What Made the 2012 Election Tick?

Reporter Dan Balz explains the key factors that led to Obama's victory.

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The 2012 presidential election was "one of the most crucial, contested elections of our time," according to long-time Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz. In "Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America," Balz describes an election dominated by President Obama's first term, a struggling American economy, and a divided Republican Party. He recently spoke to U.S. News about what he says are the key factors that led to Obama's victory and how it will shape the future of America's political landscape. Excerpts:

What was the biggest difference between the 2008 and the 2012 presidential elections?

I think the biggest difference was the tone of the two elections. [In] the 2008 campaign, even some people who voted for John McCain said afterwards they felt good about the country having elected the first African-American president. There was a spirit in the country during and immediately after that election that gave people hope that maybe we were going to enter into a somewhat more civil era than it turned out to be. I think in 2012, everybody went into this campaign knowing that it was going to be a very tough fight. The country had re-polarized right after the president got into office in 2009, and after 2010, when the Republicans took back the House, the battle lines were very firmly drawn and [everyone knew] it was going to be a long, hard slog and one that was going to be very negative and nasty.

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What role did partisan polarization play in the 2012 election?

I think it's a huge part of the story of 2012. It turns out that President Obama is the most polarizing president we've ever had in American history. But the president who was the most polarizing before that was George W. Bush, and to some extent before that was Bill Clinton, which says to me that this has only partially to do with whoever is in the White House, and more to do with the way the electorate has sorted out red and blue. Those red-blue patterns, I think, are [now] more deeply embedded than they have been ever before. The election on both sides was pitched at finding and turning out the base of each party, as opposed to a real battle over independents or undecideds.

What cost Mitt Romney the election?

I would say it was three things. The economy, as weak as it was, was just good enough that it allowed President Obama to win reelection. The demographics are such that it puts the Democrats in a stronger position. Obama won the lowest share of the white vote of any winning Democratic candidate perhaps as long as we've been measuring it. And yet, because the white share of the electorate continues to go down with each presidential election, he was able to get reelected because he won roughly 80 percent of the nonwhite part of the electorate. [Finally,] the Obama team ran a technically superior campaign. They spent their money more efficiently, they targeted their voters more efficiently, and that had a marginal effect.

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How did the use of Twitter shape the progression and outcome of the election?

Twitter came into its own during this campaign. In the first debate between the president and Mitt Romney, there were 10 million tweets about the debate. There's a moment that I write about with the Obama team in its debate war room, and 15 or 20 minutes into the debate, Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, looks around and says to everybody, "We're getting killed on Twitter." And what that meant was that the people who were tweeting, Republicans and Democrats, were coming to the same conclusion: that Mitt Romney was having a very good night, and the president was having a very bad night. When the debate finished and the campaign teams came into the spin area of the press filing center, there was nothing they could spin. The conclusion on this debate had already happened. It's a reminder of how campaigns now have to adapt to this age of Twitter in which things happen in the moment, and if you can't be on top of something instantly, you can sometimes end up on the wrong side of it for a long period after that.