November 07, 2012

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By Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — With the 2012 election behind us, Bucknell political science professors break down the results and explain where the country goes from here.

Question: What surprised you the most about how this election played out?

Answer from Chris Ellis, assistant professor of political science: One of the more important things about the night is that there really were no big surprises. Political scientists predicted a narrow Obama victory based on very fundamental factors — election-year economic growth, whether the incumbent is running again, the approval rating of the President. And polls for about the past month have been predicting the same result.Chris Ellis

This tells us two things: First, it provides a useful reminder that the more exotic explanations that pundits often spend the most time talking about as being important to election outcomes — debates, campaign strategies, super PACs, the candidates' races or religions, gaffes made on the campaign trail — all of those things usually are not as important to who wins and loses as the basic factors that tend to drive American elections. Second, for all the recent hand-wringing about polls, it appears pretty clear that polls still do a good job of what they are intended to do — provide an accurate picture of what Americans are going to do on election day.

Question: How did the country's changing demographics impact this election, and how will they affect future campaigns?

Answer from Atiya Stokes-Brown, associate professor of political science: I think the biggest surprise of the night is Florida. And while Florida hasn't gone to either candidate yet, President Obama did very well there and is in line to win the state. It appears that the growth of the non-Cuban Latino population there really put him in that position.Atiya Stokes-Brown

That's something the Republican party in particular needs to pay attention to. Republicans really need to think how it can include more people in the party. People of color played an important role in this election, just as they did in 2008 — helping Obama squeak out a victory. Those minority populations that tend to favor Democrats are growing, making it imperative for Republicans to reach out to them, along with young people and women, to build a winning coalition that will give their candidate a chance to win 270 electoral votes.

Question: What does the new Congress look like, and how will the balance of power affect partisanship in Washington?

Answer from Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science: The congressional outcome preserves the status quo — a solidly Republican House and a Democratic Senate. But that unchanged result is more interesting than it appears on the surface. A year ago, the Senate looked like a lost cause for Democrats. The party was defending seats all around the country, many of which were in Republican-leaning states. In the end, the Democrats look to be actually adding a few seats to their majority. Part of that is due to some good candidates and campaigns in places such as Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren defeated moderate Republican Scott Brown. But a number of the Republican losses were self-inflicted; the GOP chose candidates who were either politically weak, ideologically extreme, or both.
Scott Meinke
On the House side, we are seeing the first outcome since 2004 that is not a "wave" for one party or the other. Republicans will hold the strong majority that they gained in the 2010 midterm elections. GOP freshmen in most places held their seats, although a few very visible and controversial Tea Party conservatives, such as Joe Walsh (IL-8), were defeated. This is the first House election since states redrew their congressional district lines based on the 2010 Census, and the Republican party was able to shore up support for some of its more vulnerable members through the redistricting process, particularly in Pennsylvania.

We should be prepared for strong partisanship in the new Congress. The very cohesive Senate Republican party now faces a slightly more liberal and likely more cohesive Democratic party. There is even the possibility that this stronger Democratic caucus will attempt some version of filibuster reform in 2013, a move that might streamline the legislative process but one that would increase tension between the Senate parties in the short term. Meanwhile, the sharply polarized House will retain that form in the 113th Congress.

Question: What do the results mean for what will happen in Washington in the coming years?

Answer from Ellis: After all the money and time we spent on this, we essentially leave Election Day in exactly the same place we were before Election Day. Obama won with an electoral map pretty close to what he had four years ago, Democrats will control the Senate by about the same margin as before, Republicans will control the House by about the same margin that they did before, and Republicans will control a majority of governors' offices, just as before. What we really had, in other words, was the ultimate status-quo election.

So the result will likely be more gridlock. But given the choices they were offered, it's entirely possible that this is what voters actually want. Republican lawmakers are well to the right and Democratic lawmakers well to the left of most voters. Most voters don't want the erosion of the social safety net for seniors or the tradition-based social change that Republican leaders push, and they don't want the aggressive expansion of the welfare state that Democratic leaders push. So the one thing that voters can do when presented with those options is to make sure that no one party controls all of the levers of power. What citizens obviously want most of all is a government that functions effectively, one where the parties can compromise around ideas of broad appeal. But when presented with options that are too extreme, the only real recourse is to make sure that neither one can do anything of consequence.

This, of course, is when leaders of both parties claim that it's time to put aside partisan divisions, and come together to work for the good of the country. It sounds appealing, and it's a good American tradition to end elections by saying things like this. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Contact: Division of Communications