Two kinds of lessons can be drawn from an election. First there are circumstances unique to a race that obviously won't carry forward—"47 percent," Bain Capital ads, and Hurricane Sandy were confined to the politics of 2012 and so are now consigned to political history.
Then there are trends whose implications will resonate beyond 2012. Here are three, all ominous for the GOP, which I call the hat trick of doom:
Pity party. Mitt Romney and his campaign are on the receiving end of deserved criticism for ineptitude. But his run also demonstrates a couple of structural problems with the primary process. The philosophical purification of the Republican Party has driven GOP presidential aspirants to try to outdo each other in demonstrating their adherence to dogma. See, for example, Romney's assertion that he had been a "severely conservative" governor; and see all of this year's contenders vowing not to accept a deal that had even a dollar in tax increase for $10 worth of spending cuts; and see Romney's hard, "self-deportation" line on dealing with illegal immigration. Such ideological contortions may appeal to conservative primary voters, but they hold little appeal for a general electorate that skews moderate—at 40 percent in exit polls the most self-identified ideology—and values compromise and balance. Obama, by the way, won moderates by a margin of 61-38.
And the problem of the GOP's departure from the moderate mainstream is exacerbated by the free-for-all campaign finance system that Citizens United unleashed. The "super PACs" had little effect in the general election, but they did have a pernicious effect in the primaries. Pre-Citizens, lack of cash would have driven former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum out of the race well before they finally were. But individual wealthy supporters kept their campaigns going, artificially extending a process that kept Romney "severely conservative" when he should have been tacking back to being moderate Mitt.
Revenge of the nerds. The Obama campaign set a new standard for grass-roots mobilization. Part of that was the campaign's substantial investment in paid staff and field offices. The Obama campaign had 786 field offices around the country, as compared to the Romney campaign's 284, according to one study.
But the sheer volume of Obama's bricks-and-mortar operation doesn't capture the whole story. Tucked into a windowless room in the campaign's Chicago headquarters was its data-mining operation, unmatched in politics in size, scope, and sophistication. The group compiled vast amounts of data on voters and donors, and used cutting-edge marketing and research techniques to figure out how to motivate people to donate their time, money, and their vote. "We could [predict] people who were going to give online," one senior adviser told Time magazine. "We could model people who were going to give through the mail."
Ironically, it was the George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign that pioneered using private sector marketing-type statistical modeling techniques to identify supporters. But Democrats have dramatically advanced the techniques. "The left has birthed an unexpected subculture," Sasha Issenberg, whose book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns details this evolution, wrote this week in Slate. "It now contains a full-fledged electioneering intelligentsia, focused on integrating large-scale survey research with randomized experimental methods to isolate particular populations that can be moved by political contact."