(Dialogue taken from season four of The West Wing)Allow me to start this piece by stating perhaps the most obvious statement you will ever read about the 2012 election cycle:
Sam Seaborn: You have me preaching to the choir...why?!
Toby Ziegler: Because that's how you get them to sing.
It was substantially more successful for the Democratic Party than the election that immediately preceded it (2010).
While you sit there and mutter "no shit" quietly to yourself, allow me to follow that up with a statement that may very well surprise you: According to exit polling, President Obama actually did marginally worse with liberals than the vanquished House Democrats did in 2010. And he did only two points better on the margin versus moderate voters (56-41, versus 55-42 for House Democrats in 2010).
If the math doesn't seem to add up for you, allow me to explain. Let's dispel the easy answer: No, it was not inspired by right-wing love for the president. While it is true that Obama did do better with conservatives, it is hard to say that his margin of victory was forged by his 17 percent support among the cons (as opposed to 13 percent for House Democrats).
What changed was actually one of the lesser reported phenomena of 2012. As it happened, 2012 became a base election. And that was a very, very good thing for the Democrats. Follow me past the fold for what may well have been the most stunning single statistic of the 2012 election cycle.
How did Obama turn what was a seven-point deficit for the Democrats in 2010 into a four-point win in 2012, in spite of roughly similar numbers among the three ideological subgroups?
The answer was that the ideological makeup of the electorate fundamentally shifted between 2010 and 2012. In 2010, 42 percent of the electorate self-identified as conservatives, while only 20 percent of the electorate self-identified as liberals.
In 2012, the gap narrowed to a historic low. Only 35 percent of the Obama-Romney electorate called themselves conservative. Meanwhile, a full quarter of the electorate (25 percent), the high water mark for the modern era), self-identified as liberal.
Therein lies a big part of the victory. It wasn't Obama's marginally better performance among conservatives that saved the day, it was the simple fact that conservatives comprised a substantially smaller share of the electorate than they had in 2010.
What's more: the narrow con/lib gap in 2012 was actually narrower than the gap in 2008, the Obama "landslide," when the gap was 12 points in the favor of the conservatives (22/34). So, it is difficult to dismiss this as the mere difference between a midterm electorate and the larger mass of voters that turn up during presidential elections.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. It's been over a decade since the gap between the two ideological anchors has been so narrow. And, for years, the chattering classes have based their idiotic notions about America being a "center-right" nation on the evidence that polls routinely show a wide gap between self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals.
What those simplistic analyses tend to forget is the fact that Democrats almost always carry moderate voters, and often by an outsized margin. This stands to reason: A whole lot of "moderate" voters are actually liberals who cannot bring themselves to self-identify with a term that right-wingers have spent decades turning into an epithet. In recent years, you can count the number of Republicans that carried moderate voters in exit polling with one hand. Two notable ones, for example: Chris Christie in 2009, and Scott Brown last year. Of course, a common thread between their states is that those are two states where self-identified liberals match, or exceed, the number of self-identified conservatives. Ultimately, this may well mean that their "overperformance" with moderates can be owed to the fact that there are simply fewer liberals-in-hiding in those two decidedly blue-tinted states.
For just one example of how this translated in raw votes, let's look at the state of Wisconsin. It is easy to forget this, but Wisconsin was a coin-flip state in both 2000 and 2004, as Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry both won the Badger State by less than half of a percentage point. The narrow partisan divide of 2000 and 2004 has been obscured by the recent Obama landslides, as the Democratic standard bearer carried the state by 14 and 7 points, respectively, in his two successful bids for the White House.
But hard as it might be to believe, President Obama carried roughly the same number of counties than John Kerry did in 2004 (for those who care, the county "score" was 27 for Kerry and 34 for Obama). What allowed Obama to win comfortably over Mitt Romney, while Kerry squeaked by George W. Bush, is the fact that his "base" county, Dane County (Madison) turned out big time.
Consider the difference in the bases for the Democrats and the GOP. In the "WOW" counties that ring Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington), turnout increased a total of 6.3 percent. Those three counties, which totalled 378,000 voters in 2012, are the home base for Wisconsin Republicans, and have given the GOP their margin of victory in their occasional statewide wins in the state.
Dane County, meanwhile, saw its turnout increase a total of 10.9 percent in the past eight years. For the first time in a presidential election this year, Dane County crept over 300,000 votes cast in a presidential election.
The 2012 election cycle demonstrated quite clearly that Democrats might actually benefit from a base election, and in a way, that makes total sense. Poll after poll of the Obama-Romney trial heat last year showed that Mitt Romney performed substantially worse when the screen was "registered voters" than he did among "likely voters."
The quandary has long been, at least in the eyes of the pundit classes and party regulars, how to reach the base without "alienating" centrist voters. But if the last election cycle proved anything, it is the fact that those centrist voters are already alienated ... by the GOP. The marginalization of the national Republican Party began long before the tea party revolution, but that has done nothing but accelerate it. In 2012, the GOP became the party of "makers versus takers," "rape is God's plan," and the like. It is become ever more difficult for a Democrat to make even a base appeal that would repel the nonpartisan voter more than what is becoming standard campaign fare from the candidate class being nominated out of Republican primaries.
This could create an amazing window of opportunity for the Democrats. For the first time in a long time, the Democrats, if they wish, can eschew the mealy mouthed "third way" rhetoric that has afflicted far too many Democratic campaigns. They can appeal to their base, and possibly cajole some mildly dissatisfied base voters back into the fold with bolder, more partisan campaigns. And they can do so with less fear of watching those voters defect to the GOP, which seem to have recently positioned themselves several light-years away from the center.
After all, let's be frank, if there are still "centrist" voters out there, and they are legitimately undecided in their vote between the Democrats and today's GOP, they are well right of the center line. Ergo, it is reasonable to assume that there is little that can be done to appease those voters.
Of all the polling stats, the one that seems to portend success for the Democrats is this one: Look at what percentage of the vote is self-identified as conservative. If that number is 35 percent or less nationally, you have to like the Democrats' chances. If it heads much north of that (as it did in 2010), things get considerably more perilous.
If you are the Democrats, it's pretty tough to control what the GOP can do in terms of turning out their base. What Democrats can do is turn out enough of their own devotees to rival any potential Republican surge of voters. That is why a base strategy, in the final analysis, makes good political sense for the Democrats.