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Obama’s Re-election Goes Against Historical Precedents

President Obama’s victory in November completely defied the laws of political gravity.

Last spring I wrote in these pages that, barring a GOP meltdown, Gov. Mitt Romney would be elected president.

Well, mea culpa. I underestimated the president and his campaign and overestimated the level of discontent with the job the president has done. I was wrong.

Story by William Lacy

So, exactly how did the president defy political gravity? In two specific ways: First, he was re-elected in an economy worse than any during any other presidential election in contemporary history. President Reagan won with unemployment above 7 percent in 1984, but the economy was beginning a protracted period of economic growth and the rate of growth was much higher than this year.

Second, the president’s campaign succeeded in turning out his base in amazing numbers in swing states. So even though his total popular vote was down by about nine million votes, his levels of support were sufficient enough to get him the requisite electoral votes.

The president succeeded on the first by convincing more than 50 percent of the voters that President Bush was responsible for the mess and that it was inherited. That enabled him to win significant votes even from people who were not happy with his handling of the economy.

And the vaunted Obama ground game, designed to turn out his base vote in swing states, was so successful that it significantly skewed the composition of the electorate in a very Democratic way. Democrats had a 6 percent advantage over Republicans, equivalent to their 2008 advantage despite the intensity of opposition to the president. And among individuals who actually voted, the president’s job approval was a full 5 percent higher than pre-election polls while Gov. Romney’s unfavorables were about 5 percent higher than the polls.

The African-American and youth (ages 18-29) components of the electorate actually increased their sizes in 2012. And the president’s campaign turned out huge numbers of Latino voters who gave him a significant margin of victory.

The Romney campaign wasn’t outstanding, but I don’t believe it’s the primary source of blame for the loss. While no one had at my time of writing been able to explain why Romney received two million fewer votes than John McCain in 2008, I think you can just chalk this up as a big win for the president.

The next question is: Where do we go from here?

The president believes he got a mandate, but the facts show otherwise. His total vote dropped by about nine million and he had 48 percent of the electorate vote against him. It was a heavyweight fight, but the outcome was a split decision.

The president would do well to consider President Bush in 2004. He won a split decision, declared he had gotten a mandate and proposed major social security reforms that struck Americans as tone-deaf to the needs of the nation. With ongoing challenges in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration got badly bogged down and never recovered. Democrats recaptured Congress in 2006.

The president should look to his newfound friend, President Clinton, for ideas on how to move to the center. The most successful of our contemporary presidents, Reagan and Clinton, were forced to reach across the aisle to get support for historic initiatives. As this was written, it was too early to know if he would choose that direction.

A final word on the Affordable Health Care act, as this is the health care issue: As Speaker Boehner said, with the president’s election it is the law of the land. There are a lot of details and issues to work out, but it won’t be repealed. Individuals upset about this need only recall the fact that elections have consequences.