Popular Vote 2012: Narrow Lead For Obama When 13 Million Americans Chose Not to Vote


Election 2012: $2 billion spent, $17.11 per vote, for the most expensive election in U.S. history. Amid the accusations and celebrations is the uncomfortable truth that millions stayed home.

An analysis of voting patterns over the past three elections shows that many in all age groups chose to sit this election out. Some news outlets are reporting a high level of enthusiasm among millennials. Firm statistics will not be available from county and state registrars for weeks (and in some cases, months), but comparisons of local election returns show that 2012 looks a lot more like 2004 than it does 2008, except less enthusiastic.

It is only the party and candidate names that are different. The biggest vote loser was Barack Obama, who received 10 million fewer votes than 2008, but Mitt Romney also received almost 3 million fewer votes than John McCain. John McCain's votes in 2008 would have beaten Barack Obama this time.

Did a third party candidate receive more votes? Libertarians may take some comfort in the fact that Gary Johnson received more than twice the number of votes in this low-turnout election than Bob Barr did in 2008, for a total of 1,139,562.

Is this all about numbers? No. Some of the reasons people stayed home were:

1) Emphasis on swing states to the exclusion of all others

Many, including my students and daughter, wondered why they should bother to vote if the election would be decided based on the votes of only 11 states, most clustered in the east and upper Midwest. Los Angeles County vote totals are a good measure of low voter enthusiasm outside of swing states.

Only 51.56% of L.A. County voters cast their votes in 2012, compared to 65.6% in 2008, and 67.9% in 2004. Barack Obama received 700,000 fewer votes in 2012 than 2008, and got 300,000 fewer votes in the county than John Kerry did in 2004. Demographic changes overall have benefited Democrats, who are now more than 50% of county voter registration. Millennials ages 18-29 registered to vote in record numbers in L.A. County this year, largely due to new online voter registration.

2) A bruising primary season for Republicans

Republicans fared badly in the primaries, among a horrendous field, fierce Democrat attack campaigns focused on non-issues, and vague Republican campaigns offering attacks and no solutions. People might buy a stuffed Big Bird for their niece or nephew, but probably won't be motivated to vote to save his feathers one way or another.

3) Inability to escape back-to-the-70s "social issues"

Despite the fact that a super majority of voters were concerned about the economy, social issues dominated the national conversation. Message to advocates: you didn't win the election because of memes like this. You encouraged 13 million people who voted last time to stay home.

4) Pundit overload on all sides

Nate Silver's blog was correct in his vote result percentages. I do not think even he anticipated the very low voter participation outside of swing states. Looking at this pundit lineup, I can't help but think that each played some part in discouraging people from voting.

5) Nothing for young people

Even though this demographic had the biggest issues of all, with high unemployment and crushing college debt, Barack Obama took young people's votes for granted. Mitt Romney had no clue as to how to engage them.

The engagement of voters of all ages in 2008, based in Barack Obama's positive, simple message of hope and change, has changed to cynicism, pundit-based partisanship and a confused, fragmented society. This is a country where today, the most-reported fact about a candidate like Tammy Baldwin is that she is the first "out" lesbian to be elected to the U.S. Senate, even though Tammy has many qualifications in addition to her sexual preference. It is also a country where in many people's minds, the most notable thing about Barack Obama is that he is the nation's first black president.

Some Americans (though not many) really do make choices based on Big Bird, "binders," and feeling good, because they pressed the lever for a gay woman just because she's gay, or for a man who inexplicably thinks women won't become pregnant after a "legitimate rape" because he says "no abortion, ever," or blindly re-elect the person who's been their member of Congress since 1968. They have more comprehensive hiring standards at Hooters.

Together, all of these factors have created a situation in which the Treasury's "Debt to the Penny" page indicates every man, woman and child in this country owes nearly $52,000 in debt our government has already spent. 

Income inequality is hardly what advocates on each side of the political spectrum argue. It's about waste and structural flaws that have created a situation where all levels of government expend $60,000 a year per every poor individual, against a national per-capita income of $41,560. I am fairly certain each of the 16.8 million people living in poverty in America who are not receiving their fair share of $1 trillion in annual expenditures, would appreciate receiving a $5,000 check each month; they are for certain not getting it and have never received it. 

Literacy studies have not been updated since 2003, but as of that date, 14.5% of the adult U.S. population could not read well enough to understand a nutrition or medicine label, much less read and participate on PolicyMic. There are at least 1.5 million English-speaking inner-city residents who read, write and do math at a third or fourth grade level. They aren't going to get one of the 100 or 200 "green tech" jobs that may be available in their region any time soon.

We have been at war for more than 10 years. We may be coming home from Afghanistan in 2014, but other conflicts are looming in which no sane person is eager to engage. By the way, super-savers who hope to cut all military spending: we have the largest military in the world and expend about $3,000 annually per capita on it. Social spending now slightly exceeds military spending by about $100 billion a year, but the $900 billion in military spending also represents about $55,000 per each person in poverty, too. I am sure these poor individuals would probably appreciate getting another monthly check for $4,483 as well. Cutting 100% of military spending today would reduce future debt payments by a fraction. That's how big the spending problem is.

These facts are more important than "the right to collective bargaining" in a city or state that can't make payroll two weeks from now. They are more important than free birth control pills from private insurance policies. They are more important than worrying about the pay gap between men and women, when 50% of recent college graduates of both genders don't have a job at all.

This is reality. This is why so many stayed home. They correctly estimated neither candidate would or could face this reality. We made this dysfunctional government, which is comprised of individuals who are paid (and many elected year after year) to do jobs at which significant numbers have failed miserably for decades. 

Some states have begun to deal with their problems, with some success. Like it or not, we must go to work. The 86% of us who can read, write and do math above a third grade level, of all ages, from 18 to 80, black, white, Latino, Asian, immigrant (we are all immigrants - even Indians, many many generations ago), man, woman, gay and straight, must work together to fix it. The man at the top isn't the problem, and even having a woman at the top (ever?) probably won't help right now. The hope and change has to come from all of us.