There are very few things in life that simultaneously fill you with both cynicism and exhilaration like the American presidential election. And 2012 is certainly no exception. As the election cycle draws to a close, here's a look back at some of the most valuable insights from the year.
1. Negative campaigning works -- and we all love it.
In the 1824, John Quincy Adams distributed pamphlets accusing his opponent, Andrew Jackson, of having "killed, slashed, and clawed" Americans. Ever since, presidential campaigns have been negative, often brutally so. And despite being the first post-Citizens United election, flush with obscene amounts of super-PAC money and enough ads to make little girls cry, this was not "the most negative campaign in history." That claim is made in virtually every election cycle.
Whether it's the dating world, general consumerism, or voter psychology -- there is a well-recognized, gaping discrepancy between people's expressed and actual desires. People may say they're turned off by a lack of bipartisanship and constant back-and-forth bickering, but the evidence shows otherwise. Voters are more likely to retain the information presented in negative ads, and also express more enthusiasm and political engagement when witnessing a real fight. It's a little like Nickelback -- almost universally lambasted, but hey, someone out there is buying all those CDs.
2. Obama voters supported a candidate; Romney voters supported an opportunity.
Most Obama voters genuinely supported their man and what he stood for. For Romney's supporters, however, he was a prop -- worth getting excited about only if he showed he could pull off a victory.
GOP voters only became truly enthusiastic about their man after the first debate. Following an anyone-but-Mitt primary cycle where every other contender was tried out one by one before being cast aside, Romney was only reluctantly embraced as the Republican nominee -- endorsed from closing elevators and showered with apologetic, qualifier-laden support from his own party's leaders.
The naggingly anti-Obama nature of Romney's campaign intensified significantly after the first debate, once Republicans realized Romney could actually win. But it never truly became a pro-Romney campaign.
3. The ignorance of a few dumbs down the dialogue for all.
It was genuinely astonishing to witness rape and birth control joining evolution as "controversial issues" in 2012, thanks to men like Rick Santorum, Todd Akin, Joe Walsh, and Richard Mourdock. Their proclamations evoked real, serious national conversations engaged in by both parties -- as if the last 200 years never even happened.
Although responding to them was the right thing to do, it took valuable attention away from issues more relevant to our time. Unfortunately, engaging with the inane is often synonymous with engaging in inanity. Articles with mindlessly obvious content were written that would otherwise have been completely unnecessary. And we're all a little dumber for it.
When the Tea Party was in its ascent, it became readily apparent that the rapidly growing chasm between the Republicans and Democrats was no longer just one of ideology, but one of intellect. Even if you passionately disagreed with Reagan, Kissinger, or Wolfowitz, you could still respect their intelligence. This year, however, the Palinization of the GOP hit an all time high (or low).
4. Ultimately, low-information voters decide presidential elections.
About a month before the 2008 election, in Buffalo, New York, I met a very nice lady from housekeeping, who was listening to me talk to my mother on the phone. My mother was in Pakistan at the time on a project to train teachers in rural areas. After I hung up, she asked me about my mother's work. As part of my explanation, I told her that many of the schools in rural Pakistan were becoming Taliban-ized. She paused for a moment, and then asked, "So, these Taliban... they're the bad guys, right?"
She was registered to vote the next month.
Low-information voters come out in droves during presidential elections. After the 2010 mid-term elections, more than half of all Americans actually thought that the Republicans had won the Senate. But 40 per cent of Americans in 2012 didn't know which of the two parties supported pro-choice policies on abortion. And remember how you thought Obama rocked it in the third debate when he got Romney to admit that both of their strategies to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon were virtually identical? Well, you were part of a minority of people to whom that matters.
Because fully 71 per cent of Americans think Iran already has nuclear weapons.
So Fox News, tunnel-visioned inside its own echo chamber with its Benghazi obsession, made the same mistake this year that cost John Kerry in 2004 -- presenting complex, nuanced stories late in the election cycle that could not be captured in soundbites. Obama and the Democrats, on the other hand, took a valuable lesson from the adrenalin-driven contagiousness of "Drill Baby Drill!" and "death panels": when a majority of the electorate you are trying to woo doesn't know the difference between the debt and the deficit, crowd-pleasers like "Romnesia," "malarkey," and "horses and bayonets" are much more digestible than detailed policy outlines. As cynical as that sounds, substance really doesn't matter. Style does -- and keep it bite-sized.
5. Low-information voters will often present themselves as engaged, high-information voters, making our perceptions of the electorate even murkier.
In this video, Jimmy Kimmel asked ordinary Americans who they thought won the second presidential debate -- two hours before the debate took place -- and got perfectly coherent, articulate responses.
Tea Party activists who accuse Obama of being a socialist or communist without even knowing what the terms mean continue to put their ignorance on display. This is the part of democracy that is both entertaining and sad.
6. Lying and being a flip-flopper in today's extreme Tea Party-driven Republican party actually makes Mitt Romney a decent person.
Think about it. To run for president on the GOP ticket today, you have to win the support of people who cheer the death of uninsured patients, boo gay soldiers, and want to redefine rape. If you ultimately convince them you're one of them, I'd hope you were lying just to get the job.
This is one of those circumstances where a man who pretends to be misogynistic and homophobic is much better than a man who is honest about being those things. A lying, flip-flopping Mitt Romney is still a better man than an honest Rick Santorum.
7. People around the world have always had an avid interest in American elections, but this year there's more to it.
Now for something less cynical. The U.S. elections are a global event. In many countries, the American election has more of an impact on the future of their people than their own elections.
In the last few years, the Arab Spring has given birth to several new democracies, and in countries like Iran and Syria, people continue to fight and die for their chance to establish theirs. The populations of these countries consist mostly of young people below the age of 30 who have spent their entire lives under the rule of deeply entrenched dictators.
They are now struggling to establish their own democratic governments, but without ever having known democracy first-hand. This year, for the first time since they toppled their rulers, they watch as the world's oldest democracy elects its president. More than ever, leading by example isn't just a responsibility for the United States, but an opportunity -- one that can be immensely rewarding and powerful as a central component of its future foreign policy. This is a very good thing.
8. Everyone loves Canada.
When it comes to Canada, there is bipartisan agreement: we are the country Americans will flee to every time the other side wins.
After Bush won, it was the liberals who were ready to move up here. And this time, it's the Tea Partiers who, bizarrely, want to escape the universal healthcare and same-sex marriage that will clearly threaten their freedom in a second Obama term. Hmm. Let's see how many of them materialize.