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Commentary: Putting Obama election numbers in context

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 - The effort is underway to deny the significance of President Barack Obama’s electoral majority. He won fewer states than in 2008, the deniers point out. His percentage of the popular vote was down. The Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives.

Those facts are true, but the analysis is all wrong. It fails to place those facts, and Obama’s victory, in the context of the times and of presidential elections more generally. When those factors are considered, including the tanking economy Obama inherited, Tuesday’s election represents an impressive political success and authorization to move in a direction generally consistent with the Obama program.

In winning 51 percent of the popular vote in unofficial returns, Obama exceeded 50 percent in both of his presidential races. In doing so, he became only the third president in 60 years to achieve that rare feat, the others being Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton was elected twice but never reached 50 percent of the popular vote. Neither did Woodrow Wilson, Harry S Truman or John F. Kennedy in their presidential run(s). Obama’s margin of victory is currently almost 3.5 million votes in incomplete returns.

Obama won 61 percent of the electoral college vote, less than the 68 percent he won four years ago but impressive nonetheless. That’s a margin that exceeds those of Wilson (1916), Truman (1948), Kennedy (1960), Richard M. Nixon (1968), Jimmy Carter (1976), and George W. Bush (2000 and 2004). Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Bush’s narrow 271-266 electoral college win in 2000 (and 500,000 popular vote defeat) authorized implementing his program with little compromise. If so, imagine what Obama’s relative landslide mandates.

Yes, Obama won fewer states than in 2008. By only two. And those two states, North Carolina and Indiana, have historically been pretty red. North Carolina has voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 10 of the last 12 elections, swinging Democrat only for southerner Jimmy Carter and for Obama in 2008. Romney won it by 2.2 percent. Indiana supported the Republican 11 of the last 12 times, voting Democratic only in 2008.

What’s significant is not that Obama lost those two states, but that he held long-time red states like Virginia (10 of last 10 pre-Obama elections, red), Colorado (7 of last 10 pre-Obama elections, red), Florida (6 of last 10 pre-Obama elections, red) and Nevada (6 of last 10 pre-Obama elections red), and made North Carolina competitive. Obama won 26 states and the District of Columbia, including seven of the nine largest states.

Obama’s respective margins must also be viewed in the context of the times. His 2008 result benefited from the unpopularity of the Bush administration. Not only had that administration pursued an expensive and ill-advised war in Iraq, its policies had transformed surpluses to deficits and produced the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression.

But just as Bush’s unpopularity contributed to Obama’s 2008 margin, the mess it left complicated Obama’s race four years later. Obama inherited a nation in worse shape than had any president other than Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The economy was tanking at alarming rates. January 2009 saw about 600,000 jobs lost, capping a loss of 3.6 million jobs during the last year of Bush’s presidency. Monthly job loss was accelerating in Bush’s last months in office, reflecting the economy’s dismal and deteriorating shape.

I’m no economist but having viewed the job loss graphs during Bush’s last year and Obama’s first, I can’t imagine that Obama bears responsibility for the losses that occurred during much of 2009. By spring, 2009, the pace of job loss had been substantially reduced and since 2010, America has gained jobs each month.

Nonetheless, many Americans remain out of work. And many blamed Obama for conditions his predecessor’s administration caused and that resisted easy fix, thereby depressing his margins.

Not since 1940 has a president been re-elected when the unemployment rate was so high. Obama’s re-election in that context suggests voters recognized his administration’s many successes, appreciated his leadership, and favored his program.

To be sure, the Republicans control the House of Representatives. But that doesn’t reflect a counter-electoral majority. It’s due to gerrymandering. Republican success in the 2010 elections allowed that party to draw favorable districts. In fact, Democrats apparently won more votes for the House in 2012 than Republicans, just fewer seats.

Similarly, in Senate voting, the Democrats gained two seats. Democrats (including two Independents who will probably caucus with Democrats) won 25 of the 33 Senate seats and outpolled Republican candidates by more than 9 million votes.

The issues were publicly aired. Obama and the Democrats won the vote. Not in a landslide, but very impressively. The people have spoken. Elections are supposed to have consequences. It’s time to move in a direction consistent with these facts.

Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, writes about and teaches constitutional law. 

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