Only once before the twenty-first century has America had three consecutive eight-year presidencies: the years 1801-25 in which three members of “the House of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe each won two general elections and served for eight years. Historians have called the end of this period “the Era of Good Feelings,” in part because Monroe won his second term without opposition with a single electoral vote cast for his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams.
In 2012, after an interval of nearly 200 years, Americans for the second time re-elected a third president to a second term, as Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney by a margin of 332 to 206 in the Electoral College and 51% to 47% in the popular vote, during a period which no historian is likely to describe as an era of good feelings.
That is because American voters in the twenty-first century have been very closely divided between the parties, with persistent loyalties manifest in every presidential and congressional elections and a degree of straight-ticket voting not seen for decades. The demographics of party allegiance tended to produce different results in close contests for the presidency and control of Congress. Heavily Democratic groups—blacks, Hispanics in many states, gentry liberals—tended to be clustered in central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns. These clusters insured that Democratic presidential nominees would win at least 170 electoral votes without serious competition, while Republicans had similar dominance in states with only about 100 electoral votes. This is one reason why Democrats won four of six presidential contests between 1992 and 2012.
But clustering worked against Democrats in congressional and state legislative elections conducted in equal-population districts, since Democratic voters were clustered in relatively few districts and Republican voters were spread around more evenly in the rest of the country. Thus Republicans won majorities in the U.S. House in nine of the 11 House elections from 1994 to 2014. In 2012 Barack Obama, with 51% of the popular vote, carried only 209 congressional districts, while Mitt Romney with 47% carried 226. In contrast, in 2004 George W. Bush with 51% of the popular vote carried 255 congressional districts, many more than John Kerry’s 180.
As in 1996 and 2004, the incumbent president was renominated by his party without opposition, while the other party had a seriously contested, but relatively speedily concluded, race for its nomination. The clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination was one-term Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had also run in 2008. During 2015 he faced fleeting competition from more conservative candidates who jumped to leads in the polls—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain—only to fall behind. Romney led in initial returns in the Iowa caucuses (though former Senator Rick Santorum emerged ahead when the votes were finally counted) and won the New Hampshire primary. Romney lost the South Carolina primary to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, but he won again only in his home state, Georgia. Romney, with strong support from affluent and suburban voters, clinched the nomination by beating Santorum in primaries in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin.
The Obama campaign enjoyed unified party support, was well financed and used an updated version of the sophisticated voter identification and turnout techniques it had pioneered with great success in 2008. Starting in the spring it ran tough attack ads targeting Romney’s business experience. But the president’s job approval during most of the campaign hovered below 50%, a point it finally reached by election day, and polling showed the race close, especially after Obama’s faltering performance in the first presidential debate October 3. The campaign was conducted chiefly in a dozen target states, identical to the 2008 list except for Indiana and Missouri, which Obama carried and lost very narrowly then and were no longer seriously contested.
The two parties chose to hold their national conventions in target states, at some risk. Republicans met in Tampa, along the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season; one day of the convention had to be cancelled. Democrats met in Charlotte and scheduled the president’s acceptance speech for an outdoor stadium, in a season when the chance of rain was 50%; the speech had to be delivered indoors.
The results closely resembled those of 2008. Of his 2008 states, Obama lost Indiana, which he didn’t contest, and lost North Carolina only narrowly. Every other target state he won, as in 2008, although in the case of the largest, Florida, by only 1% of the vote. However, in contrast to 2004 and 2008, when turnout rose robustly, total turnout was down, though not in most target states. Obama won 3.5 million fewer votes than he had won before, while Romney won only 1 million more than John McCain had four years before. Negative feeling about the direction of the nation had not been enough to defeat the third consecutive president elected to a second term, but it had trimmed his margin and was a sign that this was anything but an era of good feelings.
Michael Barone is Senior Political Analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics.