I offered my preliminary reflections on the 2012 presidential exit polls and promised more to come. I’m a man of my word.

Thus far, I’ve argued that, in effect, the Obama campaign executed a plan based on a theory of electoral behavior (ideology and identity) that was superior to the understanding that guided the Romney campaign (a referendum on an incumbent in tough times). Not every candidate could have pulled off what Barack Obama did. If, for example, you consider the mix of personal attributes on which he was considered favorably—more favorably than Romney—they all contributed to the successful execution, especially, of his identity politics appeal.

To take just one instance, voters were asked which one of four candidate attributes was most important for their decision—“shares my values,” “strong leader,” “has a vision for the future,” and “cares about people like me.” Romney led Obama by varying margins on the first three, but Obama blew him away (81 percent to 18 percent) on the fourth, regarded as most important by 21 percent of the respondents. His margin there far overshadows Romney’s combined margins on the other three qualities. This is compassionate identification very well executed. I have to confess to having been impressed by Romney’s confidence and competence and to having been unimpressed by Obama’s capacity or willingness to feel my pain, but having lived through the Clinton Administration, I shouldn’t have assumed that enough people shared my judgment.

Similarly, by a 53-43 margin, respondents said that Obama was more in touch than Romney with people like themselves.

Now, I think that Bill Clinton is a much better practitioner of this form of politics than Obama is, and I don’t think doing so would at all come naturally to Romney. In other words, I don’t think that the “identity” part of the ideology/identity strategy can work for just any candidate. Some might have to rely more heavily on the transactional “I’ve got a program for you” version, as (in part) Obama did and as no consistently conservative politician could. I have to confess that I’m not fond of the “compassionate” dimension of representation, at least in its more Rousseauean versions. But someone who genuinely likes and connects with people—Reagan on an average day and George W. Bush on a good day—could connect with voters without making them feel that they could get anything they wanted from them. It’s perhaps no accident that Bush did as well as he did with Hispanic voters in Texas and nationally.

I could conclude this post now by asserting that, with these considerations in mind, Romney ran the campaign he could run and Obama ran the campaign he had to run.

But that would be to do an injustice to Romney because it would imply that, in effect, the times called for a man more like Obama than like him. So I’ll conclude on a different note. Those of us who were following the race closely saw a sea change in the campaign after the first debate, when Romney took a pretty significant lead and held it for most of October. But Sandy seems to have changed all that in a pretty decisive way; that much was evident in almost all the post-storm polling, which showed the race tightening.

The exit polls confirm that impression: voters who decided late broke for Obama and those who say they decided in October (which seemed—before Sandy—to be Romney’s best month of the campaign) narrowly favored the incumbent. Then you have to consider this: 42 percent of the respondents said that Obama’s response to Sandy was an important factor in their vote and another 22 percent said it was a minor factor. All told, 64 percent say it affected their vote, and 62 percent of them went for Obama. He showed up and felt our pain (which, by the way, George W. Bush did compellingly at Ground Zero). An “act of God” permitted Obama, at the last memorable moment of the campaign, to showcase what, in the eyes of many voters, is his most attractive quality

Had that not happened, I might now be writing about how Romney’s brilliantly executed “referendum” strategy made Obama a one-term president. Benghazi, where Obama spectacularly failed to feel the pain of the four men who died and their families might have gotten more traction sooner (though the lax coverage here of the improvidence about security, the fecklessness of the response, and the willful misrepresentation of what occurred has to be laid at the feet of a complacent and partisan press). And the childishness and churlishness of those weeks of the Obama campaign might have remained with more of the voters.

But there’s a blessing here. Had there been no hurricane and had Romney coasted to a narrow victory, we might have been less alert to the changing character of our political challenge than we now are and less inclined to meet it squarely. Those of us on the wrong side of yesterday’s decision have some time on our hands. Let’s use it wisely.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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