By UCLA Today staff
President Obama’s victory in retaining the White House for another term surprised at least three campus observers of the political scene and affirmed the predictions of another. In this story, written by members of the UCLA Today staff, five faculty members from the UCLA Luskin School give their thoughts on the election.
Luskin dean Frank Gilliam and faculty members Daniel J.B. Mitchell, Chris Tilly, Mark Peterson and Joel Aberbach all weigh in on the election.
Cobbled with a weakened economy that’s been slow to recover and a high unemployment rate, Obama nevertheless managed to pull off a win that defies historical trends, said economics professor Lee Ohanian, who has served as an economic adviser on several state and federal political campaigns.
"It’s very unusual that he won, in the sense that incumbent presidents almost never win if they preside over a very weak economy," said Ohanian, who is also a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The fraction of the working-age population that actually has jobs is lower now than when he took office," he said, adding that there are about 15 million fewer jobs than there should be right now. "It’s been an incredibly disappointing economy."
, dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs and a political science and public policy professor, summed up Obama’s victory as "surprising, curious and historic." Like many, Gilliam said he was surprised by how quickly Obama’s victory was projected and how dominant the president turned out to be in the swing states.
"Was it because of minority voters, women, young people? How did he put his coalition back together? Lots of people didn’t think this would happen," Gilliam commented.
Political scientist Tim Groeling, chair of the communication studies department and an authority on political communication and new media, found one possible explanation in the "Democratic turnout machine" that relied heavily upon online communication, just as it had in 2008. Yet he expressed surprised that this approach worked again 2012. "When you consider that 2008 was a historic election with a Republican challenger dragged down by his association with a beleaguered incumbent, economic crisis, and the Sarah Palin implosion … and this time, the Democrats were facing high unemployment, criticism in key areas of foreign policy and even a hurricane disrupting communication, the Democratic turnout was shockingly high. I didn’t expect that."
Unsurprised by Obama’s win was associate professor and political scientist Lynn Vavreck
, who has been writing a book on the 2012 presidential race and religiously tracking the results of online polling of a representative sample of people nationwide since December. Obama’s win was predictable, she said, based on intensive analyses of statistical patterns and models using data from presidential elections over the last 60 years.
"Incumbent presidents in growing economies, even slow-growing economies, are hard to beat," Vavreck said. "In our data, he started out with a slight advantage and held that advantage throughout the entire year. Our data didn’t show any of the fluctuations you heard about in the weekly poll data from media outlets. For us, it was a pretty steady pace."
Gov. Mitt Romney’s chief failure, she said, was his inability to craft a larger, overall, proactive message. "Instead, he continually talked about how Barack Obama had not delivered in terms of the economy. So that lack of an overall message, coupled with what he said about immigration in the primary and what his co-partisans said about women and abortion later, really hurt him with specific demographics — Latinos, women, but also, in terms of turnout, white men." There were two percent fewer white men in the composition of voters this year than in 2008.
"I can’t help but believe that if Romney had a better overall message and call to action — other than to say that Barack Obama hasn’t done a great job — he could have made up that gap," Vavreck said.
UCLA political scientist Mark Sawyer, chair of Afro-American Studies and the director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, offered his thoughts on the election in a video on the Huffington Post with other African American political commentators. He said the strong showing by blacks and Latinos at the polls — to vote overwhelmingly for the president — may be attributed to the threats of voter suppression and intimidation heard in some states. "It helped turn voting this time into a cause for black folks and Latinos as well," Sawyer said. And while this time, blacks "didn’t have T-shirts and lawn signs" as many did in Obama’s first campaign, "they did it old-school style," by just turning out in numbers at the polls.
A mix of ballot measures
Surprising for some campus experts was the approval of Proposition 30 tax increases. Its passage prevented the state from drastically cutting into public education budgets. K-12 schools would have been forced to take a $5.4 billion hit, and there would have been "trigger" cuts of $250 million each to UC and CSU budgets. Potentially, UCLA could have lost approximately $50 million in this academic year.
But Proposition 30, created by Gov. Jerry Brown, also has the potential of making California less competitive with other states, said Ohanian, because it increases the state sales tax and the income tax for the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.
One interpretation of Brown’s victory, said Professor Daniel Mitchell, the former Ho-Su Wu Chair in Management and an emeritus professor of public policy, could be that voters are weary of the annual state budget crisis which plays out in Sacramento, leaving the state in constant fiscal turmoil. Even though Proposition 30 will mean a higher sales tax, "they were willing to vote for it."
Campus experts also kept an eye on Proposition 32, which some referred to as "paycheck protection" and others as "anti-union." The fight over restricting union donations to political candidates and causes turned out to be the most expensive campaign waged on the ballot, with organized labor spending $64 million to defeat it.
This was the third time a version of this proposition has been on the state ballot and the third time it’s lost, said Mitchell. "Part of the motivation … may have been to take union money that would have gone into supporting the governor’s proposition (30) and diverting it to this. … As it turned out, the governor’s proposition passed, anyway."
Organized labor and its allies "threw a tremendous amount of money and ground troops [at Proposition 32] to get their message out there that this was pretty much the thing that voters had turned down before," noted Christopher Tilly, professor of urban planning and director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. And labor made effective use of ads showing that those who would be exempted from the ban were essentially the same people supporting the measure, he said.
"This made clear that labor in California has an incredible ground game and lots of troops, and this made a difference," Tilly said.
The good news about the failure of Proposition 32, Ohanian said, was that it reflects general dissatisfaction with politically connected groups and organizations that try to sway votes and legislation. "In Sacramento and in Washington, people see how lobbyists and special interest can get preferential treatment … legislation that benefits them to a much broader cost to the rest of society. I’m happy to see people being serious … and taking steps to start challenging special interests."
Life after the election
Now that Republicans have lost the presidency but kept the House of Representatives in last night’s election, UCLA political experts see two competing pressures that could reshape the GOP and determine whether the federal government will once again face gridlock or find ways to compromise.
In House races, more conservative voters and Tea Party members held significant sway, but in state and national races, the GOP loss seems inextricably tied up with members’ inability to shift away from the right wing and appeal to growing minority populations, faculty experts said.
"There will be a struggle — some even say warfare — within the Republican Party ranks about what to do," said public policy professor Mark Peterson, who specializes in elections and presidential politics. "Republicans risk becoming the party of white, male, religious, Southern, Protestant conservatives. If you look at where the country is moving demographically — to a majority minority population — that is a recipe for disaster for the party."
House Republicans, who depend on smaller, more local electorates, will feel pressure to cater to their conservative base, especially after seeing some of their incumbent colleagues lose in the primaries to more right-wing candidates nominated by the Tea Party, Peterson said.
But that’s not the whole story: In senate races, conservative winners in the primary were too conservative to win, said Peterson.
"There’s no way the Republicans would have lost the senate seat in Indiana if the incumbent, Richard Lugar, hadn’t lost in the primary" to Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, Peterson said. Mourdock gained notoriety known for saying that pregnancy caused by rape was "something God intended."
Likewise, Democrat Claire McCaskill in the Missouri senate race should have been "an easy target," Peterson said, but she won handily over Tea Party candidate Todd Akin, infamous for saying women’s bodies prevented pregnancy in the case of "legitimate rape."
The balance of power is now in the House, where Republicans must decide whether to double-down or compromise, said Joel Aberbach
, distinguished professor of political science and public policy, and director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy.
"Republicans are probably going to have a big fight among themselves," Aberbach said. "If they do compromise, they’re likely to anger the people in the nominating constituency, and if they don’t compromise, there will either be gridlock, or a lot of pressure on these House Republicans. They’re facing the so-called fiscal cliff, and the Bush tax cuts expire fairly soon."
"The fiscal cliff is going to be really ugly" for Democrats and Republicans alike, predicted Groeling, who said that divided party control of government is "an ironclad alibi for failure. It basically allows each party to say that whatever happens is the other party’s fault." What unfolds in the coming months in dealing with the nation’s debt "will be a good indication of how the next four years will go," he added.
The election also highlights the increasing importance of the growing Latino voting population, Aberbach said. "It’s both the [Republican] party’s biggest opportunity and problem, because they’ve antagonized that group," he said. "Many Republicans think they can make inroads because of Latinos’ religiosity, but that clashes with the nativist side of the party that opposes immigration."
Given the "demographic math" that finds Latinos adding up as election game-changers, Tilly noted, "I think we can expect to see immigration reform very prominent on the legislative agenda. Republicans have some hard discussions coming about reaching out to Latinos."