2012 US presidential election

The US presidential election held on 6 November (being the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as required by the US Constitution) was a very close race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

On page 273, Chapter 8 of the textbook you will see that the US president is not selected on the basis of a majority of the popular vote but is elected by gaining a majority of Electoral College votes, that means the candidate has to achieve 270 out of the total of 538 available votes.   In most states the candidate who wins the popular vote is granted the total number of Electoral College votes for that state.  Some states have more Electoral College votes than others because each state is assigned a number of electors equal to the total of its senators and representatives in the US Congress. (Further information about this process can be found at ‘Learn about elections and voting’ at http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Voting/Learn.shtml or ‘The Electoral Process’ at infousa.state.gov/government/elections/electoral processhtml).

The Electoral College system determines the way a presidential campaign is conducted because the candidates target the states they need to carry to try and reach the majority of Electoral College votes.  In 2012 the US presidential rivals campaigned heavily in the key swing states right up to and including election day.  On the day before election Romney visited Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio while Obama went to Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.  On election day with the polls indicating it was a very close race Romney revisited Ohio and also went to Pennsylvania in a last-ditch effort to gain more votes.  No Republican candidate had ever been successful without winning Ohio (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20101713). 

Barack Obama won the election with a clear majority of 332 Electoral College votes while Romney secured only 206.  On the surface this might suggest that Obama had achieved a clear victory, but the actual result was much closer.  Obama won 62,615,406 (51%) of the total popular vote compared to Romney’s 59,142,004 (48%).  These close margins were reflective of the votes at state level.  The larger difference in the Electoral College votes was a function of the winner-take-all system in the states and the differential weighting of Electoral College votes across the  states as we saw above.  The impact on the 2012 election can be seen at CNN Politics ‘Election 2012: Result’, http://www.cnn.com/election/2012/results/main.  

The focus of reporting on the presidential election was on the two major party candidates but there were also 6 minor party candidates.  The final result with Obama and Romney between them securing 99% of the popular vote is indicative of the strength of the US two-party system (see pp 323-324 of the textbook).  The campaign also reflected the ideological divide between the two parties (see page 317 of the textbook) while demographic factors associated with the Hispanic vote favoured Obama (Whittell, G. 2012, ‘Republicans caught off-guard by demographic shift’ The Australian 9 November, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/republicans-caught-off-guard-by-demographic-shift/story-fnb64oi6-122651327806).

As you have seen from Chapter 12 of the textbook, effective political communication is critical to the success of an election campaign.  The 2012 US presidential campaign was notable for its expense, with each candidate spending over $US1 billion on campaign advertising.  The parties used data analysis from web advertising tests to determine the effectiveness of their advertisements, configured their web sites for access by mobile phone and other devices, and made extensive use of social media including Facebook and Twitter to engage the public (West, D.M. 2012 ‘Communication Lessons from the 2012 Presidential Election’, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up=front/posts/2012/11/06-election-communications-west.  See also Voice of America, ‘Internet, Social Media Prominent in US Presidential Race’ at http://www.voanews.com/content/internet_social_media_are_prominent_in_2012_presidential_race/1485372.html and Richardson, G. 2012 ‘Connected to the voters who count’, The Australian, 9 November at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/connected-to-the-voters-who-count/story-fnfenwor-1226513300963. 

Democrat President Obama may have won the presidential election, but he faces the continuing problem of having to govern without a majority in both houses of the Congress.  The 2012 congressional elections saw the Democrats maintain control of the Senate but the Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives.  As you can see from Table 5.2 on page 142 of the textbook, this creates difficulty because bills are initiated by the President have to pass through both houses of Congress.  As you are aware, Australian governments face a similar situation when they lack a majority in the Australian Senate (see pages 159-160 of the textbook).

Gwynneth Singleton

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