6 Keys to Understanding the 2012 Presidential Election Outcome

How did this presidential picking methodology hold up? Not bad at all.

A year ago, I offered six keys to predicting this year’s presidential election outcome, based on 35 years of experience covering national politics and a close reading of campaign history. Obama’s defeat of Romney affirms five of them. The sixth key missed by an inch -- literally. Let’s review:

1. Deserving Republicans wait their turn. This theory predicted that Mitt Romney would emerge from a sprawling field of GOP wannabes as the nominee because he had competed four years earlier, lost a close race to John McCain for the nomination, and assembled an impressive campaign network and war chest. It was his turn, at least in the eyes of the Republican establishment. This rule of GOP decorum has shaped the outcome of every nomination battle since Barry Goldwater’s Republican convention insurgency in 1964 led to a landslide defeat in the general election. Elephants never forget. Does this make Rick Santorum the front-runner for the 2016 GOP race? He will certainly make that case. Let’s see how he does at fund-raising.

2. It's tough to beat an incumbent president. On Election Day, a majority of Americans gave Obama the huge benefit of the doubt that they historically have extended to sitting presidents. New York Times’ Thomas Friedman (opens in new tab) summed up the mandate perfectly: "The majority seemed to be saying to Obama: 'You didn’t get it all right the first time, but we’re going to give you a second chance. …We think you'e trying. Now try even harder. Learn from your mistakes. Reach out to the other side, even if they slap away your hand, and focus like a laser on the economy, so those of us who voted for you today without much enthusiasm can feel good about this.'"

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

With Obama’s reelection, eight of the last 11 presidents up for election have won a second term. Of the three who lost, two -- Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush -- were rejected by voters as more interested in being stewards of the White House than leaders. They weren't' trying hard enough. The third, Jimmy Carter, was dismissed as hapless and out of his depth. After his listless performance in the first presidential debate, Obama momentarily looked like a steward with no agenda for a second term. But he recovered.

3. It's not the economy, stupid. It's the perception of the economy when Election Day rolls around. Who would have thought that a president presiding over an 8%-10% unemployment rate for virtually his full term would win reelection? Certainly not Mitt Romney and the Republicans. But this theory holds that the better voters feel about the overall direction of the economy, the less inclined they are to vote to change presidents. My colleague Ken Bazinet (opens in new tab) of The Kiplinger Letter cites the jobless rate falling below 8% in September as a critical moment in President Obama’s reelection. Never mind that the number inched up from 7.8% to 7.9% in October. Voters perceived in it enough of a glimmer of hope that the economy was improving. And future direction is often more important in voters’ minds than the past or the present when they are in the voting booth. That perception of improvement was enough to trump Mitt Romney’s message that he could accelerate the recovery.

4. The cool guy wins. Think it was an accident that Obama spent his final day campaigning with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z? Or that, in the closing weeks, the president was all over the late-night talk show circuit shunned by the more buttoned-down Romney? The cool factor is an uncanny predictor of outcomes that goes back to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The winner doesn't actually have to be cool, just come off as cooler than the other guy. George W. Bush benefited enormously in 2000 and 2004 by running against two Democrats who were oddly wooden on the stump, Al Gore and John Kerry. Bill Clinton was the Elvis of presidential candidates. And Obama against John McCain four years ago? No contest.

Last year I wrote, “The big question for 2012 is how much of Obama's cool quotient has evaporated, and whether a candidate such as Romney…can find his own vibe.” Romney found his own vibe in the first presidential debate, in one of the biggest surprises of 2012. Focused, chock full of fresh (if shifting) policy ideas, cracking jokes, he threw a sullen Obama on the defensive for two weeks and gained a lead in the polls. But in the end, Obama got his groove back.

5. A year is a lifetime in politics. The biggest surprise, and disappointment perhaps, in this campaign was how excruciating it was for voters. A year? Heck, this campaign felt like an eternity. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker (opens in new tab) calls it "the worst presidential race in memory. …We the People weren’t so much participants in a great democratic experiment as we were spectators at a blood sport where everyone got hurt, none so much as our nation, exhausted and battered by cynicism and snark." Blame it on a landscape flooded by a record $1.7 billion in presidential campaign spending, nonstop negative advertising, and endless punditry, not just through cable news and talk radio but now social media. (With Facebook and Twitter, everybody’s a pundit, for better and for worse.) I’m reminded of the saying: "In politics, absurdity is not a handicap." That certainly was true this year. Let’s hope there is a retrenchment in 2016. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

6. Oh, and, the one I missed: Tall guy wins. Since 1900, based on Wikipedia's historical tally of candidates’ height, 19 of 28 elections have been won by the taller candidate (68%). Obama is 6'1"; Romney, 6'2". Hey, they were both tall guys, right?

Douglas Harbrecht
New Media Director, Kiplinger.com
Harbrecht joined Kiplinger in March 2006 from BusinessWeek.com, where he served as senior and executive editor. Prior to that, he worked in the Washington bureau of the magazine, now BloombergBusinessweek, covering policy, politics and economics. He holds a BA degree from Binghamton University and an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri. He was 1998 President of the National Press Club and a 2010 Kiplinger fellow in social media study at Ohio State University.