Making sense of the 2012 presidential election

November 7, 2012

In making sense of the 2012 elections, U-M political scientists came to the same conclusion about what led to President Obama’s victory: race and gender affected which candidate voters chose.

Donald Kinder, Vincent Hutchings and Michael Traugott

From left: Donald Kinder, Vincent Hutchings and Michael Traugott. Photo by Eva Menezes.

Less than 24 hours after most ballots were counted – except for Florida – Vincent Hutchings, Donald Kinder and Michael Traugott offered their election analysis during a Wednesday panel at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

Most national polls accurately predicted a close U.S. presidential race. However, until the final few weeks before the elections, it was unclear how race and gender would affect the outcome. Exit polls showed several results that could impact future elections, especially for the Republican Party, the experts said.

Hutchings noted Tuesday’s election could be described as the most racially divided electorate in the last 30 years: 39 percent of whites voted for Obama, while 59 percent voted for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. By comparison, former Democratic president Bill Clinton received 39 percent of the white vote in 1992.

African-American, Hispanic and Asian voters went to the polls in large numbers. While the number of African American voters for Obama dipped slightly in the 90 percent range, 71 percent among Hispanics voters selected the President this year compared with 67 percent four years earlier. Romney had 27 percent in 2012. Asian voters preferring Obama jumped to 73 percent this year compared with 64 percent four years earlier.

“The partisan divide has been increasingly racialized in our post-racial environment,” Hutchings said, noting that the Democratic Party is appearing non-white while the Republican Party looks white.  In addition, the number of minority voters is growing while the opposite is happening among white voters, he said.

Race has been a benefit and hindrance to Obama since 2008. If race were not a factor, the president would have won the 2008 elections by a landslide, Kinder said.

Obama was able to identify supporters … and get them to the polls,” Traugott said.

The hindrance has contributed in part to his approval ratings dropping among white voters. However, Obama’s race – as well as effective campaigning efforts – led to large numbers of African Americans mobilizing to vote during the last two presidential elections, Kinder noted.

Before the elections, Kinder thought fewer African Americans might support Obama after his support of same-sex marriage.

“The black church, for a long time, has been the center of political mobilization for the black community and I thought that (same-sex marriage issue) would be a problem for him,” he said. Exit polls show that it wasn’t an issue to keep them from the voting booths.”

The gender gap is “alive and well,” Hutchings noted, with 56 percent of women voting for Obama this year. White women who comprised this segment of the Democratic Party were smaller than four years ago: 46 percent in 2008, compared with 42 percent in 2012. Traugott said labeling it the “gender gap” should also encompass race and marital status.

Overall, the President’s success speaks to his grassroots efforts to mobilize supporters to get to early voting locations, to submit absentee ballots or to take them to the polls Tuesday.

“Obama was able to identify supporters … and get them to the polls,” Traugott said.

While some pundits will second-guess Romney’s strategies, exit polls also indicate that he was not a flawed candidate compared to former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Romney increased the support of Republicans by 3 percent and independents by 6 percent compared with McCain four years earlier, Traugott said. By comparison, Obama increased support of Democrats by 3 percent.