Hours after Barack Obama won a second term as president of the United States, a panel of UConn experts convened to analyze what the results of the vote will mean for the country.
In a panel moderated by Professor Jeremy Pressman, professors Charles Venator, Ronald Schurin, Shayla Nunnally, Vincent Moscardelli, and Stephen Dyson tackled everything from the changing demographics of the American electorate to the critical role that individual personalities play in major elections.
The scholars also discussed the results of Connecticut’s closely-watched race for an open U.S. Senate seat, in which Rep. Chris Murphy defeated former professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon, helping the Democrats maintain control of the chamber.
Overall, though, the professors agreed that while the election, like all elections, will have far-reaching effects, it mostly upheld the political status quo, with Obama in the White House, and a Congress divided between a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a narrowly-held Democratic Senate.
“Even though we spend a lot of time talking about change, this election reveals the system’s natural tendency toward stability,” said Moscardelli, noting that roughly nine of 10 seats in the House didn’t change hands.
Schurin said part of the reason for this is the relatively static presidential voting habits of American states. The vast majority of states – and, therefore, their electoral votes – are essentially decided for either Democrats or Republicans long before Election Day, leaving a handful of swing states as the only real contested ground for campaigns.
“While we are undergoing vast demographic change in this country, we’re in a situation of relative geographic stability and have been for a generation,” Schurin said.
That demographic change was most evident in the coalition that elected Obama, Venator said. Obama won thanks to votes from Latinos, blacks, women, and young people, with the election showing in particular the growing clout of Latino voters.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney only won about 27 percent of the Latino vote, Venator said, about 6 percent to 8 percent worse than had been expected, and 4 percent below Sen. John McCain’s showing four years ago.
“We’re seeing more of a move to the Democratic Party,” Venator said, noting that Latinos make up significant portions of the population in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, all of which were won by Obama.
That’s going to have to become a focus for the Republican Party if it wants to remain competitive in future presidential elections, Nunnally said, or risk seeing its base comprised of an ever-shrinking part of the population.
“The Republican Party really needs to make efforts to become attractive to these groups who primarily identify as Democrats right now,” she said.
But while demographics and geography and other larger factors played a significant role in the election, Dyson argued that individual personalities are still crucially important for understanding campaigns, especially in races as close as this one.
“With a closely divided country, seemingly little things – even a single decision by a single individual – can have macro-political implications,” Dyson said, giving as an example Obama’s decision early in his term to bail out the struggling auto industry.
Although unpopular at the time, exit polls last night showed that 60 percent of voters in Ohio – an auto industry center – approved of the decision, and that 75 percent of those voters supported Obama.
Personality and demographics both played a decisive role in the Connecticut Senate race, the scholars said, in which McMahon, despite spending $44 million of her own money on the campaign just two years after spending $50 million in another unsuccessful Senate bid, was handily defeated by Murphy.
“Linda McMahon had an obvious problem going into both races, and that was how she made her money,” Schurin said, referring to criticism of World Wrestling Entertainment over violent or sexually suggestive programming.
Moscardelli said a major factor in the race was the significant gender gap, with Murphy winning women’s votes by a double-digit margin.
“She needed women,” he said of McMahon, adding that her efforts to appeal to those voters never quite succeeded. “Even as she was picking up ground among women in terms of electability, it never translated into votes.”