Election 2012: Politics in the Age of Division (and final predictions)


The polls perhaps say it all. We have a closely divided race nationally for the presidential race. In fact, go back six months ago and Obama and Romney were essentially tied at about the same place they are now. Except for one month between the Democrat National Convention and a period after the first debate, the polls have been stable, revealing a stable yet clearly split electorate.

I see other signs of division in the scores of individuals who come up to me and express fear that the country faces ruin if Obama is elected, or is it Romney? The political ads make it seem like the end of the world or Armageddon is near. Facebook postings seem almost like rants and raves and if you are like me, I have seen one too many posts about politics or candidates that border on the lunatic, referencing or posting information whose veracity is at best questionable.

People ask me if this is the most divided politics has ever been. No, think Civil War. Additionally, the 19th century was meaner. We often look at the past through halcyonic or rose-colored glasses thinking the past was more kind and gentle than it is now. But despite that, politics does seem more divided, nasty and conflicted than in recent memory. Why? Several factors point to the divide that we see this year and this division has implications for the election.

The transformation of American party politics. The is some truth about a red and blue America and it starts with the change in traditional party structures. American political parties used to be more coalitional and regional than they are now. Parties were more likely to be mixed ideologically. When I grew up in New in the 1960s my governor was Republican Nelson Rockefeller. One Senator was Republican Jacob Javits, the other was Democrat Bobby Kennedy. The lost liberal? Javits. The most conservative, Kennedy.

The Democrat and Republican parties had liberals, moderates, and conservatives in them. Minnesota once had a pro-choice republican Governor in Arne Carlson and a pro-life DFL governor in Rudy Perpich. Neither of those individuals could secure their party nomination today. The two main parties in Minnesota and across the country have become more ideological and national, much more like European style political parties. We see a disappearance of moderates in the two parties. There is a rise of straight party line votes in the Congress, and a rise of straight party line votes in the MN legislature. Both parties have moved to the right, the Republicans more so. They have moved from the party of Eisenhower to that of Rockefeller, Nixon, Reagan, and now the Tea Party. There are no more Hubert Humphreys and Paul Wellstones in the Democrat Party. As a result, the two parties are further to the right and further apart than ever.

Party Membership and generational divide. The Democrats and Republicans are a tale of two parties The GOP are older, whiter, male, more Christian, and part of the Silent generation along with some older Boomers. They vote against gay marriage, abortion, immigration, and favor smaller government. The Democrats are younger, more female, less white, less Christian, and they represent the Millennials and Gen Xers. They favor gay rights, choice, immigration and diversity, and more government. The two parties represent two generations and world views, and party of the intensity right now is a demographic contest witnessing the passing of power from one generation to another. It also represents a racial polarization the greatest since 1988, and an identity shift as America moves from a White Christian nation to something else.

Political Geography. Politics and geography now overlay and intersect. It is not just red and blue states but red and blue neighborhoods. There is a political sorting of living space by geography. We increasingly have Democrat and Republican neighborhoods. We are divided politically by rural and urban. The result is a decline in the number of real marginal or swing districts and such a problem is only accentuated by redistricting in some states (or conversely, even the best redistricting cannot overcome the political sorting we are experiencing). There are only 50 or so competitive seats in Congress, and 25 or so competitive seats in MN Legislature. The remainder are certainties for either of the two major parties. Partisan districts create less incentive to compromise, reinforcing polarization.

Evidence of political polarization by public. The public is polarized. In Minnesota support for the marriage and elections amendments divides almost perfectly by party. Two sides have their own versions of truth. But the division goes to our consumption habits . Each party has its own network to watch–MSNBC and Fox News–giving each side its own version of the truth. The produces we consume reveal our political preferences. Our geography reveal our political preferences. Thus, combine target marketing data, GPS, and politics and we see in 2012 the use of very specific marketing to seel candidates.

Implications for 2012

Overall, the polarization, if not as great or significant as the Civil War, is still significant. How does it affect the 2012 presidential? First, the choice of Obama and Romney is not great and neither seems to have a clue about what to do with the economy. But the polarization makes it impossible for third party candidates such as Gary Johnson and Jill Stein to gain any attention or momentum. Fear of voting for one’s hopes and it electing one’s last choice dooms alternative politics.

Having said that, for months the race for the presidency was simply a set of three numbers: 10/10/270. Ten percent of the voters (the undecideds) in ten states would determine who gets 270 electoral votes and win the presidency. Now the race is 5/7/270. Five percent of the voters in seven states will decide who wins the presidency.

The original ten swing states were:

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

In those 10 swing states, the Associated Press has argued that it is up to about 106 battle ground counties. How many voters are we talking about that might influence the election of president?

Assume 5% undecided in those ten swing states and the number is 1,835,599 voters.

Assume 8% undecided voters in those ten swing states and the number is 2,936,958 voters.

Now assume North Carolina and Nevada are no longer swinging, we have eight swing states. In the remaining swing states on average 4.9% undecided according to polls in Real Clear Politics on October 25. My estimate then is that between 1.500,000 and 1.835.599 voters will decide the election, with the focus being on about 11 counties across the country where the battles are really taking place. These counties in my estimate are:

  • Arapahoe County, Colorado
  • Bremer County, Iowa (Waverly)
  • Chester County, PA (some have told me this is not swinging this year, though).
  • Hamilton County, Ohio
  • Hillsborough County, NH
  • Hillsborough County, FL (Tampa)
  • Jefferson County, Colorado
  • Pinellas County, FL
  • Prince William County, Virginia
  • Racine County, WI
  • Winnebago County, WI

Finally, now assume in 2012 that the estimated eligible voter population is 222,000,000. In 2010 it was 217,000,000, and in 2008 it was approximately 212,000,000 with about a 63% (131 million voters) turnout. Assume again about 63% voter turnout this year due to high interest and intensity in the race. The average of 1.500,000 and 1.835.599 voters (total number of undeceived swing voters in the swing states) is approximately 1,650,000. Divide that number by the estimated eligible voting population in 2012 (222,000,000) and this means that approximately 0.74% of the eligible voting population will decide the presidential election.

In fact, if I wanted to pick one county where the race for the presidency comes down to, it is look to what happens in Hamilton County, Ohio. Whoever wins it wins Ohio and then the presidency. This shows the polarization we face in this country when such a small number decides who wins.

Final Predictions

Presidency: Back in March I said Obama would win with 272 electoral votes. He still wins but with 290-305 electoral votes. He also will get around 50.5% of the popular vote.

US Senate: Democrats retain control with 51 seats.

US House: Republicans retain control but with a slightly narrower margin.

Minnesota Congressional Delegation: No change. Nolan and Cravaack is too close to call but a slight nod to the incumbent.

Minnesota House: DFL or GOP control by one seat for either and a real chance of 67-67.

Minnesota Senate: Republicans retain close control.

Marriage and Elections Amendments: Both pass.

Note: This blog is based on my November 2, 2012 talk to the Minneapolis Rotary Club. I have spoken to them many times in the past and they have always been a warm and gracious club to address.