Ten observations on a historic election for the United States

Allister Heath
1 The popular vote was very close: 50.4-48.1 per cent, and a gap of 2.8m votes, against 52.9-45.7 per cent and 9.5m votes in 2008. Obama’s lead was cut from 7.2 points to 2.3 points. However, Obama triumphed in all of the swing states.

2 Many factors destroyed Romney: he was a poor candidate with insufficient charisma and too many negatives who should never have been selected; most Ohioans backed car bailouts, helping deliver the state to Obama; the storm helped the President; and the Democrats delivered a more competent campaign which turned out even more young people than in 2008, gaining the support of two-thirds of 18-29 year olds.

3 Incumbent governments can win even in the current climate. But Obama just had to defend most of his votes. David Cameron’s 36.1 per cent means that he needs to substantially increase his share to win in 2015.

4 US employment has performed poorly and real wages are under pressure – but the economy is growing. The numbers feeling worse off were small enough to save Obama.

5 Republicans kept their majority in the House of Representatives and increased their governorships to 30 out of 50. But Democrats strengthened their control of the Senate to 53 against 45 (and two independents).

6 Most referenda opposed tax hikes. But voters in California voted to increase taxes, including income tax, in a move which is likely going to accelerate that state’s sad economic decline and push jobs to other parts of the US. Californians also voted to keep the death penalty. Some states voted to decriminalise marijuana and Americans increasingly back gay marriage. One last intriguing fact: eight out of ten US counties with the highest incomes voted for Obama.

7 The Republicans’ electoral strongholds were unskilled white men and older voters. The Democrats were backed by single women and the young. US politics is also starkly divided along ethnic lines. The electorate was 72 per cent white; this demographic backed Romney 58-40 per cent. Around 13 per cent of the voters were African-American, 93 per cent of which voted for the President; 10 per cent of the electorate were hispanics, who backed Obama 71 percent to 27; and 3 per cent were Asian (breaking 73-26 for Obama). America has been changing for years – whites made up 87 per cent of voters in 1992 – and any party that cannot capture the votes of immigrants and their children is doomed, and deservedly so. The Republicans used to grab a much higher share of hispanics under George Bush. The party’s current performance is pathetic: it desperately needs to reach out to ethnic minorities and convince them that it is an open party that opposes the evil that is racism and supports a truly colour-blind, upwardly mobile society.

8 But is it really demographics that explains Obama’s victory? As a brilliant analysis on p22 by Stephan Shakespeare demonstrates, attitudes were the best predictor of voting: 81 per cent of those who said they want a bigger government voted Obama.

9 The Republican core vote strategy failed – but only just. Don’t listen to commentators who expound too many meta-theories about the US or any other country. Every time a party loses an election, pundits write it off and talk of grand, historic realignments. They are always wrong. Losers eventually fight back, as the Democrats did after Reagan.

10 Dodd-Frank, the financial regulatory bill, will go ahead – and so will the UK and EU regulatory agenda. Monetary policy will continue unchanged. The big issue now is the fiscal cliff. Good luck, Mr President.