they might have made in office. In bad times, it becomes a wet blanket that chills while exaggerating bad decisions and heinous flaws in personal and professional life.


What was easy to assume, with Democrat Barack Obama in office and presiding over a horrible domestic economy and a foreign policy portfolio that was even worse, was that he would pay the price of incumbency in bad times.


He didn’t. Mitt Romney did.


And many congressional Republicans did as well.


Why? These Republicans allowed themselves to become the issues in the campaign. Democrats shifted the campaign narratives across the country from inflation, unemployment, economic stagnation, to individual flaws of the Republicans.


For Mitt Romney, it was his “war on women” or his Cayman Islands investment accounts, or whatever. When he did successfully break through – in the first debate – and concentrate the national focus, however briefly, on Obama and the failures of his first term, we saw rather impressive upward movement in Romney’s poll numbers. But he didn’t follow through, and so the persistent narrative that Obama had painted, especially in Ohio, that Romney didn’t care about regular people.


He reverted to the position of incumbent, the person on which voters would decide this election. He lost.


Pollsters and consultants across the country whose interpretations of the polling numbers were off the mark were expecting voters to be smarter than they apparently are.  They expected voters to look at Romney’s weaknesses and strengths, and judge them against Obama’s weaknesses and strengths. For the most part, that happened. But what was missed was a predictable behavior displayed by independents in every election – that they almost always go, in massive numbers, to support the challenger over the incumbent in the last days of a campaign.


In the race for President, this should have benefitted Romney, but it rather benefitted Obama, who effectively changed positions with Romney. Obama’s ability to become the challenger in the race for the White House gave him the ability to pick up most of those undecided voters in key states, which propelled him to victory.  Pundits who predicted Romney would win Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, were simply not calculating that voters would buy this political sleight of hand. But, undecided voters being what they are – less informed and less sophisticated – fell for the Obama campaign messaging hook, line, and sinker.


If you look at the final polls in these key states, what you find is that Romney’s level of support was right about at what he won on Election Day.  It was Obama whose numbers increase significantly in state after state.  This is the key attribute of the challenger, not the incumbent, and is the best evidence of a very smart Obama campaign strategy.


If you look at U.S. Senate races and some House races, the same rule applies, in many cases. Many of the final numbers in polls for the Republican candidates is pretty much where they ended up, as Dems sped past them on the backs of late-deciding voters. Races that should have been won by Republicans were lost, largely because the Republican candidates became the issue in the final weeks of the campaign, and these undecided voters ignored some truly awful voting records and corrupt behavior by incumbent Democrats, especially in the Senate races.


It was H.L. Mencken who once said that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” and this appears to have been the guiding principle to the Obama re-election campaign. 

It worked.