Following President Barack Obama’s defeat of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on Tuesday, many are wondering what brought Obama’s supporters back to the polls in an election year when the economy is still struggling and unemployment is still high. After all, Obama supporters defied history in reelecting the President. No President has been reelected with an unemployment rate this high since the Depression-era reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What’s more, America has not seen three consecutive two-term Presidents since Thomas Jefferson and his two successors.
Some possible answers to this question have been gleaned from exit polls and common sense. We know that the President had a better ground game in swing states, particularly in Ohio. We know that voters in several swing states continue to place more blame for the state of our economy on former President George W. Bush than on President Obama. We know that Mitt Romney’s extremism and the extremism of down-ballot Republicans alienated key demographic groups like single women, African-Americans, Latinos and youth voters — allowing Obama to lose a higher percentage of white voters than Michael Dukakis did in 1988 and still win reelection. We know that there were stark policy differences between President Obama and Governor Romney and that at least one of these differences, over the auto-industry bailout, had a significant impact in Ohio.
Still, these answers when taken either individually or together seem unconvincing. These are answers that might make sense in a typical election year, but they don’t ring true when the unemployment rate is hovering near 8% and a Republican Party that conquered the ballot just two years ago has been hammering President Obama ever since and obstructing any measures to improve the economy. The exit polls, the demographic statistics, the policy intricacies — all of them could account for a typical electoral victory but none seem to explain why in this election voters chose to defy history.
Why did “4 More Years” matter so much to Obama supporters? We can’t find the answer to that question in statistics. The answer lies in the two very different paradigms that President Obama and Governor Romney represented.
From the first day of campaigning to the day ballots were cast, Governor Romney was remarkably out of touch with a changing America. The man who in the last days of the presidential campaign tried to represent himself as real change we could believe in looked all along like business as usual. He carried the banner of a Republican Party that still looks to the late Ronald Reagan, who was already a senior citizen when he was elected President over three decades ago, as their political and ideological hero. From “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” to his “47 percent” remarks, Governor Romney demonstrated that he didn’t know and didn’t care about the real lives of ordinary working class Americans — and he doubled down on this perception when he chose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, pinning Ryan’s middle class-busting budget upon his campaign like a badge of honor.
Again and again throughout this campaign Mitt Romney appeared as though he had missed the memo that the 20th century ended over a decade ago. African-American voters were out of reach from the very beginning to a party and a candidate who have never bothered to understand the realities of their everyday lives. Romney’s hardline stance on undocumented immigrants and comments about “self-deportation” destroyed any chance he had with an ever-increasing number of Latino voters. His refusal to repudiate down-ballot candidates who had made insidious remarks about rape and abortion, along with his selection of a running mate who supported so-called “personhood” legislation that would have the effect of banning abortion and hormonal birth control, alienated many women and particularly single women. All of these issues and so many more — from his opposition to same-sex marriage to his position on student debt to his refusal to address climate change to his opposition to health care reform that has directly benefited them — drove young Americans to the polls not for Romney but for the President.
President Obama, by contrast, continued to represent a changing America just as he had represented this new America so effectively in 2008. Yet this was not 2008, not exactly. Largely missing from this campaign was the idealistic appeal to hope and change, replaced by a single word that was as much a battle cry as it was a campaign slogan: “Forward!” During this campaign, Barack Obama represented an America that still believed in those ideals he spoke of four years ago — enduring hope and change we can believe in — but an America that had seen four years of battle with the forces of the status quo bent on retaining their America, an America in which they are at the top and everyone else is beneath them. Just as President Obama in 2008 represented an America that believed in hope again and wanted to create the change that would make liberty and justice a reality for everyone, in 2012 he represented an America that had come too far, done too much, fought too hard to turn back now. “Forward,” the President urged, and in battleground states across this country voters agreed to take another step forward with him rather than two steps backward with Mitt Romney.
What brought President Obama’s supporters to the polls to defy history this year? The answer is simply this: We believe in the America that President Obama represents, not in the America that Governor Romney represented.
We believe in an America in which we care more about everyone getting a fair shake than about making sure we’re on top and others are beneath us.
We believe in an America in which working class white voters in Ohio and other swing states look past the lies and the scare tactics designed to appeal to racial, ethnic and gender-based insecurities and instead vote for progress.
We believe in an America in which African-Americans aren’t a minority demographic to be ignored but part of a new American majority that can, that must take their place at the decision making table of our nation.
We believe in an America in which undocumented immigrants are welcomed and invited to start a better life here like so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents were, not in an America in which they’re kept under so much oppression and living in so much fear that they “self-deport.”
We believe in an America in which women are in control of their own bodies and their own lives, in which they receive equal pay for equal work and equal rights for equal Americans — not in an America in which “legitimate rape” is defined by clueless and shameless men, in which we bring back restrictions on birth control and abortion care that belong on the ash heap of history or in which women’s lives, liberties and happiness are subject to decisions made by men smoking cigars in a dimly lit congressional office.
We believe in an America in which young Americans matter, an America in which they can get an education without tens of thousands of dollars in debt, can marry the person they love, can expect a liveable climate for themselves and their children and can find affordable and accessible health care — not an America in which they are told to slave away and wait their turn for a seat at the table, if there’s anything left by the time the plutocrats have plundered the economy and destroyed the environment.
We chose to defy history in this election because we do not believe in Mitt Romney’s America, an America in which we would roll back decades of progress to find a time when Governor Romney’s lily white and ever-greying supporters felt secure and on top of the world with everyone else in their proper place — which is to say, at the bottom. “4 More Years” mattered so much to us because we believe in Barack Obama’s America, an America in which all of us working together can finally move forward as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.