Failure to bark: reflections on the US presidential election from Russell Bentley

By Dr Russell Bentley, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory

I have taken to calling the 2012 presidential election The Mitt That Didn’t Bark. This was a curious case, indeed. Perhaps not so curious if you placed all your faith in the New York Times’ Nate Silver and the magic of statistical probabilities. However, there are other things in which one can have reasonable belief and the very best pollsters are often recognised in hindsight. Who would have thought that Gallup, the venerable granddad of polling, would get it so wrong? And the Republican narrative about an unpopular incumbent and a failed first term had quite a lot of resonance, and probably a fair amount of traction. And, good heavens, the vast amounts of money spent! This was the first Citizens United presidential campaign and the sums are staggering. Billions? We now measure presidential campaigns in billions of dollars? Good thing America doesn’t need to be investing in infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and job growth. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is of lasting significance or just a blip on America’s seemingly relentless march towards trillion dollar elections. But, the point is, that money did not seem to decide this, the incumbent’s alleged unpopularity made no difference, the supposed failure of the first term did not overwhelm the president’s campaign, and the Mitt did not bark.

The Republican post-election narrative is yet to be finalised, but the first version to hit the airwaves is hardly surprising: the party chose the wrong candidate. Of course, that thought was bubbling just beneath the surface from the moment Romney clinched the nomination. We have to remind ourselves, however, that, even in retrospect, Romney was the only electable Republican candidate willing to stay in the race. The other half-baked characters who lasted just long enough to make us laugh, cry, and despair for the republic were not to be considered, even from the start. Never mind the moments of success that each enjoyed (anyone remember the Ames straw poll? Well, forget about it. The good people of Ames may not be taken so seriously again after plumping for Michele Bachmann and driving the appealing and electable Tim Pawlenty out of the race at a very early stage.). Romney looked like the only candidate for a party desperate to win back the White House. That almost no one in the party actually wanted him or liked him or, in fact, cared much for his political achievements are of minor relevance. Parties are election-winning machines and Romney was just a human resource for fulfilling that purpose. A second post-election narrative is also out there, but any reasonable person (which excludes all of the people promoting it) can see how hopeless it is. These unreasonable souls are saying that Obama either ran a dishonest and divisive campaign, or that he somehow bribed his supporters. Well, one doesn’t want to appear cynical, but even if either fork of this narrative were true, many venerated presidents owe their success to such things. However, neither fork is true, or not very true, and this narrative is sour grapes with an accusation of theft thrown in for good measure.

That Mitt, in the end, did not bark, is a puzzle, though. And here I end with a kind of indictment of Obama: he did not deserve this win. The Republican narrative called the first term a failure. Obama’s first term was a failure, but one of leadership; he did not capitalise on the opportunity he had when he entered office and he was quite effectively out-smarted by Congressional Republicans who did capitalise on his callow willingness to strive for bipartisan consensus. Even his supporters – especially those self-labelled progressives who expressed outrage at Obama’s expansion of Bush-era anti-terrorism programmes, but voted for him anyway – often seemed hard pressed to praise him in terms that were not simply an endorsement of the lesser evil. Obama seems to understand this. His victory speech was a shouty, gloves-off call out to the Republicans, warning them that the man who did not deserve his win was coming to get them. He may succeed. He is more determined and understands his opponent now. Also, he has a window of opportunity. The Republicans will be beating each other up and looking for a saviour possibly for a year, maybe longer. That is the window Obama has to earn his second term. He may have had the winning ground game (again) in 2012, but that only earns him the victory at the ballot box, not in the history books.

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