[Print] TDR Talks 2012 Election with Prof. Bafumi

We were lucky enough to sit down with Professor Joseph Bafumi to discuss the results of the 2012 election and the conclusions that can be safely drawn from them. Professor Bafumi teaches an excellent course on Campaigns & Elections as well as a seminar course on The American Voter Through Time. As a result, he brings well-needed historical insight into this election. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University before studying as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Currently, Professor Bafumi is leading students on the “Washington FSP” offered by the Government Department.


The Dartmouth Review: Was Mitt Romney a truly conservative candidate?

Professor Bafumi: He has some strikes against him on conservatism and on the capacity to woo the most conservative of voters. For one, he changed positions over time. He had different positions running for governor of Massachusetts than he did running for President, and even more different positions when he was running for the Senate back in 1994 against Kennedy, so his positions have changed. He doesn’t have the credentials or the legitimacy of some other major conservative candidates who have been pretty steadfast ideologically over time. He seemed a little bit more willing to accommodate his electorate in ways that are opportunistic. At least that’s how it seemed to many voters. He didn’t have quite the conservative credentials as a Santorum so that’s one of the reasons why Santorum came out of nowhere and gave him a run for his money. The Republican primary voter was really shopping around for anyone but Mitt but they couldn’t find anyone among the available candidates who they felt like had as good a chance as Mitt in the general election. 

Another issue he had was with a typical conservative constituency: the evangelical voters. A lot of evangelical voters are hesitant against the notion of voting for a Mormon. They just don’t feel that Mormons represent their point of view. Some of them feel pretty strongly that the Mormon religion is not a Christian religion.  Even though Mormons believe in Christ and are Christian, many evangelicals don’t feel that they would want a leader who is from the Mormon religion so that hurt him too within a typical base of the Republican Party. My sense is that a lot of them probably stayed home and didn’t turn out to vote in the general election. 


TDR: What about the fact that he was a multi-millionaire? 

Bafumi: The fact that he was very rich and the fact that he made the 47% remark and in the primary, made it sound like a $10,000 bet was not much money and the capacity of the democrats to characterize him as out of touch and too elitist at least financially speaking probably hurt him.  It wasn’t his success alone, it was his success coupled with mistakes he made like the 47% remark and the $10,000 bet and the Democrats’ capacity to take advantage of those mistakes and really harp on them and paint him as out of touch. 


TDR: Were the conservative ideas he put forth unpopular with many people or just communicated poorly?

Bafumi: In the first debate he did a really good job of talking about conservative ideas and what he would do if he were elected president, and Obama really looked pretty poor in that first debate for that reason.  I think before then, people were focused more on his personality, his religion, the current administration, and the economy. It took a while before people were really focusing in on Mitt Romney. Maybe it started in the conventions when the American people were focused in. The Republican Convention was not flawless. The Clint Eastwood thing puzzled people and wasn’t quite as well orchestrated as the Democratic Convention. It was more about introducing people to Mitt Romney than it was getting his conservative message across. 

The first debate was really all about issues and he talked about his conservative beliefs and he did it very well. Early on people were focused on getting to know him and getting to know his personality. He made some mistakes that made it difficult for him to communicate with voters and then he did really well when he was able to communicate his conservative beliefs in that first debate. He saw momentum going in his direction, but Obama retrained on how to handle Romney in the debates. Even though Romney continued to do well in the debates, Obama was able to stem Romney’s momentum. Romney was able to deliver his conservative principles and message really well but people were focused on the gaffes he made and the messages that the administration put out that took time and attention away from Mitt Romney. In the right context he did well in getting his message across, but often didn’t have that context to make that effective kind of communication. 

 Dartmouth Government Professor Joseph Bafumi

TDR: How did social issues effect the election? 

Bafumi: The immigration discussion may have hurt him. In the primary he was positioning himself pretty far to the right and it appeared he was anti-immigrant. He was doing this to appeal to a very conservative primary electorate. This made it hard for him to reach out to Latinos in the general election. The dynamic there hurt him on immigration. Gay marriage is a very new issue; it’s hard to see how much of an electoral impact it had. Obviously the electorate is changing pretty quickly but I don’t know if that hurt him or helped him in any substantial way. Abortion is the same way. I think the immigration hurt him because Latino voters ended up voting in higher numbers for Obama in 2012 than they did in 2008. Some argue that this gave him the win. The immigration debate and immigration policy stances hurt him. 


TDR: Does the Republican Party need to shift its stance on some of these issues? 

Bafumi: On immigration they need to find a position that doesn’t sound anti-immigrant but at the same time does not give those who are here illegally easy passage. They have to try and find some middle ground that is appealing to the conservative constituencies and the primary voters, but also can be found acceptable by the middle of the electorate. 

On the other issues, there are still a lot of conservatives out there who are pro-life but feel like there should be exceptions. Many feel like this should be decided by the states. To say that one is conservative on the abortion issue is to encompass many different positions on the abortion issue. I don’t think they necessarily have to change. 

On gay marriage we see things trending more favorable towards gay marriage but there is this libertarian strand of the Republican Party that can probably deal with that issue in a way that is thought to be pretty popular and that is to say that it is something that the federal government should not be involved in any sort of marriage issue. Government professor Sonu Bedi recently wrote an Op-Ed in the Huffington Post about how the separation of church and state suggests that the federal government should not be involved in deciding marriage issues at all. 

There is this libertarian part of the Republican Party that perhaps would do well appealing to the median voter, but would lose the evangelical social conservatives who, according to the polling trends, are increasingly out of touch with the median voter. 

Those are the big issues, there are others out there. Immigration is the most important one that they really have to do some soul searching to find some middle ground that acceptable to the median American as well as the conservative factions. They have been very successful in attracting Latino voters in the past but they must do better now. George W. Bush did a fine job in appealing to Latinos and John McCain was not seen as unfavorable to Latino voters. 

Once Obama got elected there was this sort of Obama backlash on fiscal issues and that’s how the Tea Party emerged, but then they got coopted by the social conservatives as well. It’s a hard party to define because it’s very confused, but the Tea Party became not only fiscally conservative but also socially conservative and moved to the right on immigration, which was ultimately a mistake.

People need to remember that it was in very recent history that George W. Bush and John McCain were promoting an immigration reform that immigrants liked and the median American voter thought could be acceptable. Because of 9/11 they didn’t get very far on trying to pass their brand of immigration reform. There is this recent history of Republicans like George W. Bush being able to appeal to Latino voters and there is no reason why the party can’t do that in the future. 


TDR: In what direction is the Republican Party headed right now?

Bafumi: I don’t think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party are moving towards the middle right now. They have been polarizing and they may stay at their current rate or they may polarize even further. They will probably polarize a little further in the next election, with some of the Democratic senators losing to Republican conservatives in some of the red states. Maybe only two or three, not necessarily the whole lot of them. I don’t suspect they’ll be moving towards the middle. 

I think the Tea Party and other elements of the Republican Party have moved to the right and will stay there. Same thing with the Democrats moving to the left – they will stay there. The Tea Party may become less out front over time. It’s hard to know. They’ve hurt the Republican Party by electing in primaries the most conservative of the candidates in some places. Whereas if they had nominated the person who was more mainstream Republican of pre-Obama, they would have had a better shot at winning the seat. They’ve won some seats but they’ve also lost seats that the Republican Party could have won by nominating a candidate that wasn’t as conservative. The Tea Party may have won its major attention and media coverage in the past, and moving forward, while they’re still going to be a force in primaries, I think their major push and the major difference that they’ve made is over. 

Now it’s more about not the Tea Party as an entity but more of how the Republican Party finds its soul.  Is it a party that will turn to Ron Paul and Rand Paul? Will it be socially conservative and include evangelicals as well as fiscal conservatives? Is it more the mainstream kind of Republican Party that was always fiscally conservative? 


TDR: How did the 2012 election shape the future of the Republican Party? How do you see the GOP evolving over the next few years?  

Bafumi: Republicans are going to think long and hard about how to handle immigration reform. They will want to nominate candidates with a more steadfast platform in the sense of having wavered in their stances over the years. They’re going to want somebody who is a little more careful in terms of the language they use. They will prefer someone who is a little more populist like George W. Bush, who doesn’t seem to be too far apart from the average American. 

In 2012, the Democratic Party found someone with better communication skills and more populist appeal and someone you might want to be friends with in Obama. I think the Republican Party is going to do the same thing. They are going to find somebody who people would be more apt to want to have a drink with and somebody who is more principled in their positions over time, or at least seems more principled in their positions over time. Mitt Romney did not seem that way. They will look for someone who can communicate better and seems like the average American. There are a lot of people out there who can do that. Chris Christie is one, Jeb Bush is another. They have a pretty good farm team out there of potential nominees who can do these things and appeal to both the conservative electorate in the primary and also the general electorate after that. 


TDR: So is it the candidate that matters more than a shift in the Republican Party’s platform? 

Bafumi: There could be a shift, there’s this Ron Paul and Rand Paul faction of the party and they’re different than other kinds of Republicans. If they show a lot of success, there could be a shift. But my guess is that Rand Paul will trying running for president maybe in 2016 but probably in 2020. He won’t be the nominee immediately, but I think we’ll see someone who appeals to more mainstream and more conservative Republicans. Moving forward is hard to say, of course the Ron Paul faction may have more success. In the short term, look for it being more a question of some soul searching on some issues like immigration reform but really more of who the candidate will be. It will probably be someone who has positions not too far different from what the Republican Party has been thinking and doing all along. Long term there may be a more fundamental shift in the Libertarian direction. On both sides there has been this slow shift in the direction of Democrats going to the left and Republicans going to the right. 


TDR: With all these forces pulling at the party, will it remain more on its current course or shift somewhere else?

Bafumi: I think they will try and find a consensus candidate who will try to appeal to the median voter and at the same time appeal to all of those groups without seeming like they’re in the pocket of any one of those groups – evangelicals, mainstream Republicans, self-described Tea Partiers, Libertarian leaning Paul voters, Independents. That’s why someone like Chris Christie or Jeb Bush stands out as possibly the contender.


-William R. F. Duncan