On Nov, 6, and after a nasty campaign that seemed to last forever, President Barack Obama was re-elected, handily defeating his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, albeit by a narrower margin than he vanquished John McCain in 2008. Obama’s victory was puzzling to many on the Right and led to the inevitable soul-searching that follows any electoral defeat. The usual suspects blamed, among other things, social conservatives, and that would seem to have some power as a post-election narrative considering the cynical war-on-women theme of the Democratic campaign and several disappointing referendum results for the cause of traditional marriage. But a closer look at the numbers and trends suggest a more nuanced story about the role of social issues in the Obama victory/Romney defeat.

Obama won 50.8 per cent of the vote, compared to Romney’s 47.5. Obama won 26 states plus the District of Columbia for 332 Electoral College Votes (ECVs); presidents are not elected directly by popular vote but on a state-by-state basis by electors who by tradition vote for the candidate who wins the most votes in the state in the general election. Romney won 24 states worth 206 ECVs.

Republicans and conservatives hoped to defeat Obama after a disastrous four years in which the economy made little headway following the 2008 financial meltdown and housing crash. Republicans assumed that an unemployment rate north of 7.2 per cent would doom the president; no incumbent since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle of the Great Depression has been elected with an unemployment rate that high, and indeed not once during Obama’s tenure in the White House has it been below 7.8 per cent. Furthermore, Obama’s signature accomplishment, health care reform, is dreadfully unpopular according to most polls. These conditions, combined with his radical left-wing agenda, made Obama’s defeat, if not inevitable, extremely likely, or at least many conservatives thought so.

It was confounding, then, that polls had Obama ahead until his poor performance in the first debate in early October. Throughout the final month of the campaign the polls showed Romney narrowing the gap and slowly over-taking the President. Obama regained the lead after Hurricane Sandy smashed into New York and New Jersey, and some Republicans were quick to point out that the President, looking all presidential as he visited the affected disaster sites, received excessively positive press while Romney was blown off the front pages and broadcast news, burying his message and ruining his momentum.

Yet, some analysts such as baseball pundit-turned- political prognosticator Nate Silver of the New York Times, never wavered in predicting a sizeable Obama victory according to the sophisticated models he employed.

While prediction models based on economic performance suggested a probable Romney victory, there were other factors that many on the Right ignored. Obama was a gifted campaigner, who could use his charm (and left-wing agenda) to woo select demographics. While the economy was bad, it was technically improving; furthermore, a large Gallup study showed that while most people’s economic lot had gotten worse over the past five years, many had recalibrated their expectations and reported that their personal happiness had increased. Lastly, history shows incumbents are difficult to beat. While one may point to Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush as vanquished single-term presidents, only once since the 1890s has a party had only one term in power before getting turfed (Jimmy Carter in 1980). Americans give their presidents second chances.

After the election, the dominant explanation for the Obama victory (and the failure of the Republicans to win control of the Senate – they already control the House of Representatives) was demographics and the prominence Republicans gave to social issues. That is part of the story, but the media predictably got it wrong.

The declining proportion of non-Hispanic whites among the electorate – an all-time low of 72 per cent, down five points since 2004 – presented challenges to a Republican Party that attracted less than 10 per cent of the black vote and only about a quarter of the Hispanic vote. Much of the post-election hand-wringing amongst conservative commentators and Republican strategists has been about what the party can do to reach out to those voting blocs. But generally, pundits ignored racial demography during the campaign, fixing upon it as an explanation on election day.

The one aspect of demographics acknowledged before the election results were known was the so-called gender gap. Democrats win when they carry the women’s vote by about 10 per cent, and indeed 2012 was no different. Most exit polls found that Obama carried women 55-44 per cent. The media was quick to credit the Democratic strategy that emphasized abortion-on-demand and subsidized contraception a centerpiece of the election; Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, labeled the Democratic National Convention “Abortionpalooza” after the heads of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America and free contraception student activist Sandra Fluke were given prime-time speaking spots.

But the gender gap is misleading. While it is true Obama won 55 per cent of the women’s vote, he did so on the strength of winning single women and non-white women. White women voted for Romney, 56-42 per cent. But single women (which is not broken down by race), favoured Obama by a two to one margin, with the President garnering about 65 per cent of the vote, depending on the exit poll. Also, Obama’s strength was among women under 40. This may coincide with single women, but a majority of women over 40 voted for Romney. The theory is that single women are more attracted to Obama’s message of abortion, contraception, and bigger government because they are essentially married to the state while married women can rely on their husbands to care for them. That might be too cute, but it seems plausible.

According to exit polls of voters, in almost every state (but New Hampshire), Mitt Romney had the support of a majority of married women. In every state, Obama won not only single women, but single men. While pundits are focusing on the demographic shifts in terms of race and how it affects voting patterns, they are missing the story of how married and unmarried voters – be they male or female – are aligning, or re-aligning. The reality is obvious: married and non-married individuals have different values and interests and they are reflected in voting patterns.

There is another demographic shift that is dramatically affecting elections: the religiousity of voters. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Mitt Romney carried those who attended weekly religious services, 59-39 per cent. Obama won the majority of votes of those who do not attend service regularly (55-43 per cent) and those who never attend 62-34 per cent. Obama also overwhelmingly won the “religiously unaffiliated” – which includes atheists and agnostics – 70 per cent compared to 26 per cent.

Previous research has shown that as people leave church, they also are less likely to vote. But the latest indications are that no longer holds, so the growing irreligiosity presents challenges to Republicans, conservatives, and the pro-life/pro-family movement.

White evangelicals voted 79-20 per cent for Romney, while white non-evangelical Protestants voted 57-42 per cent for Romney. While Catholics split about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, further digging reveals another racial divide. Hispanic Catholics voted 75-21 per cent for Obama while non-Hispanic white Catholics voted Romney 59-40 per cent, the best any Republican candidate has done among Catholics.

Enough with demographics, what about specific issues?

According to a Fox News Channel exit poll, 59 per cent of voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Pundits have jumped on that data point to claim abortion hurts Republicans. But according to an unpublished exit poll made available to The Interim, while more people support the so-called pro-choice position than pro-life position, more people vote based on the pro-life stance of candidates than do those who make their vote contingent on a candidate supporting abortion. Furthermore, the exit poll indicates that the pro-life position is more decisively favourable in numerous large battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Michigan, while it loses votes in New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Colorado. An even more nuanced view is that it helps in parts of some states (northern Florida, the evangelical rural areas of Iowa, southern Virginia) but hurts in other parts (southern Florida, the cities in Iowa, the Washington suburbs in northern Virginia).

What all the supposedly wise punditry counseling conservatives to drop pro-life from their priorities ignores – advice given by liberal journalists but also reform-minded conservatives such as David Frum and Meghan McCain – is that sophisticated polling indicates that it would end up losing more votes than it could possibly attract; for every single woman abandoning the pro-life position might convince to vote Republican, it would drive away two or three evangelical or Catholic voters. That’s obviously not a trade worth making.

That is not to say that abortion did not hurt Republicans this election cycle. Two pro-life senatorial candidates made verbal gaffes, and Democratic accomplices in the media made mountians of molehills by constantly repeating their embarassing comments and tying them into the war-on-women story Democrats were telling about Republicans. The gaffes are presumed to have harmed not only the senatorial candidates but Republicans across the country because it reinforced the idea the party and Romney were extreme on abortion.

In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin lost his bid to unseat an unpopular Democratic senator after mistakeningly saying women could not become pregnant after “legitimate rape.” In Indiana, Richard Murdoch lost the Republican senate seat held since 1977; he said he considered a pregnancy resulting from a rape was a blessing from God which was promptly misinterpreted to mean he thought rape was a blessing. The media helped their Democratic allies by lumping the entire abortion issue with the extreme and difficult but atypical circumstances of abortion in cases of rape and incest. (It should be noted that Murdoch’s polling number began to tank long before his controversial statement about pregnancy from rape being a blessing, but the media focused solely on that as the reason he lost.)

The issue of same-sex “marriage” (SSM) might be more complex. Traditional marriage lost in four referenda, the first time same-sex “marriage” passed scrutiny with voters following 32 consecutive  defeats for SSM at the hands of voters since 1998. Maryland voters approved SSM, voters in Maine and Washington state affirmed laws passed by their respective state legislators permitting SSM, and Minnesota voters defeated a ban on SSM. This may be a trend, but it might not be; all four SSM victories were narrow and all carried in liberal states won by Obama, who had endorsed same-sex “marriage” in May. It is unclear that it portends the end of traditional marriage, but it does signal that the battles will continue as the gay rights movement was buttressed by their first victories at the ballot box.

Other ballot initiatives give a mixed signal as to the social conservative makeup of the country. Washington State and Colorado legalized marijuana, but Oregon (a typically liberal state that was the first to legalize assisted suicide) rejected doing so. In liberal Massachusetts, voters rejected legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. And in Montana, voters overwhelmingly endorsed parental consent for abortions for teenagers while in Florida, an initiative to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion was narrowly rejected.

What do the election results portend for the Republicans, conservatives, and pro-lifers in the future? Good question, but one should be mindful of the response of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution. The head of the Chinese communists replied it was too early to tell. Bold pronouncements about what needs to happen for an election four years away are premature. It is not clear whether Obama’s victory is a wholesale endorsement of his left-wing and pro-abortion agenda or an attraction to personal qualities and cool celebrity (or reaction against the cold and unlikeable Romney).
What does seem clear, however, is the folly of putting all one’s hopes into politics, especially in any one particular election.

The novelist Andrew Klavan wrote a piece for the Manhattan Institute immediately following the election entitled “The long game.” Klavan identified three areas in which conservatives needed to engage the culture, not to win the next election but to win hearts and minds in the long term. He said conservative funders and intellectuals needed to commit to building the movement’s own news journalism, an infrastructure to support conservatives in the entertaiment industry in order to counter the lies of liberalism in the arts, and bringing religion to intellectuals. Klavan said the “Great Conversation” taking place in the academy is impoverished by its overly secular nature. Moral truth is based on God and liberty requires moral truth to survive.

Klavan concluded his short article noting that “demography is not destiny. Ideas are.” Ideas that uphold the sanctity of human life and defend the traditional family are necessary preconditions to human flourishing. Elections are not the end-all and be-all of political and cultural change, and 2012 exposed to us all that much must be fixed in the culture before political victories can be won.

Elections are the quick and easy fix. That made defeat at the hands of the most pro-abortion president devastating to many: beating Obama was supposed to be the easy part. But repairing a severely broken society was always going to take more work than defeating any one politician. Whatever Obama may do  in the next four years – appoint pro-abortion judges, fund abortion and contraception, agitate for same-sex “marriage” – can be undone. It will not be easy, but it is not impossible. And the work begins before the next election. The work begins now.

 Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.