Meditating on the murky meaning of 2012

(Eagle Bay, N.Y.) “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet …America’s the Greatest Land of All!” Thus did Dinah Shore- an appealing songstress of the 40’s and 50’s- close her immensely popular weekly television show. In doing so she evoked one of our nation’s most powerful images: The Lure of the Open Road. Much like Jack Kerouac’s manic novel On The Road or Willie Nelson’s mournful classic “On the Road, Again” this simple lyric conveyed compelling notions of Freedom and Limitless American Horizons.

The Central Planning Mentality will always yearn for more orderly forms of Mass Transit- Light Rail etc. – but time and again that impulse is defeated by America’s enduring love affair with the automobile and its’ accent on Anytime, Anywhere.

In thrall to this spirit my wife and I recently undertook a meandering journey that stretched from Boston to Florida and back touching ten states and renewing our awe at the beauty and diversity of our country. Central to our purpose was the opportunity to visit a host of old friends who represented a cross section of our lives and that of the broader American Experience.

They included a Marine combat veteran, a University Vice-President, a retired CIA Officer, a school superintendent, a legendary union organizer, a politician, a Hall of Fame Football Coach, a psychologist, and my oldest friend. Their viewpoints ranged from the very liberal to very conservative. Together we watched the evening news on MSNBC, FOX, or PBS. Some viewed the resurrection of Mark Sanford as an “outrage”, others as a welcome omen; Benghazi stories were either “old news” or “shocking revelations”; and all were depressed at the thought of Anthony Wiener as a plausible Mayor of New York. Happily all differences of opinion were trumped by ties of personal affection.

A disproportionate number of this group were self-confessed “political junkies” and none of us failed to note the report released by the U.S. Census Bureau on May 8th (available online) analyzing voter participation in last November’s election. Though somewhat plodding and verbose Census Bureau analysis compels respect owing to its large sample size (60,000 households compared to most media polls of fewer than 1,000) and avoidance of the “skewing” that frequently infects exit polls or bias deriving from the wording of questions. The Census Bureau does not ask people who they voted for or why but simply reports on “Who Voted”.

The content of the Census Bureau report shows that most media election analysis (liberal and conservative) over the last six months has focused on the wrong things and missed the right things.

President Obama did not win because of Hispanic or Youth turnout ( both declined) but because of other factors best summed up by the front page headline in USA Today (May 9, 2013): “ In 2012 White Vote Down For First Time”.

2012 was an election of remarkable precedents.

For the first time black turnout (66.2%) surpassed that of non-Hispanic whites (64.1%).

For the first time the total number of white voters declined. Though there were over a million more eligible white voters in 2012 than 2008, their vote totals fell by more than 2 million.

As shown by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution if voter turnout rates among blacks and whites had been the same as 2004 Mitt Romney would be President.

Despite the media and even Republican obsession with the Hispanic vote that is driving the star-crossed Immigration Bill, the Census Bureau Report reveals that it is far from a decisive factor.

Though the number of eligible Hispanic voters grew since 2008 this was largely cancelled by a decline in turnout to 48%. Furthermore the Hispanic share of the total vote was only 8.4%.

These figures demonstrate that the Republican obsession with the Hispanic vote is based on a fantasy. As a detailed analysis by political scientist Michael Barone has shown if Romney- instead of the 27% he did get- had achieved a miraculous 70% of the Hispanic vote he still would have lost the Electoral College.

The great mystery of the 2012 election and the one both parties should be obsessing over is what happened to the nearly 3 million disappearing white voters. This is particularly vital for Republicans who usually win about 60% of this demographic.

Still, we must remember that shifting poll numbers and updated election returns can confound the cleverest analysis. Attitudes change (Bush and Obama currently have the same 47% Approval Rating). Some opinions are more persistent. Since the Great Recession began between 56% and 70% of Americans believe the country is “On the Wrong Track” (My “focus group” of old friends divides similarly).

Things change in the course of a journey. Just a few days ago sailors were driven ashore by dark scudding clouds and howling winds on the Outer Banks of the Jersey Shore. Today- here in the Adirondacks- sunshine and gentle breezes wafting across a placid lake beckon a lonely Kayaker to imbibe the silence and calm of Nature.

Things are changing for America too. Our people are moving on, getting ready for whatever lies around the next bend in the river.

Dinah had it right. And it’s still true.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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