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Determined to Vote!

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Olivier Douliery/AbacaUSA/Polaris
Early voters in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, Ohio, October 26, 2012

And then he mentioned, “They were also determined to vote because they were clear about who their choices were.” This was the second thing motivating people to go vote for Obama rather than sit it out: millions of voters had come to see Mitt Romney as a threat to whatever they had achieved. It wasn’t just that he didn’t speak to them, didn’t understand their lives, had nothing to offer them; he was actually campaigning on a program that would benefit economically himself and other wealthy people at their expense. A sophisticated effort to get people to the polls also needs a purpose and Romney gave them one.

On election night, after the less populous (and more conservative) southern areas of Virginia had put Romney in an apparently strong lead, the totals of the votes of those who had stood in line an average of three hours in northern Virginia were added up. Obama had carried the towns of Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax by landslide margins. When the networks called Virginia for Obama at close to 11:00 PM, Romney was in trouble.

In Boston on the morning after the election some very disgruntled billionaires who had poured money into Super PACs on behalf of Romney sat down to breakfast. They were angry in particular at Karl Rove, at whose direction many of them had made their donations of millions of dollars, some to Rove’s own American Crossroads, which spent some $300 million to elect Republicans, with a payoff, according to one estimate, of one percent. Sheldon Adelson, the single largest donor of 2012—and in all the known history of spending on a presidential campaign—had pledged to spend up to $100 million to defeat Obama, and ended up blowing upwards of $60 million, largely in the hope that a new Justice Department would call off an investigation of his dealings about his casinos in Macau.

What no one—including members of the press—had foreseen (I confess) was what turned out to be the limited utility of these princely sums. They could only be used for ads by “independent” Super PACs that supported one candidate or another, according to the myopic Supreme Court decision Citizens United. Even if a Super PAC was founded and run by the candidate’s former chief of staff or brother-in-law, under the Court’s ruling it was independent of the campaign. Therefore its funds couldn’t be used in direct support of the campaign’s activities. That left ads.

But there were so many of them that for the most part they canceled each other out and ended up an annoying blur in the voters’ minds. Though one would have thought that these contributors had had enough and that the Super PACs had been formed just for the 2012 election, Rove plans to keep his American Crossroads Super PAC going and at this point seems in search of a mission. Rove’s thinking is that it will involve other aspects of Republican politics, and donors are told that they will have influence in congressional debates on economic and tax matters in which they have a great interest.

Rove had assured the plutocrats that Romney would win and therefore they were making a smart investment. Few were donating millions out of the goodness of their heart; most stood to gain from a Romney administration’s lower personal and corporate taxes, lighter regulation, and maybe even the repeal of Obama’s (based on Romney’s) health care law. The problem was that, like the Romney campaign, Rove was relying on faulty polling (which was fed to conservative commentators, whose reputations were not improved by their parroting what the campaign had told them). The vaunted Gallup tracking poll made the same mistake. They all assumed that the turnout for Obama in 2008 was a fluke, and so they based their models more closely on 2004, or a combination of 2004 and 2008. Moreover they also bought all the talk that Obama supporters were much less enthusiastic this time. Not believing that 2008 was a real reflection of the electorate turned out to be a big mistake—and stunned Romney on election night. Because of the polls, Romney expected to win.

Baser expressions of this attitude had run through Republican ranks and on occasion slipped out, as when John Sununu, Romney’s national co-chairman, uttered his not so thinly veiled references to Obama’s being black. He went so far as to call him “lazy,” and suggested that Colin Powell had endorsed Obama because they are both black. I can think of no candidate in modern times who would have tolerated such talk; Richard Nixon saved his racist and anti-Semitic statements for his office (and taping system). As chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, Sununu gave offense to so many that he was run out of his job by George W. Bush, his father’s enforcer.

Romney himself was not above using the word “foreign” about Obama’s proposals. He sought the endorsement of Donald Trump, pied piper of the “birthers.” It didn’t seem to occur to Romney or his allies that blacks were aware of their racial jibes and were reinforced in their determination to overcome whatever obstacles the Republicans put in their path to voting, so that they could make certain that Romney wasn’t elected.

Inevitably, after a contentious election all sorts of proposals are brought forth to improve the election system, including the hoary and perpetually futile argument over eliminating the electoral college—which would lead to a campaign focused on New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston and a probable Democratic advantage; less populous states that benefit from the current system are most unlikely to agree to its being changed. Because of the unprecedented efforts in the last election to suppress the vote, produce long lines, and frustrate so many voters, proposals to set national criteria for the conduct of federal elections are receiving increased attention. The idea is to wrest control over the right to vote from the caprice of state politics and prevent long lines from being used as a partisan weapon.

This idea sounds easy to carry out, but setting national standards isn’t: states have ballots of differing length and use different kinds of machines, and many state governments regard setting election rules as their prerogative. Sure enough, there’s a National Association of Election Officials, which strongly resists the imposition of standards by the federal government and has some sway over the politicians whose elections they supervise. A more flexible idea is to give states monetary incentives to draw up rules that would provide adequate days and time for people to cast their vote.

But the biggest hurdle for such proposals is that the Republicans are likely to wage a ferocious fight to not be stripped of a powerful weapon. Public outrage can play a part, but outrage tends to dissipate over time. The president’s reference, in the early part of his victory speech, to the fact that people were still in line to vote—“by the way, we have to fix that”—seemed offhand. He went on to later cite a number of other priorities that were clearly thought important to his legacy, and, as a realist, he is unlikely to want to expend the considerable time and energy that would be involved in carrying on this particular fight.

Almost lost in the multitude of post-election analyses is the most significant point of all: despite the long-held truisms—there had been only one Democratic president to serve two whole terms since FDR; no Democrat could be elected unless he was from the South; nor, said the wise commentators, could anyone get reelected with unemployment around 8 percent—the nation’s first black president was elected to a second term. The implications of this are enormous. Consider the difference in the mood of more than half the country as well as the “lessons” that would have been drawn had he been defeated after a single term. His 2008 election would have been written off as the fluke that the Republicans and their pollsters had lulled themselves into thinking it was. He escaped the fate of joining Jimmy Carter on the list of well-meaning but failed one-term presidents.

One of the reasons this didn’t occur is that so many people rose up against the maneuvering of Obama’s political opponents to bend, distort, and deny the essence of our democratic system. Because they overplayed their hand, they got the very result that they had gone to unprecedented unconstitutional lengths to prevent.

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