The candidates called it the most important election of our lifetime. This time the cliché seemed especially hollow. Yes, there were big issues at stake: the solvency of social programs, the prospect of tax reform, immigration, gay marriage, the size of the military and the proper role of government. But Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and their ceaselessly negative campaigns mostly litigated these issues in sound bites and platitudes. This was a long and petty election marked by Twitter flame wars and silly memes, glitter bombs and moon colonies, Big Bird and binders. But even small campaigns have winners and losers.
Loser: Project Orca. To erase the get-out-the-vote edge Democrats enjoyed in 2008, Romney’s campaign brain trust devised a Web application, code-named Project Orca, designed to track voting tallies in real time. The campaign touted it as a landmark innovation, and Romney boasted it would give the GOP “an unprecedented advantage on Election Day.” This vaunted project was an unmitigated disaster, as Romney volunteer John Ekdahl recounted, so rife with glitches that it may have suppressed Republican turnout instead of bolstering it.
Winner: Jim Messina. He crunched the data, set his sights on turning out a specific segment of the electorate and gambled that the decision to pound Mitt Romney over the summer would pay off. It did. As for Messina, he celebrated the triumph in classic Chicago fashion, with an air punch reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer beater over Craig Ehlo and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Loser: The Iowa caucuses. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status haunted the GOP all year. The Ames straw poll, a nonbinding popularity contest in which candidates ply voters with food and musical acts, elevated Michele Bachmann and cashiered Tim Pawlenty, one of the few plausible alternatives to Romney. The caucuses tugged all of the candidates to the right; Jon Huntsman didn’t even bother to contest it, convinced that his Mormonism and his moderate tone on science and social issues were nonstarters. Iowa is a lovely state, but its homogeneous, heavily conservative Republican electorate is not reflective of America’s changing character, and the pandering it demanded did lasting damage to the nominee of its party.
Winner: Women. This year’s most fought-over demographic, female voters were courted incessantly by both candidates. Fifty-five percent broke for Obama and were essential to his triumph; meanwhile, plenty of women notched important wins of their own. New Hampshire elected an all-female congressional delegation plus a new female governor, and thanks to wins by candidates like Tammy Baldwin, Deb Fischer and Elizabeth Warren, women now make up 20% of the Senate, their largest portion in history.
Loser: Swing-state voters. The two major-party campaigns and affiliated groups plowed more than half a billion dollars into a handful of states, gobsmacking voters —only a tiny sliver of whom were undecided — with a near saturation of advertising from which there was no escape. On the plus side of the ledger: their votes were the ones that mattered most.
Winner: Swing-state TV stations. All those ads were a boon to local TV stations in battleground markets, who cashed in big time on the deluge.
Loser: The Tea Party. The movement salvaged defeat from the jaws of victory in several congressional races by nominating extreme candidates. Even the winning candidates had asterisks: Ted Cruz coasted in conservative Texas, and Fischer nearly frittered away a victory in blood-red Nebraska. With the Tea Party’s approval ratings cratering, candidates who proudly flew its flag in 2010 quietly backtracked just two years later. To some extent, the Tea Party’s adherents have simply been subsumed by the GOP, ensuring that its precepts will survive. “Though the label itself had to be scrapped — it has been permanently soiled by images of mad-dog protesters waving don’t-tread-on-me flags — its ideology is the ideology of the right in 2012,” wrote Frank Rich. In other words, the brand is dead; long live the brand.
Winner: Presidential debates. Political scientists cautioned that for all the hoopla, history has shown that debates often don’t matter. This year they did. The succession of televised forums during the Republican primary gave a megaphone to underfunded candidates, vaulting one after another to the top of the polls on the strength of strong performances or, just as often, catchy slogans. (Remember “9-9-9”?) Newt Gingrich’s evisceration of John King just days before the South Carolina primary helped him best Romney in the Palmetto State, extending a race that was on the verge of wrapping up quickly for four more damaging months. Then in October, Romney’s strong debate performance in Denver helped erase much of Obama’s lead.
Loser: Live tweeting. A new tradition that became ubiquitous yet was almost never useful.
Winner: The Tax Policy Center. This nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank entered the national spotlight in August with its analysis that Romney’s vague economic plan was likely to alleviate the tax burden on high earners and increase it for everyone else. The wonky white paper took center stage during the first presidential debate, when Romney and Obama sparred over (and distorted) its conclusions.
Loser: Conservative megadonors. Conservative super PACs spent heavily in Senate contests and got thoroughly trounced. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce won 1 of 13 races it invested in; the Club for Growth, 2 of 6; FreedomWorks, just 2 of 16. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS went a combined 3 for 17 in their races (many of which overlapped). But while the operatives staffing these groups still got paid, the benefactors didn’t fare as well. Whales like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Texas home builder Bob Perry, Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts and industrialist Howard Simmons got soaked for paltry returns. Then again, at least one wrote it off as the price of doing business. “Paying bills,” said Adelson, who forked over $53 million during the campaign. “That’s how you spend money.”
Winner: Math. An obligatory hat tip to Nate Silver, whose model drew outsize and unreasonable scorn from conservatives (who didn’t like his projections) and pundits (who didn’t understand his methods and resented his certainty). Just as he drew too much scorn, he’ll now reap too much credit, as he was the first to say. Silver was hardly the only expert to nail his predictions, and even the RealClearPolitics polling averages correctly predicted the winner in 49 states.
Loser: Science. Not until Hurricane Sandy’s arrival did climate change rate more than a passing mention. Perhaps Romney’s biggest applause line during his convention speech was a jab at Obama’s 2008 promise to “slow the rise of the oceans.” The election was a reminder of how the Republican Party has repudiated settled science.
Winner: Latinos. Just 29% of Hispanics sided with Romney, an overwhelming rejection that carried Obama to victory and may finally force the conservative movement to modulate its tone toward the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group. Already, House Speaker John Boehner and Fox News host Sean Hannity have called for immigration reforms.
Loser: The conservative media. Blinded to reality by their hopes of ousting Obama, Romney mouthpieces like Jennifer Rubin dutifully swallowed Republican spin, parroted debunked canards and dismissed empirical evidence — like hard polling data — that didn’t fit precooked conclusions. Karl Rove, Dick Morris, George Will, Michael Barone and others were all wildly off the mark with their rosy electoral predictions. And yet readers almost certainly won’t hold them accountable for their mistakes.
Winner: Chris Christie. His effusive embrace of President Obama in the wake of Sandy has squandered some of his goodwill among conservatives; it certainly makes him persona non grata in the Romney camp. But it burnished the New Jersey governor’s image as a straight shooter and added some bipartisan sheen for a looming re-election campaign, which could shape up as a showdown against superstar Newark mayor Cory Booker. Could it hamper Christie’s chances in a 2016 Republican primary? Sure. But his volcanic personality and moderate inklings made him a tough sell already, as he knew when he took a pass on the race this time around.
Loser: Reporters. Both presidential candidates took standoffish postures with the media, preferring to handpick softball interviews that were unlikely to produce damaging missteps. Romney rarely took questions from print reporters, whom he charged some $1,000 apiece for a seat in a remote filing center to cover his election-night festivities. Obama was little better, sitting down with ESPN, MTV and swing-state TV stations but eschewing day-to-day interaction with his traveling press corps. He also skipped the traditional postelection press conference. In lieu of interaction with the candidates, reporters were forced to settle for mind-numbing spin and operatives who declined to go on the record for even the most banal observations.
Winner: The status quo. Two billion dollars bought America the same President, the same obstructionist House and same sclerotic Senate it had already. The stretch from now until Jan. 1, when the U.S. is scheduled to topple over the so-called fiscal cliff, will be a critical test of whether this divided government can be any less dysfunctional than the last vintage. If it isn’t, the country could face severe consequences, and the 2012 elections may turn out to be critically important after all.
PHOTOS: Last Days on the Road with Obama