Since the 2012 election, many have believed that Mitt Romney lost the election because many Republicans, turned off by Romney’s status as a “Republican in name only,” stayed home and didn’t vote. As the theory goes, the Republicans could have won the election if only they had nominated a candidate who was more conservative and who would have motivated the Republican base to turn out. Was there really a conservative boycott of Mitt Romney? The answer to the missing Republicans of 2012 can be found in exit polls and vote tallies.
The first thing to note is that Mitt Romney got more votes than John McCain did in 2008. The Federal Election Commission’s official tallies for 2008 show that McCain received 59,948,323 votes. The official 2012 results from the FEC show that Mitt Romney received 60,933,500 votes. Romney received almost a million votes more than McCain.
President Obama received 69,498,516 votes in 2008 and 65,915,796 votes in 2012. Obama’s vote total in 2012 was 3.5 million votes less than he had received in 2008, but this was still enough to secure a victory against Romney. Obama’s percentage of the vote declined from 52.93 percent in 2008 to 51.06 percent in 2012. On the surface it would appear that if Republicans stayed home for anyone it was John McCain.
Exit polls from CNN seem to confirm the notion that a boycott by conservatives was not Mitt Romney’s problem. The 2008 exit polls show that the electorate that year was comprised of 39 percent Democrats, 32 percent Republicans and 29 percent independents. CNN’s 2012 exit polls showed almost exactly the same the breakdown: 32 percent Republican, 29 percent independent and 38 percent Democrat, one point less than 2008.
In both years, the candidates won approximately 90 percent of the votes of their own party members. Obama won 89 percent Democrats in 2008 and 92 percent in 2012. McCain and Romney won 90 and 93 percent of Republicans respectively.
The big difference came from independent voters. Obama won 52 percent of independents in 2008, but in 2012 he only received 45 percent of the independent vote. The Republican share went from 44 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2012.
Looking at individual battleground states shows much the same. In Ohio, the 2008 electorate was 39 percent Democrat and 31 percent each for Republicans and independents. In 2012, the breakdown was exactly the same. The big difference was that independents swung from 52 percent for Obama in 2008 to 53 percent for Romney.
In Virginia, the electoral breakdown was 39 percent Democrat and 33 percent Republican in 2008. In 2012, the Democrats had the same percentage while Republicans declined to 32 percent. Independents, a demographic that increased by two percentage points, shifted from 49 percent for Obama (48 percent McCain and three percent other) to 54 percent Romney.
In Florida, both parties declined from 2008 to 2012, the Democrats from 37 to 35 percent and the Republicans from 34 to 33 percent. Independents increased from 29 to 33 percent and Obama won the demographic both years. In 2008, he won 52 percent of independents and 50 percent in 2012.
North Carolina, a state that swung from blue to red is a bit different. In 2008, the electorate was 42 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 27 percent independent. In 2012, Democrats lost three points while Republicans gained two for a total five point swing in party identification. McCain and Romney both won independents, a group that grew by two percentage points, by 60 and 57 percent respectively.
In almost every case, the Republican candidate won more than 90 percent of the Republican vote. The exception was John McCain who only received 87 percent of the Republican vote in Florida in 2008. In each of these states, Mitt Romney received a greater percentage of the Republican vote than McCain.
The exit poll figures closely mirror Gallup party identification poll results. In early November 2008, Gallup found 26 percent Republicans and 39 percent Democrats with 35 percent identifying as independents. When “leaners” were taken into account, Democrats led Republicans by a 51-40 percent margin.
Four years later, in November 2012, the Democrats still held the advantage. Thirty-five percent identified as Democrats and 30 percent as Republicans. Thirty-three percent considered themselves independent. Counting “leaners,” Democrats led 50-42.
The poll results exploding the myth that Republicans stayed home rather than vote for Mitt Romney. Republicans voted for Romney in even greater numbers than they voted for John McCain.
The fundamental problem for Republicans is that they did not grow the party between 2008 and 2012. North Carolina, the only state to shift from blue to red, was the only state examined in which Republicans increased as a percentage of the electorate. The five point shift was enough for Romney to claim the state.
A secondary and related problem is that the percentage of independents increased in many states. While Mitt Romney took a greater share of the independent vote than McCain, it was not enough to overcome the advantage of the larger Democratic base.
These numbers indicate that a Republican strategy that focuses on increasing the turnout of Republican voters is not likely to succeed in future elections. Since Republicans comprise a smaller percentage of voters than Democrats, the key to a Republican victory is to win independents by a large margin. In future elections this will be even more critical since the percentage of independents has grown dramatically since 2012. Gallup reports that almost half of all voters consider themselves independent.
The 2012 election proved that attacking Obamacare was not enough to secure a Republican victory. A strategy that may help sway independents and grow the Republican base is to present a more positive vision of the Republican agenda rather than simply criticizing the records of Democrats and focusing on the repeal of Obamacare. As economist Arthur Brooks argues, Republicans should spend less time fighting against abstract things and more time fighting for the people that they want to vote for them.
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