Take-away from US election: Obama's 'small' issues won big

There was no single grand message that was going to win over voters in 2012 – from President Obama or Mitt Romney. A big reason is because America is so diverse and divided, and will likely continue to be.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/file
President Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night victory party in Chicago Nov. 7. Op-ed contributor Dante Chinni writes: 'While Mr. Obama carried voters who said health care or foreign policy were their top issues, these can hardly be considered “small.” Foreign policy is a big issue by any measure and health care was considered a huge issue by both sides.'

In the weeks since the US presidential election, many analysts have tried to explain the results. One meme in particular has taken root: that President Obama won reelection with a campaign of “small” issues that divided America into different groups, while Mitt Romney lost with a broad attempt to unite America on the economy.

But the evidence is weak. Exit polls showed Mr. Romney narrowly carried the day on the economy. And while Mr. Obama carried voters who said health care or foreign policy were their top issues, these can hardly be considered “small.” Foreign policy is a big issue by any measure, and health care was considered a huge issue by both sides.

And as outgoing Pew Research Center director Andrew Kohut has noted, on several key social issues, Republicans stand on the wrong side of public opinion: 59 percent believe abortion should be legal, and 65 percent support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

In other words, supporting those policies isn’t about dividing the nation into subgroups by supporting “women” (who are a majority of voters) or “Hispanics.” It is about supporting positions most Americans hold.

More to the point, what actually is a “small” issue? Supporting farm subsidies may be seen as pandering to the rural vote if you live in New York City, but it is a serious, directly crucial matter on the Great Plains. Such issues make rhetoric about government real.

And that brings us to a second point. There is good reason to believe that the divides people noticed in 2012 are going to grow deeper in coming elections.

I head up a journalism effort called Patchwork Nation, which uses demographic, economic, and social data to break the nation’s 3,100-plus counties into 12 types – from small rural Tractor Country counties to big urban Industrial Metropolises. When you look at the country this way, you understand that the wants and needs of all these communities are very diverse.

Programs and messages that appeal to voters in different places are necessarily going to be different. This has always been true on social issues, but it is increasingly true on economic ones – that’s why divisions will likely grow. In August 2012, the national unemployment rate was 8.1 percent. It was only 4.7 percent in Tractor Country counties. It was 9.4 percent in Industrial Metropolis counties.

Those are stark differences that will ultimately lead to calls for different solutions. There was a time when America had the resources to answer all those calls. But as the economic power of other countries grows, we have fewer resources than we once did.

That means we must prioritize and decide who gets what from federal, state, and local governments. There will be winners and losers and, yes, divisions.

If there is solace to be found, it may be in this: The American electorate has always been full of division – from the Know-Nothings and Progressives to the tea partyers and occupiers. That’s what happens when you have hundreds of millions of people across a huge mass of land between two oceans.

So, no, there was no single grand message that was going to win over voters in 2012 – from Obama or Romney. But there never has been. And we’re still here.

Dante Chinni is director of the Jefferson Institute’s Patchwork Nation project.

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