The 2012 Election
At the beginning of 2012, before the start of the presidential primaries and caucuses and 10 months before election day, the outcome of the presidential election appeared uncertain. The incumbent president, Barack Obama, had an approval rating of just 46 percent, low enough to make his reelection problematic (Jones 2012a). At the top of the list of reasons for voter dissatisfaction with the Obama presidency was the tepid economic recovery from the recession of 2008-2009. Unemployment stood at 8.3 percent at the start of 2012. Additionally, President Obama's signature legislative initiative, the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as "Obamacare"), lacked popular support: public opinion polls showed that a majority felt that it should be repealed (Sussman, Cooper, and Phillips 2012). Large budget deficits, due partly to the large economic stimulus package enacted by Democrats in 2009, also led to considerable public concern. Republicans had already capitalized on dissatisfaction with the Obama administration by capturing control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections (Sabato 2011). That led them to believe they could make Obama a one-term president in 2012.
Because the president appeared vulnerable, a number of Republicans desired their party's presidential nomination. Twelve candidates announced their candidacy, although some withdrew before the first contest — the Iowa caucuses — occurred in early January. Mitt Romney, who was a strong contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, was considered to be the early front-runner. He led all candidates in fund raising and led most of the early polls (Norrander 2013). However, most observers felt that the nomination contest was potentially very competitive because Romney failed to generate widespread enthusiasm among Republican voters. Although Romney finally prevailed, a number of developments during the Republican presidential nominating contests affected his general election prospects:
Romney had to campaign as a strong conservative in order to win the nomination, which made it more difficult to appeal to moderate voters in the general election.
He was criticized by his Republican opponents for his business dealings. While Romney hoped that his successful business background would be considered a strength, his opponents charged that his venture capital business often made money by putting people out of work. Democrats used these charges as a foundation for building their general election attacks.
He was attacked by Republicans for his past support as governor of Massachusetts of a health care bill that had many similarities to Obamacare. Romney's opponents argued that this would limit his ability to criticize President Obama's heath care policy.
President Obama had the luxury of being uncontested for the Democratic nomination, clearly a favorable sign for him. The past three presidents who were defeated in their reelection efforts — Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, and Bush in 1992 — all faced significant nomination challenges. Even though all three prevailed, the internal party conflicts weakened them for the general election. In contrast, the most recent presidents to be reelected — Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, and Bush in 2004 — did not face any challenge for their party's nomination.
Following the nominating conventions, Obama led in the polls. Mid-September polls had him ahead of Romney by about 4 points, and by late September it appeared that the election might be slipping away from Romney (Schier and Box-Steffensmeier 2013). However, Romney quickly closed the gap by decisively winning the first presidential debate, held on October 3, by a better than 2-to-1 margin in the post-debate polls (Jones 2012b). This outcome was the result of an aggressive and polished performance by Romney coupled with a lackluster effort by Obama. Over the next month, Obama crept back to a slight lead in the polls, and electoral college projections made just prior to the election showed that Romney was in the difficult position of needing to win nearly all of the highly competitive states in order to command an electoral college majority (Silver 2012).
The 2012 presidential election ended with a clear electoral college but narrow popular vote victory for Obama. He won 52.0 percent of the two-party vote (51.1 percent of the total vote) and 332 electoral college votes, compared to Romney's 206. While the popular vote was fairly close, Obama won nearly all of the battleground states, which gave him a solid electoral college victory. He carried every state that he won in 2008 save two — Indiana and North Carolina. Both his popular and electoral college vote declined from 2008, when he won 53.7 percent of the two-party vote and 365 electoral college votes.
The congressional elections maintained the status quo: Republicans continued their control of the House, and Democrats slightly enhanced their majority in the Senate.
Turnout in 2012 declined from 2008. About 58 percent of the eligible electorate voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared to about 62 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2004. Further information about turnout in 2012, including turnout estimates for each state and comparisons to previous years, is available online.
For more discussion of the 2012 election, consult the following sources of information:
Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier and Steven E. Schier, ed. The American Elections of 2012. New York: Routledge, 2013.
James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Jr. After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.
Willian J. Crotty, ed. Winning the Presidency 2012. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013.
Michael Nelson, ed. The Elections of 2012. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press, 2014.