Political Scientist: Obama Victory Modest, Expected

GOP Has 'Hope and Chance'

Political scientist James W. Ceaser, one of the authors of a book that takes a comprehensive look at the 2012 election, believes that President Barack Obama's victory was not as earth shattering as many pundits have described it.

"One would think, from much of the election commentary that followed" the 2012 election, Ceaser said at a Wednesday Heritage Foundation symposium, "that President Obama won a victory akin to FDR's victory in 1936, and that the Republican Party was on the verge of extinction today. ...

"This is one of the problems with election analysis. It is electoral analysis infused with the emotion of the moment, or steeped in the politics of the day."

Ceaser, professor of politics at University of Virginia, has written a book analyzing every election since 1992. His most recent is, After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics, with coauthors Andrew E. Busch, professor of government, and John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of politics, both at Claremont McKenna College.

The purpose of the book, Ceaser said, is to "present the election results in an objective way, as a historical interpretation a month or two after the event."

Their analysis concluded that Obama achieved a "fairly modest victory," Ceaser explained.

"Institutionally, it's the status-quo," Ceaser said, noting that Democrats control the presidency and Senate and Republicans control the House, just as they did before the election. Additionally, all the congressional leaders kept their posts.

If one were to rank all the presidential elections in terms of margin of victory since 1896, which political scientists consider the beginning of the modern era of presidential elections, Ceaser explained, Obama's 2012 victory would rank 24 out of 30, or near the bottom, which means it is not even close to a landslide. Obama is also the only president to be re-elected with a smaller share of the vote total than he received in his first election.

"In a way, it could be argued the he is the weakest re-elected president in American history," Ceaser said. Plus, the Democratic Party is clearly weaker in 2013 than it was in 2009, when Obama first took office, after losing the House and with several Senate seats. And, looking at state elections, Republicans are "hugely better off."

While Ceaser believes that Republicans "could've won" in 2012, he does not believe they "should've won."

First, incumbent presidents usually win. Ceaser pointed out that the incumbents who lost in recent American history – Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George Bush, Sr., in 1992 – usually faced a considerable interparty challenge and/or faced a third party challenge. They also usually lost after their party won several elections in a row. Obama faced none of these circumstances.

Even though the Republican Party appears to be in disarray, predicting which party will win the White House in 2016 is difficult, Ceaser explained, because the two biggest factors that will determine the outcome – the candidates and the incumbent's record – have yet to be determined.

Ceaser used the examples of the 1964 elections to point out that even when Republicans have a very bad year, they can still come back and win the next election.

"Why would Republicans, who were decimated in '64, why would they win '68? ... The minority party ... always has a chance because the party that is running the government can mess up. ... Don't forget that politics is event driven, in many ways."

After those remarks, The Heritage Foundation's Matthew Spaulding, who moderated the discussion, joked, "so hope and chance."