Policy Notes on the Election

By Joseph Lawler

Last night’s elections were an endorsement of the status quo, with President Obama returning to the White House, Democrats retaining the Senate, and Republicans holding onto a sizable lead in the House. Voters were more comfortable with the existing arrangements for the next two or four years than with the alternatives offered.

The status quo means that Obamacare will survive to full implementation, which is undoubtedly the most important outcome of the election. In the end, the race was not a referendum on Obamacare in the way that the 2010 midterms were. Heading into the election, the law consistently polled poorly, but ultimately concerns about health care were subordinated to worries about the economy. Exit polls indicate that about half of the electorate wanted at least some of the law repealed -- far from a ringing endorsement. Yet only about a quarter of voters supported the Romney/Ryan ticket’s promise of full repeal. Obamacare remains unpopular, but it’s here to stay.

As for the economy, it’s clear from exit polls and from the results in swing states that the Obama campaign was able to portray Romney as insensitive to the needs of the middle class. In Rust Belt states and in Ohio, particularly, this may have had a lot to do with Obama’s aggressive positioning on the auto bailouts. But it seems that the Obama campaign was able to create a general impression that Romney was primarily looking out for the interests of the wealthy: according the exit polls, voters believed that Romney would manage economic affairs better than Obama, by a very slight margin. They also thought, by about two-to-one, that taxes should not be raised to cut the deficit. Yet they were more likely to indicate that Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy and that Obama’s would favor the middle class.

Those are somewhat contradictory results, and it will be interesting to see analysts delve more deeply into the data to figure out what’s going on. But for now, the takeaway is that Obama won over the middle class despite being handicapped on two of the most important issues facing the middle class. Some combination of attacks on Romney’s Bain background, his tax plan, his stance on the auto bailouts, and other factors created an overall feeling that Romney would serve Middle America poorly.

While that strategy was successful in defeating Romney’s challenge, it might not prove as helpful in paving the way for the tax hikes that the Obama campaign has planned. Although the narrow tax plan Obama campaigned on – essentially, the Buffett Rule – polls better than “tax hikes” broadly defined, the Obama administration won’t be able to pick and choose exactly which taxes get raised and which remain the same. That will instead likely be determined in the resolution of the fiscal cliff, which will be a messier process than the Obama campaign let on. In other words, he doesn’t have a mandate for the tax increases he has planned.

If Obama did get any mandate from the election, it would seem to be for immigration reform. He won almost three-quarters of all Hispanic and Latino voters. Clearly immigration policy, an area in which there are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, kept Hispanics in the Democratic column and won a number of states for Obama.

One interesting election subplot is its repercussions for Paul Ryan, who has been the driving force for Republican policy for the past few years. His plan to move Medicare to a competitive bidding model was one of the most significant issues of the 112th Congress. It was also supposed to be a major topic in the elections, after Romney first adopted Ryan’s plan and then brought Ryan himself onto the ticket. Many political strategists thought that Romney had sealed his own doom, as well as the demise of countless down-ticket Republicans, by embracing Medicare reform so tightly.

It now seems that Ryan’s Medicare proposal (along with his less-noticed Medicaid plans) was not as great a liability as thought, if at all. Ryan retained relatively high favorability ratings throughout the race. Exit polls suggest that voters favored Obama on the issue of Medicare only 52-44 percent. The GOP ticket won seniors 56-44 percent – an improvement over its 2008 numbers.

Of course, there are some caveats: the Romney campaign’s strategy focused less on defending Ryan’s Medicare plan than it did on attacking the Medicare cuts included in Obamacare. Romney and Ryan also accentuated, at every possible point, that their plan wouldn’t include any changes for current seniors, backdating Medicare reform for at least 10 years from now. Furthermore, it’s possible that further voting analysis will reveal that voting for the Ryan plan did hurt some down-ballot Republicans. Nevertheless, the topline result is that some sort of competitive-bidding Medicare reform isn’t as risky a proposition as it once seemed. As long as Ryan chairs the Budget Committee, that fact will loom in the background.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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