Election Counterfactuals

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

Could this guy have beat Barack Obama?

At National Journal, Jill Lawrence presents four ways the 2012 campaign could have led to a different president. Here’s a quick paraphrase:

  • First, Mitt Romney could have done better with Latinos instead of losing them by a 44 percent margin (71 to 27) to President Barack Obama.
  • Second, if the Ames straw poll in Iowa didn’t exist, a candidate like Tim Pawlenty might have stayed in the race, overtaken Romney, and emerged as a formidable challenger for Obama.
  • Third, if Rick Perry had made a quicker recovery from his back surgery, he might have offered a genuine challenge to Romney, running as the intensely conservative governor of the nation’s second-largest state, with a solid record of job creation and conservative policy success.
  • Finally, if Team Romney had been able to formulate a decent response to the attacks on Bain Capital, they might have neutralized the issue and bolstered Romney’s favorability, which lagged throughout the campaign as a result of the attacks.

There are problems with each of these counterfactuals. For the first, greater performance among Latinos wouldn’t have done enough to close the popular or Electoral College gap between Obama and Romney—given their share of the electorate (10 percent), Romney would have had to win more than 60 percent of Latinos to close the 3.6 percent gap in the popular vote, and even more to make a difference in Ohio, Virginia, and other states that determined the election.

In terms of competition, there were factors beyond Ames and back surgery that harmed the candidacies of Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry. Pawlenty simply lacked the necessary support among Republican elites and activists, while Perry—cowboy governor of Texas—was too reminiscent of the previous president. That’s not to say that he couldn’t win but that even without the back pain, it would have been difficult.

As for Romney’s Bain Capital missteps, it’s possible a better message could have saved him a little electoral grief, but I doubt it. When it comes down to it, Barack Obama’s re-election had less to do with the vagaries of the campaign and everything to do with the steady improvement of the economy. There was enough economic growth to convince a critical mass of Americans that Obama deserved another four years. Romney could have run a better campaign or Republicans could have had a different nominee, and there’s a good chance that wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Or, put another way, from beginning to end, the fundamentals of this election favored Obama.