Crunching the numbers: How big was Obama’s win?

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Just weeks after the election, President Obama has launched a campaign-style drive to gain the upper hand in budget talks with Republicans.

How the negotiations play out will provide a much clearer measure of exactly how much clout he gained in winning re-election.

Obama’s success at the polls was due in no small part to his campaign organization, which is getting well-deserved attention for its sophisticated use of analytics. (The famously data-driven Mitt Romney, on the other hand, may have been misled by faulty internal numbers, as a recent New Republic article illustrated.)


The importance of Obama’s campaign “ground game” jumps out in numbers generated from David Wasserman’s 2012 election spreadsheet. Overall, the popular vote fell by about 3.5% from 2008 in most of the country — the 42 states that did not feel the full effects of campaign advertising and organizing (turnout, as a percentage of the vote-eligible population, was off by even more). But the popular vote total rose by 2% overall in the eight most heavily contested swing states (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire), all of which Obama won.

And yet, despite those gains and Obama’s electoral college landslide (332 votes to Romney’s 206), the magnitude of the president’s re-election victory remains open to interpretation.

As James Rainey recently wrote on this blog, Obama is likely to become the first presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to gain at least 51% of the popular vote in two consecutive elections. And as votes continue to be tallied, his margin over Romney is gradually expanding.

Still, depending on the historical lens, an argument can be made that Obama’s victory was less than sweeping.

He won by one of the slimmest margins of any incumbent president in nearly a century: about 3.6%, or just half of his 7.3% winning margin in 2008. That slippage was due, in part, to the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. (Arguably, his margin would have been slightly larger had it not been for the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; the drop in turnout in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut accounted for roughly half of the total falloff in popular votes nationwide.)

By comparison with Obama’s slender margin, nearly all of the 12 presidential incumbents who won elections from 1904 to 2004 did so by much more comfortable margins, about 12 percentage points, on average. Among the most recent examples: Presidents Bill Clinton (8.5 percentage points in 1996), Ronald Reagan (18 percentage points in 1984) and Richard Nixon (23 percentage points in 1972).


George W. Bush was the biggest exception to that pattern. His 2004 re-election was by 2.5 percentage points. That actually represented an improvement for Bush, who took office after losing the popular vote by half a percentage point.

What happened right after Bush’s impossibly tiny victory in 2000 is worth remembering. The new president seized power as if he had won in a landslide and, by the middle of 2001, succeeded in enacting a sweeping tax cut.

An expiration date was imposed on those tax cuts, because Republicans didn’t have the votes to make them permanent, setting the stage for the budget dealings that will frame Obama’s second term, even before inauguration day.

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