Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, November 9, 2012

U-M political scientists offer analysis of presidential election

In making sense of the 2012 elections, three U-M political scientists came to the same conclusion about what led to President Obama's victory: race and gender affected which candidate voters chose.

Less than 24 hours after most ballots were counted, Vincent Hutchings, Donald Kinder and Michael Traugott offered their election analysis during a panel discussion Wednesday at the Institute for Social Research.

  From left, Donald Kinder, Vincent Hutchings and Michael Traugott conducted a panel discussion on the 2012 presidential election. (Photo by Eva Menezes, ISR)

Most national polls accurately predicted a close U.S. presidential race. However, until the final few weeks before the elections, it was unclear how race and gender would affect the outcome. Exit polls showed several results that could impact future elections, especially for the Republican Party, the experts said.

Hutchings, professor of political science, and Afroamerican and African Studies, noted Tuesday's election could be described as having a racially divided electorate: 39 percent of whites voted for Obama, while 59 percent voted for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

African-American, Hispanic and Asian voters went to the polls in large numbers. While the number of African-American voters for Obama dipped slightly in the 90 percent range, 71 percent of Hispanics voters selected the president this year compared with 67 percent four years earlier. Romney had 27 percent in 2012. Asian voters preferring Obama jumped to 73 percent this year compared with 64 percent four years earlier.

"The partisan divide has been increasingly racialized in our post-racial environment," Hutchings said, noting that the Democratic Party is appearing non-white while the Republican Party looks largely white. In addition, the number of minority voters is growing while the opposite is happening among white voters, he said.

Obama's race has contributed in part to his approval ratings dropping among white voters, said Kinder, James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science and Philip E. Converse Collegiate Professor of Political Science. However, the same factor – as well as effective campaigning efforts – led to large numbers of African Americans mobilizing to vote during the last two presidential elections, Kinder noted.

Before the elections, Kinder said, he thought fewer African Americans might support Obama after he backed same-sex marriage.

"The black church, for a long time, has been the center of political mobilization for the black community and I thought that (the same-sex marriage issue) would be a problem for him," he said. "Exit polls show that it wasn't an issue to keep them from the voting booths."

The gender gap is "alive and well," Hutchings noted, with 56 percent of women voting for Obama this year. The percentage of white women comprising this segment of the Democratic Party was smaller than four years ago: 42 percent in 2012 compared with 46 percent in 2008.

Traugott, professor of political science and communication studies, said labeling it the "gender gap" also should encompass race and marital status.

Overall, the president's success speaks to his grassroots efforts to mobilize supporters to get to early voting locations, to submit absentee ballots or to take them to the polls Tuesday.

"Obama was able to identify supporters … and get them to the polls," Traugott said.

While some pundits will second-guess Romney's strategies, exit polls also indicate that he was not a flawed candidate compared to the GOP's 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Romney increased the support of Republicans by 3 percent and independents by 6 percent compared with McCain four years earlier, Traugott said. By comparison, Obama increased support of Democrats by 3 percent.