Election 2012: what are the biggest/most intriguing unanswered questions?

Has this election season been running longer than Berlin Alexanderplatz, or what? It certainly seems to have been going on forever. The Republican primaries, featuring the clown car of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum (remember them?), definitely seems to have occurred ages ago. But fear not: our long national nightmare will be over soon, and Election Day is almost here. Believe it or not, it’s less than 72 hours away!

Given that we’re approaching the end game here, I thought I’d list of what I consider to be some of the most interesting and important questions that have arisen concerning the 2012 election. We should have preliminary answers to some of these questions by November 7, but others will take much longer to sort out.

Here are what I consider to be some of the more intriguing, and pressing, pre-election unknowns:

1. Obviously, the single most important question is who will be our next president, and by what margin will he defeat his opponent, in both the popular vote and the electoral college. Subsets of this question concern how accurately the various politial science models predict the outcome, and whether we should put our trust in the judgment of the likes of experts like Nate Silver on the one hand, or such revered and totally unbiased and un-self-interested authorities as Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and Michael Barone on the other.

2. Also extremely important is what will happen in the down-ballot races, especially House and Senate Races. Right now, the Democrats are expected to hold on to the Senate, which is quite a feat considering how many vulnerable Democrats are running for re-election this year. Currently, the breakdown in the Senate is 53-47 Dems; Nate Silver’s projections have them losing about half a seat, so that the post-election breakdown would be about 52.5-47.5, with the Democrats remaining in the majority. As for the House, it appears that the Democrats will pick up some seats, but the Republicans will retain control.

3. What will the impact of Hurricane Sandy be, both in terms of the nuts and bolts of vote-counting and voter turnout (will voters in the affected regions face significant obstacles in casting their votes, and having them counted?) and in the much-more-difficult-to-determine sense of whether the storm, and the Obama administration’s reaction to it, changed any minds? I wrote about this question in my previous post. We should know right away about the ballot access questions, but it will probably take some time before we hear a more-or-less definitive answer from the pollsters and political scientists about Sandy’s impact on voting choices.

4. Another important question is, what is going on with the Latino vote? The question is not so much about which party Latinos will support — everyone knows Latino voters lean strongly Democratic. Rather, the issue is whether, and to what extent, election polls are missing Latino voters and underestimating Latino turnout. There are good reasons to believe this is the case, and if so, then, like Harry Reid in his upset victory over Sharron Angle in 2010, Obama and the Democrats in general will do better than the current polls predict.

5. Like the Latinos, women lean Democratic, albeit not nearly so heavily. Given the recrod number of abortion restrictions that have been making their way through various state legislatures; the Sandra Fluke/Obamacare contraception flap; the reaction against the Susan Komen Foundation when it announced it would no longer fund women’s health programs at Planned Parenthood; and the pro-rape comments made by Todd Akin and other Republican geniuses, it will be interesting to see whether these gender-related controversies end up creating a wider gender gap and electing more female candidates.

Something similar happened in 1991: when Anita Hill testified about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the insensitivity, cluelessness, and hostility with which she was treated by many pundits and elected officials outraged women across America. The next year, female candidates won a number of unexpected election victories, a phenomenon that was called “The Year of the Woman.” Will 2012 be a repeat? W0e will soon find out.

6. Another big question concerns the dog that (apparently) didn’t bark: that is, the huge push Republicans were supposed to get from the never-ending slush fund of Citizens United-type money. Yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote that “the failure of the great Rove/Citizens United juggernaut to materialize” is “one of the great mysteries of 2012.” I think it’s far too early to call the Citizens United-inspired efforts a “failure.” For one thing, the election results could be more favorable to Republicans than we think, and for another, the impact of money on elections has always been notoriously difficult to measure. But I have to admit it’s not looking good for the Citizens United-type funders; Obama is looking like the likely winner and Democrats across the country seem to be having a good year. If those trends hold up on Election Day, it will be interesting to try to figure out in what ways the Citizens United efforts failed, and why.

7. Another open question is whether the Christian right, which tends to be suspicious of Mormons, will turn out for Mitt Romney to the same extent they turned out for past Republican candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain. Romney has certainly bent over backwards to show support for the Christian right, and the major Christian right leaders have lined up behind Romney. I’m not expecting a drop-off in support, but even small declines in turn-out can make the difference in a closely fought election.

8. Finally, there’s the very important question of what happens concerning the various gay marriage referenda on the ballot in several states. The last I looked, the pro-gay position was ahead in the polls in three of the states (Washington, Maine, and Maryland), but as we’ve often seen, what voters tell pollsters about gay marriage and what they end up doing in the privacy of the ballot booth are two different things. Nevertheless, of the three states holding referenda on this issue, the smart money says that gay marriage will almost certainly triumph in Maine and is likely, albeit less certain, to win in Washington and Maryland as well.

Unlike the ballot measures in those three states, the referendum in the fourth state, Minnesota, would not legalize gay marriage; rather, it would define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. The last I checked, the Minnesota measure was tied in the polls.

The above questions mainly concern the immediate outcomes of the election. But there are a number of election-related questions that touch on the medium- and long-term as well. Here are a few of them:

1. It is my belief that the rise of polling experts like Nate Silver and the wider, internet-driven dissemination of insights derived from political science research has resulted in improved campaign journalism. Yes, there were plenty of silly stories about, for example, Mitt Romney’s supposed momentum, even when the great majority of opinion polls showed no such thing. But those stories were soon debunked, sometimes in the same outlets that ran them in the first place. At least a few of the more intelligent reporters and columnists seem to understand that fundamentals, rather than colorful but ultimately inconsequential campaign events, are what drive election results. By the next election cycle, will these insights be so widespread that the ratio of silly to smart campaign journalism is greatly decreased? We shall see.

2. Secondly, if Mitt Romney loses, and especially if he loses decisively, will the Republicans regroup, reconsider their extremist conservatism, and pull the party back to the center? That would seem like the most obvious move, but I thought they’d do that in 2008 as well, and instead they gifted us with the Tea Party.

Many times in the past I thought we’d hit peak wingnut, and yet the right just kept getting more and more outrageous and extreme. Right now, it looks like Republicans like Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie are making tentative steps toward gently pushing the party towards a saner, more moderate brand of Republicanism, but they may quickly retreat. The Southern base of the party is far more extreme than its Northeastern adherents. Still, things could be shaping up for an eventual showdown between leaders of the party establishment, who may want to push the party toward the mainstream, and conservative activists, who will no doubt argue that the problem with Mitt Romney, and the party, is that it has not been conservative enough. Pass the popcorn!

3. Finally, if Obama wins, there is the issue of what he will actually do with his victory. His options will be severely constrained, because he will almost certainly be facing a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate that falls short of being filibuster-proof. Obama and many other Democrats seem enthusiastic about a Grand Bargain that would cut Medicare and Social Security. This is of course a terrible idea that should be resisted, but given the political constraints, something along those lines is far more likely than a second stimulus. I sincerely hope I am wrong about that. I also sincerely hope Obama uses his presidential power to nominate some good Supreme Court justices and overhaul his economic team (the first to go, if I ran the zoo, would be Treasury-Secretary-for-Life Tim Geithner).

What unanswered questions do you expect the 2012 election to resolve . . . or not? Leave them in the comments.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee