Noted pollster speaks at Chicago Harris about the changing American electorate

The increasingly diversified electorate of the United States is key to understanding the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, pollster Geoffrey Garin told an audience of public policy students.

Minority voters turned out in record numbers, with African Americans, Hispanics and Asians making up 26 percent of the electorate, forming a key component of Democratic victories. While a similarly diverse electorate had voted in 2008, there were differing opinions as to whether that change would be sustained in 2012.

“Each side was completely convinced it was going to win,” said Garin, president of the survey research firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates. “It was as if we were looking at two different universes or at least two very different sets of numbers and assumptions. [Republicans] assumed that the electorate would look much more like the one that voted in 2004 than the one that voted in 2008.”

Garin was at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to give students a first look at post-election polling data in “Election 2012: What Happened, Why and What’s Next.” The November event was part of “Presidency 2012: The Purposes of Government,” a yearlong series of Chicago Harris forums exploring the role of government and the presidency. Other distinguished guest speakers in the series have included RNC chairman Reince Preibus, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former governor Tim Pawlenty and Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Garin’s survey research of the electorate found that most voters did not blame President Barack Obama for today’s economic problems. And while 63 percent were dissatisfied with the current economic conditions, 51 percent thought the country was making progress. These voters, who represented 16 percent of the electorate, wound up choosing Obama by a three to one margin at the polls.

“You lived through a very historic election,” Garin told the audience. “No president has been reelected under these economic circumstances. President Obama is the first.”

Hart Research Associates has worked on more than 400 political campaigns and counts among its current clients 10 members of the U.S. Senate, 16 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and five sitting governors. The firm also conducts the Wall Street Journal/MSNBC poll. Garin currently serves as chief pollster for Priorities USA Action, the Independent Expenditure PAC allied with the Obama reelection campaign.

Garin also surveyed voters about the role of government, finding that neither candidate was totally in sync with most people’s desire for a more centrist approach.

“In a country that’s looking for somebody in the middle, they weren’t getting candidates who were offering them a place in the middle,” said Garin. “There is a caution here. Even though these people ended up voting for Obama much more than Governor Romney, something approaching 60 percent of voters worried that President Obama would favor too much spending and too many taxes if he was reelected as president.”

The event ended the way it began, with Garin emphasizing the important implications of the demographic shifts creating a much more diverse American electorate, something Garin says Republicans must heed better in the future if they want to remain competitive.

“There is something Darwinian about politics. You change or you die,” said Garin, noting that Democrats went through a similar struggle in the 1970s and 1980s. “Voters aren’t going to go back. The question is if Republicans are going to go forward.”