Primary Factors Contributing to Obama's Victory in 2012 Presidential Election Essay

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2012 Election

Primary Factors Contributing to Obama's Victory in 2012 Presidential Election

For some, the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election was a foregone conclusion; incumbent presidents rarely lose their second election, and the challenger did not provide enough of a contrast to warrant a change in leadership at this point in history. For others, it came as a sudden surprise, an unexpected upheaval that challenged the very premise of their worldview. In either case, the theories about how Barack Obama secured a second term abounded even before the vote counting was officially over, and there is no shortage of opinions of the subject. While it is difficult if not impossible to attribute the outcome to any single factor, a close analysis can at least provide some insight into which factors played the biggest part. Performing this analysis reveals that a combination of concerted get-out-the-vote efforts, a mutable, inconsistent opponent, and substantial demographic shifts are the primary factors that allowed President Obama to overcome a weak economy and lower-than-ideal approval ratings in order to secure a second term. The question of which factors contributed to Obama's victory is not merely idle speculation or a topic reserved for wonks and political junkies, because although presidential elections only occur once every four years, the factors that shape their outcomes ultimately end up affecting every element of public life. Thus, determining the factors behind Obama's victory will not only provide insight into how the "game" of campaigning is played, but also more fundamental information about what direction the United States is going, socially, culturally, and politically in the second decade of the twenty-first century.


As mentioned above, determining the single most important factor of any given election is close to impossible, because there are simply too many variables to account for the relative import of every one. Furthermore, the very nature of democracy makes it impossible to get a truly accurate view of every voter's intention and reason for voting the way he or she did, forcing one to rely on less precise metrics in order to determine the weight of any given factor. However, this does not mean that a robust, critically-sound methodology is impossible; rather, one must simply acknowledge the practical limits of this kind of investigation at the outset. To begin developing this methodology, it is necessary to distinguish between a few different factors influencing different stages of the voting process, because even if one could know every single voter's intention, this would still leave the question of what factors determined who voted in the first place. Thus, one must be careful to consider not only the factors influencing voters' choice of candidate, but also the social and structural factors that determine who actually constitutes the voting public.

Aside from the obvious legal parameters determining who is eligible to vote, there are larger demographic patterns of voting practices that can play a substantial role in influencing the election. The massive industry of punditry and constant news means that there is no shortage of reporting and commentary on these kinds of demographic predictors, and thus a close look at these analyses of voting turnout tendencies for certain demographics will provide the first step in attempting to determine the major factors contributing to the outcome of the election.

In addition, the centrality of race as a key factor in America's political history has generated academic interest as well, and thus certain peer-reviewed studies can provide additional insight into this subject, including work examining how perceptions of race affect people's attitudes toward public policy.

As will be seen in the analysis, understanding the influence of demographic voting patterns is especially relevant for this particular election, because part of Obama's success has been due to his ability to motivate groups that have otherwise shown themselves reluctant to turn out in large numbers.

In addition to the demographic factors determining who votes, there are practical structural factors concerning either campaign's get-out-the-vote efforts. As mentioned above, Obama was successful in mobilizing certain groups that in the past have not turned out in large numbers, but this cannot simply be attributed to his personal popularity. Instead, one must examine the campaign infrastructure behind these get-out-the-vote efforts, because in the end one of the most effective ways of getting people to vote is to have someone else call them and tell them to vote.

Thankfully, one of the upsides of the sports-writing style of political coverage that has emerged over the last decade is the way in which political reporters examine each and every variable of a campaign the way one might look at sports players' training regimens, and so there is plenty of secondary research on the issue of campaign infrastructure.

Finally, one must acknowledge the role played by the actual candidates and their policies. In this case, it will be especially instructive to examine either candidate's record, because although Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represented a woefully miniscule sliver of the political spectrum, generally agreeing on most major issues (especially foreign policy and national security), the way in which either candidate framed their own positions seems to have had a substantial influence on the way they were perceived in the press, and thus by the voting public.

Examining the candidates' behavior over the course of the campaign in conjunction with exit poll information will serve to provide a much clearer picture of how either candidate's statement of his positions translated (or failed to translate) into votes on election day.


To begin it will be useful to recount some of the basic facts of the election's outcome in order to ground the subsequent analysis in these hard figures. President Obama won reelection with 332 electoral votes, 62 more than the 270 needed to win, and he carried 26 states. He also won the popular vote, garnering 3.5 million more votes than Mitt Romney. The 2012 election was a closer race than 2008, as Obama won fewer electoral votes, a smaller portion of the popular vote, and fewer states than during his previous race against John McCain. However, his margin of victory was still fairly substantial.

The second thing to note before getting into this analysis is that exit polls, which are one of the most commonly cited sources of post-election information, were not conducted in all fifty states. Instead, they were only conducted in thirty states, and of those thirty President Obama won twenty-two, meaning that the available exit poll data will skew heavily towards President Obama.

This does not render the exit poll data entirely useless, because one may still gain some insights into these voter's reasons for voting the way they did, but it is necessary to acknowledge this skewed data so as not to accidentally grant any given exit poll more weight than it deserves.

With this information in hand one may now begin the first step of the analysis, namely, a look at the demographic breakdown of voters. Again, much of this data is based on exit polling, which means that it will offer a much more accurate view of the make-up of Obama voters than Romney voters, but it will be instructive nevertheless because determining the rough demographic make-up of Obama's winning coalition will help to demonstrate the importance of demographics in determining voter turn-out and election results. As such, all numbers included in this section must be interpreted as rough estimations, based on the best available evidence; in most cases this relative indeterminacy will not matter, because the difference between candidates is stark enough that a few percentage points would not have made a difference.

In terms of ethnic demographics, President Obama won roughly 73% of the national Hispanic vote, 93% of the African-American vote, 39% of the white vote, and 73% of "Other," the majority of which includes voters who self-identify as Asian, Pacific Islander, and other races or ethnicities.

In terms of which racial and ethnic groups represented the greatest proportions of the total vote, the numbers largely correspond to the general population except in the case of Hispanic voters. The percentage of whites, African-Americans, and "Others" making up the voting public generally corresponded to their respective percentage of the total population (roughly 72%, 13%, and 5%, respectively), but Hispanic voters only made up 10% of the total vote even though they constitute roughly 16% of the total population.

Nevertheless, President Obama's share of the Hispanic vote was important, because although as a demographic Hispanics have traditionally turned out in lower percentages than other groups, the 2012 election saw Hispanics turning out in much greater numbers.

In addition to racial and ethnic demographics, age plays an important role in determining voter turnout, and particularly when it comes to younger voters. Traditionally, voters ages 18-29 are the least likely to vote, and represent the smallest percentage of voters outside of those aged 65 and up even though they represent a larger portion of the total population.

In the 2012 election, these younger voters made up 19% of…

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