The Divide & Conquer Election of 2012

by Dianne G. Bystrom (Volume editor) Mary C. Banwart (Volume editor) Mitchell S. McKinney (Volume editor)
©2014 Monographs XII, 341 Pages


alieNATION presents research conducted by a national election team and leading scholars in political communication that explores a range of important topics and variables affecting voter attitudes and behavior in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
In exploring the messages, issues, and voters of the 2012 election, these studies employ multiple methods including experimental design, content analysis, rhetorical criticism, and survey research. Whereas other election research tends to investigate either the content or effects of campaign communication, the more comprehensive and systematic nature of this collection enables alieNATION to cohere thematically around considerations of voter alienation, political engagement, political efficacy, and ultimately, citizens’ voting decisions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Praise for alieNATION
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: An alieNATION of the U.S. Electorate: The Divide and Conquer Election of 2012
  • Section One: Media & Messages
  • Chapter One: Framing the 2012 Presidential Election on U.S. Television: Candidates, Issues, and Sources
  • Chapter Two: To Form a More Polarized Electorate? The Effect of Presidential Debates on Polarization, Partisanship, and Political Aggression
  • Chapter Three: Communicating with Voters 30 Seconds at a Time: Presidential Campaign Advertising 2012
  • Chapter Four: Reaching Young Voters in the Middle: Party Loyalty and Perception of Political Participation
  • Chapter Five: “No One Puts Baby in a Binder”: The Resonance of Social Media Messages with College Students During the 2012 Presidential Campaign
  • Section Two: Issues
  • Chapter Six: Defining Fairness in the Economic Rhetoric of the 2012 Presidential Election
  • Chapter Seven: Health Care Reform: Core Value Differences Between Liberal and Conservative Candidates and Voters
  • Chapter Eight: Gendered Framing of the 2012 Election: The “War on Women” as Rhetorical Strategy
  • Chapter Nine: Are Latinos Citizens? Labels, Race, and Politics in News Coverage of Immigration Reform
  • Chapter Ten: Debating Marriage Equality in the 2012 Elections
  • Chapter Eleven: Articulating Interests and Advocating Issues: An Analysis of Congresswomen’s Political Speech after the 2012 Election
  • Section Three: Electorate
  • Chapter Twelve: The Gender Gap in Presidential Vote Preference
  • Chapter Thirteen: Black, White, and Latino: Message Strategies for a Divided Electorate
  • Chapter Fourteen: Defying Expectations: Young Citizens’ Political Attitudes and Participation in the 2012 Election
  • Chapter Fifteen: Altar Calls: Religious Segmentation in Campaign Appeals
  • Chapter Sixteen: Working Together at Arm’s Length: Bipartisan Rhetoric in the 2012 Presidential Campaign
  • Chapter Seventeen: Affective Polarization from Campaign Communication: Alienating Messages in the 2012 Presidential Election
  • Conclusion: Reflections on the 2012 Election: An Agenda Moving Forward
  • About the Contributors
  • Series index

← X | XI → Acknowledgments

alieNATION: The Divide and Conquer Election of 2012 continues the collaborative efforts of a nationwide team of political communication scholars and researchers. We believe such collaborative efforts are essential to the study of political campaign communication. And, we are pleased with our thematic approach to the study of the 2012 presidential election.

The editors wish to thank our contributing authors who wrote chapters for this volume as well as the members of our national research team who coordinated the collection of data on their university campuses. We thank the following members of our 2012 election team, listed alphabetically by university:

Auburn University, Mike Milford; Emerson College, J. Gregory Payne; Georgia College and State University, Kristin N. English; Iowa State University, Dianne G. Bystrom; Kutztown University, Glenn Richardson; Marquette University, Sumana Chattopadhyay; Ohio University, Jerry Miller and J. W. Smith; Radford University, Scott Dunn; Rhodes College, Amy E. Jasperson and Bob Johnson; Texas State University-San Marcos, John Payne and Hyun Jung Yun; University of Georgia, Itai Himelboim, Anandam Kavoori, and Kaye D. Sweetser; University of Kansas, Mary C. Banwart and Kelly L. Winfrey; University of Memphis, Seth Abrutyn, Eric Groenendyk, and Anna Mueller; University of Missouri, J. Brian Houston, Mitchell S. McKinney, and Benjamin R. Warner; University of Nevada-Reno, Leslie A. Rill; University of Texas-San Antonio, ← XI | XII → Andrea Aleman and Mary McNaughton-Cassill; and Worcester State University, Amy Ebbeson. We also acknowledge the contributions of John C. Tedesco, Virginia Tech University, in helping organizing this project.

We hope you learn from the results of our collaborative research efforts.

Dianne G. Bystrom, Mary C. Banwart, and Mitchell S. McKinney


On the evening of November 6, 2012, just as Fox News awarded the state of Ohio, and the presidential election, to President Barack Obama, Republican strategist Karl Rove voiced his adamant disagreement with the call, asserting in a rather belligerent manner, “I think this is premature … we need to be careful about calling things when we have a … a quarter of the vote yet to count. I’d be very cautious about intruding in this process” (Weinger, 2012, para. 4). Rove’s rejection of Fox News’ prediction that Obama would be re-elected prompted Fox election co-anchor Megyn Kelly to walk through the studio with live camera in tow where she found two members of the Fox “decision team” and had them defend their projection: “We are actually quite comfortable with the call in Ohio. The largest thing that’s outstanding right now is the Cleveland area, is Cuyahoga … This is Democratic territory and we’re quite comfortable with the idea that Obama will carry Ohio” (Weinger, 2012, para. 11). Still, back at the Fox anchor desk, a doubting Rove continued to dispute the call—even as Fox’s on-screen graphic read “Barack Obama Re-elected President”—prompting election co-anchor Chris Wallace to instruct viewers, “Well, folks, so … maybe not so fast?” (Weinger, 2012, para. 6).

Meanwhile, in the presidential suite at Boston’s Westin hotel, Mitt Romney was huddled with top advisers, his wife Ann, their five sons and assorted family members, all fully expecting a Romney-Ryan victory. In fact, so sure of his impending election, Romney confided in reporters earlier that morning that he had just ← 1 | 2 → put the finishing touches on his victory address and devoted no thought whatsoever to a concession speech (Weiner, 2012). So, at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, with NBC and MSNBC the first networks to report the re-election of Obama (and with each of the other news networks, including Fox, following just minutes later), initial reaction by those in the Romney suite was that of the first predicted emotion following a sudden loss, denial: “they just couldn’t believe they had been so wrong. And maybe they weren’t: There was Karl Rove on Fox saying Ohio wasn’t settled, so campaign aides decided to wait. They didn’t want to have to withdraw their concession, like Al Gore did in 2000” (Crawford, 2012, para. 6). As team Romney waited, additional reporting from Ohio only increased Obama’s margins in the all important Buckeye State; and, as election eve neared midnight, other intensely fought battleground states such as Colorado and, eventually, Virginia were called for the president. Soon after midnight, as the reality of an Obama victory became clear, a “shellshocked” Romney phoned and congratulated the incumbent president on his re-election and quickly huddled with advisers to prepare an impromptu and rather brief concession speech that he delivered to a stunned group of supporters at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, nearly one hour and forty-five minutes after the networks announced Obama would continue as the nation’s 44th president. Although most candidates on Election Day, even those who might suspect they have little to no chance of victory, will project a brave face and message of confidence for their supporters, by all accounts Romney and Republicans—which obviously included Fox analyst Rove—were fully expecting to hear a president-elect Romney deliver his victory speech that evening. Yet, as a top Romney adviser lamented, “There’s nothing worse than when you think you’re going to win, and you don’t … It was like a sucker punch” (Crawford, 2012, para. 12).

So—from the Republicans’ viewpoint—what went wrong? With polling throughout the 2012 campaign consistently showing that more citizens thought the nation was on the “wrong track” rather than “right track,” an Obama first-term economic recession of historic proportions with a continued struggling economy and near-record unemployment throughout the land, and with Republican voters registering greater fervor (fueled largely by anti-Obama sentiment) and greater motivation to vote than Democrats—surely these conditions would produce a Romney victory. Indeed, team Romney and their voting models were confident that Obama would be unable to assemble the same winning electoral coalition that in 2008 made him our nation’s first African-American president. With African-American and young voters as well as many Hispanic/Latino voters bearing the brunt of our nation’s economic woes, certainly these key constituencies would not maintain their loyalty to Obama.

Yet, to the surprise of many, team Obama’s own voting models—and messaging machine—produced an impressive electoral re-election victory by strategically ← 2 | 3 → targeting desired voters in key states with carefully crafted campaign appeals. For example, Obama’s share of the Hispanic/Latino vote actually increased from 67% in 2008 to 71% in 2012, and his margin among African-American voters held relatively steady (at 94% in 2008 vs. 93% in 2012). Although Obama’s national support among young voters, those 18-to-29 years old, did decline slightly from 66% in 2008 to 62% in 2012, his support among young voters in key battleground states—including such electoral prizes as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia—actually increased in 2012 (President Exit Polls, 2012).

How was Obama able to beat expectations in 2012—certainly the expectations of many Republicans? And, particularly in such challenging times for the incumbent president, how was he able to even “out perform” his impressive 2008 electoral showing in several key areas? It was only following his re-election that the magnitude of team Obama’s technological and digital media dominance became fully evident with reports of how his campaign’s “technology nerds” developed sophisticated algorithms that sifted through massive amounts of voter, online, and social media data resulting in strategically targeted messages for likely and desired voters. As The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal (2012, para. 1) described, the Obama victory came at the hands of “a dream team of engineers from Facebook, Twitter and Google who built the software that drove Barack Obama’s re-election.” Obama’s campaign appeals were strategically targeted at the individual voter with carefully crafted personalized messages based on the assessment of numerous data points and repeated messages delivered via digital and social media. Such campaign messaging allowed Obama to connect more efficiently with likely voters all the way down to the specific neighborhood, voter precinct, and county level in the handful of battleground states that would decide the 2012 contest (Madrigal, 2012).

Although the Obama campaign’s technological sophistication was lauded as a major reason for his electoral success, our changing American societal landscape was identified as a principal cause for Romney’s inability to connect with voters. On election night, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly offered this explanation for Romney’s defeat: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore … the white establishment is now the minority” (Hoft, 2012). The next day, yet another leading conservative voice and champion of many Republicans, none other than radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, interpreted Romney’s loss as the outright defeat of our nation: “I went to bed last night thinking we’re out numbered. I went to bed last night thinking all this discussion we had about this election being THE election that will tell us whether or not we’ve lost the country … I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country! I don’t know how else you look at this” (The Young Turks, 2012).

← 3 | 4 → Here, in somewhat glaring terms, we begin to see the contours of our national alienation and hear of the divisions and hostilities that often mark our political and social separations. For O’Reilly, a “traditional” and “white establishment” America is pitted against those demographic segments of our society who would prefer Obama as their national leader. Limbaugh is perhaps even more blunt in his “us” versus “them” construction of our political order, warning his large throng of listeners that “we’re out numbered” and “we’ve lost the country.”

Yet, beyond these rather stark examples of the rhetoric of political alienation, our campaign communication in general is replete with the discourse of division, difference, and separation. Candidates’ political messaging activity is fueled by all manners of slicing and dicing the American electorate, identifying one’s likely voters, and targeting these individuals with appeals that often construct a political enemy (e.g., Edelman, 1988) or suggest some other segment of society must be opposed and defeated to protect one’s own interest or values in order to gain or maintain power. Consider just this partial inventory of our many political divides: from red versus blue states; conservatives versus liberals; and young versus older voters to the Occupy movement’s 99% versus the 1% (much like Romney’s 47% of those “who pay no taxes” vs. those who will “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”); or, perhaps, the well-established gender gap in American politics pitting female versus male voters; or our regular versus irregular and even non-church-attending neighbors; or our nation’s growing number of ethnic and racial minorities versus O’Reilly’s declining “traditional white establishment.” Clearly, we have no shortage of differences, divisions, and separations in contemporary American politics.

In considering our many points of difference, however, we are in no way naive or calling for some sort of “kum ba yah” political order. And, certainly, we understand well that political factions and divisions are nothing new in our democracy. From the earliest time of our republic, we’ve had factions, coalitions, and organized political parties representing groups whose interests and values conflict and who compete for political power. We understand, too, that the electoral process, at its very base, is about difference—including those who win and those who lose. Yet, we are also mindful of a social order and political process consumed with pitting faction against faction, particularly when our differences breed disaffection and even hostilities toward one another, and when our differences and divisions lead to our “alieNATION.” We are by no means the first to sound such alarm, a warning that was actually voiced by our very first national leader who himself refused to align with any organized political party. Upon leaving office, President George Washington admonished those whose task it was to maintain our fledgling nation and government of the dangers of “excessive party spirit” and warned that the ← 4 | 5 → “channels of party passions” would likely flame our growing North-South divide, a misguided loyalty he wrote that “serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection” (Prothero, 2012, p. 424).

While as far back as 1796 George Washington feared the consequence of excessive political faction, we fear today that we have become an even more polarized society, with our extreme political polarization contributing to divided and increasingly enfeebled political institutions and processes. As evidence of our politically alienated times, we take note of research by Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes (2012) who examined citizens’ affect political polarization, an attitude whereby individuals identify completely with one political group, yet are unable to identify at all with another. Iyengar et al.’s (2012) analysis found that political polarization has indeed increased within the U.S. electorate over the past few decades. Much has also been made of the “gridlock” that afflicts our hyper-partisan national Congress, unable to transcend party bickering to actually govern the nation. On this front, Brennan and Abdullah (2012) confirm that the 112th U.S. Congress (serving from 2010 through 2012) set a new record as the least productive Congress in terms of enacting legislation since such records have been maintained. And, as of this writing, the current 113th Congress is making great strides at breaking this record for doing the least. Even outside the proverbial Washington beltway, we find that our states are increasingly divided by partisanship and party control. Confessore (2013) reports that “state political monopolies” are at a 60-year high, with either Republicans or Democrats in full control of the state legislative bodies and the governor’s offices in 36 states (with 23 states solely controlled by Republicans, and 13 solely by Democrats). Finally, evidence suggests that our color-coded electoral map is taking on an ever so darker hue with states becoming even more deeply red or blue, leaving fewer truly competitive states. As Greenblatt (2013) documents, although Obama’s national margin of victory was much closer in 2012 (3.9%) than in 2008 (7.2%), and with a closer election we might expect more tightly contested states, the 2012 presidential election actually featured fewer truly competitive states (defined as those decided by 5 points or less) with six such states in 2008 (Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, and Ohio) and only four truly competitive states in 2012 (Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia).

Our claim of increased societal difference and division, often encouraging greater political alienation, is also buttressed by rapid and unmistakable cultural changes that are occurring throughout the land. To paraphrase that great social philosopher Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a changing!” Here, we highlight just a few of these dramatic societal shifts—all with very clear political implications. ← 5 | 6 → First, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2012, for the first time in our nation’s history, minority births outnumbered those of whites; and, it is projected that our nation’s white majority will gain minority status by 2043 (Blow, 2012). Angier’s (2013) excellent portrait of the changing American family describes a sharp decline in marriage rates with 41% of all babies in the United States now born to unmarried parents. Finally, Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project (“‘Nones’ on the Rise,” 2012) documents a continued increase in the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, with 20% of the U.S. population (one in five adults) now saying they are religiously unaffiliated (which includes those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or no particular religious affiliation).

This volume’s analysis of campaign communication, from the interpretative lens of our political “alieNATION,” examines the ever-widening political fault lines that define our dramatically shifting society and the many differences and divisions that produce campaign argumentation, often pitting group against group and frequently constructing the “other” as political enemy. As illustrated with O’Reilly and Limbaugh’s interpretation of the 2012 presidential outcome, for some a political defeat comes at the hands of those fundamentally unlike “us” and who seek to control—perhaps even destroy—“our” country. Electoral campaigns are battles, with some victorious and others defeated; and in our current approach to electioneering—that of slicing and dicing the American electorate—our campaign battles are often waged through a war of words, appeals, and attacks designed to persuade those who think like “us” that some “other” must be vanquished.

The book’s first section—Media and Messages—features five studies that examine how traditional and new media covered the 2012 presidential election as well as targeted voters, including women and young citizens. As television remains the primary information source among American citizens for campaign news, this section begins with a content analysis of election coverage on the three leading U.S. television networks, with particular focus on the types of frames— strategic game, issue, episodic, thematic, and conflict—employed. In Chapter 1, Framing the 2012 Presidential Election on U.S. Television: Candidates, Issues, and Sources, Daniela Dimitrova also examines how the media can influence political coverage through their selection of news sources for their stories.

In Chapter 2, To Form a More Polarized Electorate? The Effect of Presidential Debates on Polarization, Partisanship and Political Aggression, Joshua Hawthorne and Mitchell McKinney situate their analysis of this form of candidate communication within Terror Management Theory. They use an experimental design to determine if viewing a presidential and vice presidential debate, as a potential threat to one’s cultural worldview, results in increased political polarization, aggression, and partisanship.

← 6 | 7 → Given that the 2012 election broke records both in the amount of television ads aired and dollars spent, Chapter 3 seeks to provide a better understanding of the effectiveness of the messages at the heart of this effort. In Communicating with Voters 30 Seconds at a Time: Presidential Campaign Advertising 2012, Kelly Winfrey, Mary Banwart, and Benjamin Warner use an experimental design to compare the effects of television ads intended for a general audience with ones targeted toward female voters, especially with regard to presidential candidate favorability, perceptions of their sincerity, and reported levels of political information efficacy.

The final two chapters of section one examine the use of social media by young citizens. In Chapter 4, Reaching Young Voters in the Middle: Party Loyalty and Perception of Political Participation, Kaye Sweetser surveyed 610 first-time voters during the “hot phase” of the presidential campaign to determine how independents, vote changers, and party-line crossers perceived digital tools—including watching political videos on YouTube, joining a political group on Facebook, or following a candidate on Twitter—for political participation. In Chapter 5, “No One Puts Baby in a Binder”: The Resonance of Social Media Messages with College Students During the 2012 Presidential Campaign, Amy Jasperson examines how the presidential candidates framed their appeals on women’s issues via actual social media messages that appeared online in the form of a “meme.” She uses an experimental design to determine which attempts by the candidates to prime gender identities in young female voters were successful.

The major concerns that framed political discourse before, during, and after the 2012 election are explored in Section 2—Issues. As the economy emerged as the top concern of voters in 2012, Jay Childers and R. McKay Stangler explore how this issue was framed by the presidential candidates in Chapter 6, Defining Fairness in the Economic Rhetoric of the 2012 Presidential Election. Through a rhetorical analysis, they show how Obama and Romney crafted competing narratives to explain who was to blame for the country’s financial struggles and who might save the nation.

Second to the economy on the minds of most voters in 2012 was the issue of health care. In Chapter 7, Health Care Reform: Core Value Differences Between Liberal and Conservative Candidates and Voters, Ann Gordon, Brett Robertson, and Lisa Sparks use content analysis to explore how both campaigns framed the issue of health care through their television advertising appeals and incorporate public opinion data to examine the extent to which these messages may have resonated with the electorate.

Another major framework—the so-called Republican “war on women”—that persisted during the 2012 campaign is analyzed in Chapter 8, Gendered Framing of the 2012 Election: The “War on Women” as Rhetorical Strategy, by Valerie Hennings ← 7 | 8 → and Dianne Bystrom. They use computer-assisted content analysis to examine how this term was used in relation to political actors and issues in 757 items—272 newspaper articles, 74 television transcripts, and 414 postings from 142 political blogs—during the 10 months leading up to the election.

Immigration also emerged as a potentially important—and divisive—issue before the 2012 election. In Chapter 9, Are Latinos Citizens? Labels, Race, and Politics in News Coverage of Immigration Reform, Sharon Jarvis and Clariza Ruiz De Castilla use content analysis to monitor how readers of English and Spanish newspapers were invited to imagine the opportunities for and potential barriers to citizenship resulting from Arizona’s “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” They also consider how the conversation surrounding this legislation may have set the stage for discussions of immigration in the 2012 presidential campaign.

The 2012 election also provided opportunities to test the public’s shifting attitudes toward a more favorable view of same-sex marriage. In Chapter 10, Debating Marriage Equality in the 2012 Elections, Hayley Cole and Mitchell McKinney employ a rhetorical-critical case analysis to examine state campaigns waged both for and against marriage equality ballot initiatives decided by voters in four states in November 2012.

Finally, in Chapter 11, Dianne Bystrom and Valerie Hennings examine the advocacy of women’s interests and issues after the 2012 election through a computer-assisted content analysis of the floor speeches of the record 101 women serving in the U.S. Congress in the first six months of 2013. In their chapter—Articulating Interests and Advocating Issues: An Analysis of Congresswomen’s Political Speech after the 2012 Election—they compare the content and rhetorical frameworks used in a random sample of 546 speeches by political party, chamber, and the congresswomen’s years in office.


XII, 341
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
political communication voter alienation political efficacy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 341 pp.

Biographical notes

Dianne G. Bystrom (Volume editor) Mary C. Banwart (Volume editor) Mitchell S. McKinney (Volume editor)

Dianne G. Bystrom (PhD, University of Oklahoma) is Director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. Mary C. Banwart (PhD, University of Oklahoma) is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Mitchell S. McKinney (PhD, University of Kansas) is Professor and Chair of Communication at the University of Missouri.


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