The GOP's Real Concern in the 2012 Results: Losing the Middle

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As the votes from the 2012 election have trickled in, the size of President Obama’s victory has grown – it’s now more than 4 million votes.

That count should signify two things to Republicans who wanted to portray President Obama’s win as a squeaker. One, while this margin is no mandate, it is bigger than either of George W. Bush’s presidential wins in 2000 (in which he actually lost the popular vote) or 2004. Two, despite some GOP critiques that Mr. Obama won by capturing small slices of the electorate, the net result was a pretty broad win.

But looked at through Patchwork Nation, there is one larger overriding concern for the Republicans in the 2012 election results: despite all the talk of minority voters and demographic segments, there are signs they are losing the political middle.

That shift reveals itself when you look at the 2012 vote counts and margins compared to previous elections, particularly 2004, in the wealthy Monied Burbs, the more exurban Boom Towns and the small-town Service Worker Centers - in beige, rust and red in the map below.

A Base Election?

Going into 2012, many political analysts, including Patchwork Nation, saw a lot of parallels to the 2004 presidential race. There were several reasons to expect a similar “base election,” one driven by hard-core Republican and Democratic supporters – a weak incumbent, a polarized electorate and a motivated opposition.

And in some ways we had that election. Both Mr. Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney had strong support from their core voters in Patchwork Nation’s 12 demographic county types.

The most reliable Republican communities – the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters, the Mormon Outposts and the rural agricultural Tractor Country counties – gave Mr. Romney levels support equal to or greater than the support they gave President Bush in 2004.

Mr. Romney won 68% of the vote in the Epicenters, 81% in the Outposts and 68% in Tractor Country. Mr. Bush won 68%, 80% and 65% of the vote in those counties respectively. (Mr. Romney’s numbers were also quite a bit better than Sen. John McCain’s tallies in those places in 2008.)

This map from WNYC Radio shows the 2012 vote tallies using the Patchwork Nation types.

On the other side, Mr. Obama did better in the counties that are traditionally Democratic strongholds than Sen. John Kerry did in 2004. He got big numbers from the big city Industrial Metropolises (68%) and the collegiate Campus and Career counties (56%).

So if the battle was base-versus-base both sides got their people out.

The chart blow shows the comparison of 2004 and 2012 with the 12 Patchwork Nation county types. The percentages in bold indicate types where the candidate in 2012 outperformed or tied the numbers from the candidate of the same party in 2004.

Who Won Where, Comparing the 2004 and 2012 Elections by County Type

Comm. Type
Obama (2012)
Kerry (2004)
Romney (2012)
Bush (2004)

Evangelical Epicenters

30%

34%

68%

65%

Tractor Country

30%

30%

68%

68%

Mormon Outposts

17%

18%

81%

80%

Industrial Metros

68%

63%

31%

36%

Campus and Careers

56%

55%

42%

44%

Monied Burbs

53%

50%

46%

49%

Boom Towns

45%

41%

54%

58%

Service Worker Centers

44%

43%

54%

55%

Military Bastions

47%

43%

51%

56%

Minority Central

50%

48%

49%

51%

Emptying Nests

47%

43%

52%

56%

Immigration Nation

51%

45%

47%

54%

The Middle

Instead, the 2012 campaign was won (or lost) in counties that sit more in the middle of the political spectrum and when we compare the 2012 results in those places to 2004, the Democrats made gains across the board.

The Service Worker Centers, which are older, poorer and rural, gave Mr. Romney 54% of their vote to Mr. Obama’s 44% – a 10-point margin. But Mr. Bush carried them by 12 points in 2004.

The more exurban Boom Towns gave Mr. Romney a nine-point margin over Mr. Obama – 54% to 45%. But Mr. Bush carried those counties by a massive 17-point margin in 2004.

And the crucial Monied Burbs, which produced a quarter of all votes cast in 2012, went to Mr. Obama by seven percentage points – 53% to 46%. Mr. Kerry barely won those counties in 2004, by a scant on percentage point 50% to 49%.

Together those three county types accounted for 56% of all the votes cast in the 2012 presidential race and the Democrats boosted their performance in each one. In fact, if you look at the chart above, Mr. Obama bettered Mr. Kerry’s numbers in nine of the 12 county types – all but the three most reliably Republican types.

What’s Happened?

There are big differences in those communities, as Patchwork Nation regularly notes, and the vote in them moved for at least somewhat different reasons.

The Monied Burbs, for instance, have come farther in recovering from the recession than other places. The higher incomes in those places provided an economic buffer for many people and the unemployment rate in them this fall was on average a half-point below the national figure. People in those communities are also the most likely to be invested in the stock market, so the bounce back on Wall Street boosted monthly 401(k) statements.

The Boom Towns, meanwhile, may have been propelled in part by the big win Mr. Obama had among Hispanics. Those places tend to have more Hispanic residents than the nation as a whole. They also were hit especially hard in the housing crisis and people in them may feel more government aid is necessary to fix their communities. Mr. Romney proposed letting the housing mess, run its course.

But it may be that in an election that was supposed to be about the economy, one of the big reasons the GOP struggled with these less conservative places was social issues.

As outgoing Pew Research Center director Andrew Kohut recently noted in a piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Americans remain moderate—holding a mix of liberal and conservative views. They generally believe that small government is better and that ObamaCare is bad. But the exit poll shows that 59% believe abortion should be legal, 65% support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and a surprising plurality support legalizing same-sex marriage in their states.”

We have looked at those issues with Patchwork Nation (abortion, immigration and gay marriage) and found advantages for Democrats that follow a kind of urban-to-rural sliding scale. The more densely populated a community type is, the more likely it is to hold more liberal stances on those issues or to have demographics that favor Democrats on them.

It’s not completely clear what cost the Republicans these more moderate communities in 2012. Aside from economic policy or social issues, there are the questions of how strong a candidate Mr. Romney was. And there may be a different problem looming out there in the exit poll data.

But one thing is clear, in a year when the nation’s economic struggles should have worked to their advantage, the Republican candidate for president still lost by a decent-sized margin despite the party bringing out the vote from its base communities.

Mr. Romney and the GOP couldn’t win the middle. And that should be a concern to the party faithful.