Q&A Q A
David Stebenne, professor of history and law at The Ohio State University, is adept at examining contemporary national politics in the context of American history, making him the “elections historian” on the Election Law @ Moritz team. An author and scholar on subjects ranging from the New Deal to the bowels of the Eisenhower administration, Stebenne took time to reflect on some of the less discussed lessons to be learned from the 2012 presidential election.
Ohio was the focus in the lead-up to Election Day for candidates and media alike. Why do you think President Obama prevailed?
In retrospect, the single most important fact of the 2012 presidential campaign was that Barack Obama led steadily in Ohio from the late spring (when the Republicans settled on Mitt Romney as their nominee) through Election Day. Only in the aftermath of his strong performance in the first presidential debate did Romney briefly surge into a tie with Obama in Ohio, but even that situation quickly proved ephemeral, as Obama soon regained his narrow lead there. In view of the fact that Ohio generally leans Republican, and especially so in close presidential races like this one, Obama’s narrow but consistent lead in the Buckeye State during 2012 appears all the more remarkable – and ultimately decisive. How and why did Obama achieve such unusual strength for a Democratic presidential candidate in Ohio? First, the economy improved more there than in the country as a whole, thanks mostly to the auto industry and related sectors. Unemployment in Ohio from the spring onward was significantly below the national average, which strengthened Obama’s argument that things were getting better, economically speaking, on his watch. There was also a symbolic aspect to this achievement. The auto industry and its related businesses in Ohio are heavily populated by workers from lower-middle-class families without much higher education. Obama appears to have significantly increased his support from families like that in Ohio, and white, lower-middle-class families especially, from 2008 to 2012. In effect, the fact that the pillar of economic recovery was in basic manufacturing helped Obama and the Democrats in Ohio make the broader argument that their policies are beginning to rebuild the economic foundations of lower-middleclass life. Obama and his people promised a kind of new New Deal four years ago; in Ohio it has gradually begun to emerge, and that proved crucial for his re-election prospects there.
So it boiled down to the economic recovery alone?
Not entirely. At least as important, however, was the Obama campaign’s extraordinarily effective organization in Ohio, which targeted the key voting blocs and worked relentlessly to get them out in sufficient numbers. Perhaps the most striking thing about Obama’s victory in Ohio and nationally is that while the overall popular vote was close, Obama won most of the truly contested states; his organization turned out the votes in sufficient numbers where they were needed most. There was nothing accidental about that.
T H E O H I O S TAT E U N I V E R S I T Y
“Obama and his people promised a kind of new New Deal four years ago; in Ohio it has gradually begun to emerge, and that proved crucial for his re-election prospects there.” – David Stebenne, professor of history and law at The Ohio State University
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