Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Thanks to the presidential election, 2012 certainly had a great deal of memorable political news. From surprising candidates to shocking gaffes, we look back at the people and moments that earned a spot on our top political stories of the year list.
The Fight Over Susan Rice
The first major political battle after the election had nothing to do with electing a politician but everything to do with politics. Rice, the first African-American female ambassador to the United Nations, was widely predicted to be Hillary Clinton's successor as secretary of state in a second Obama term. Unfortunately, Rice would become a casualty of the GOP's attempt to settle a score over the Benghazi, Libya, embassy attacks with the president — one that they were unable to settle on Election Day.
Conservatives had attempted to implicate the Obama administration in a cover-up. Rice, who in her role had given a public accounting of the events there, wound up shouldering much of the blame as new contradictory details emerged. In the end, despite no cover-up ever being uncovered, senators such as John McCain and Kelly Ayotte made her confirmation seem unlikely, and Rice withdrew. The controversy recalled the Lani Guinier confirmation battle years before, and also raised allegations of racism and sexism.
Though technically not a political story, the Trayvon Martin tragedy became one of the most politicized stories of the year. The shooting of an unarmed black teen forced a nationwide debate on the issue of racial profiling — and even hoodies. But when the president weighed in with the words "If I had a son he'd look like Trayvon" and was roundly criticized by conservatives, he reminded Americans of the racial politics that black men seem unable to escape, whether they are teens in hoodies or the president of the United States.
The Fiscal Cliff
A year ago, most Americans probably assumed a fiscal cliff was some sort of high-cost rock-climbing class. Now, after weeks of nonstop coverage, we know that it is something that could end up costing all of us some dough. While you can read more details on how the fiscal cliff may end up affecting you or your family here, the reality is that if President Obama and House Republicans don't reach a deal on budget cuts and tax increases on certain Americans, all Americans will end up feeling the pinch, with a variety of tax increases and automatic cuts to things like unemployment benefits to take effect Jan. 2, 2013, triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011. As this piece went to press, the president and Republican House leader John Boehner were still negotiating.
Aurora and Newtown Reopen an Age-Old Debate
For years, gun control was barely mentioned on the campaign trail — by either party. That didn't change much in 2012, but because of events of this year, that may change in coming elections. Five of the 12 deadliest shootings in American history occurred in President Obama's first term, most recently when a man opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and when another opened fire in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults. Though the Aurora shooting temporarily reopened the conversation about gun control, it was murder of innocent children that pushed politicians to reclaim their courage. Finally President Obama and other politicians are pushing for some of the most meaningful action on gun control our nation has seen in years.
Donald Trump Embarrasses Himself Again and Again … and Again
While we should all think twice before giving Trump any more of the attention he so desperately craves, since this very well may be the last year he is even somewhat relevant, we felt it OK to include him on this list. By becoming the Birther movement's highest-profile proponent of the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in this country, Trump shredded whatever last remaining vestiges of mainstream credibility he may have had. Then, shortly before the 2012 election, he announced that he had a big reveal related to the president, and then held a press conference that simply confirmed he did not. At that point, many media outlets had finally had enough.
The president made clear how seriously he takes Trump — or, rather, doesn't — when he said of his relationship with the mogul on The Tonight Show, "This all dates back to when we were growing up in Kenya," which elicited laughter from the audience, something Trump seems to do a lot of these days.
Santorum's Surprise Surge
The 2012 GOP primary was supposed to be a coronation for Mitt Romney. He not only had the most money on hand for his campaign, but he had the best hair, and according to the myth of presidential politics, that should have been enough. But a couple of insurgent candidates emerged to say, "Not so fast." The most damaging to Romney's quest was arguably former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
In one of the closest primary contests in recent memory, Romney was declared the winner of the Iowa caucus by a few votes, but Santorum was declared the winner two weeks later. In the end, Romney claimed the GOP nomination, but it is arguable that Santorum's surge cost him the general election. The senator's success forced Romney to the right — so far right that it was virtually impossible for him to pivot back to the center during his race against the president.
Seamus: One of the Election's Biggest Stars
Who could have predicted that a family pet would become one of the most recognizable names of the presidential election trail? But the story of Seamus, the Romney family dog, captured the imagination of voters — and Romney's political opponents — more than any other. Romney admitted to taking a long family trip during which Seamus, the family's Irish setter, rode in a kennel on top of the car. The story provoked the ire of animal lovers and of some political foes even more than Romney's policy positions did. The Seamus story even found its way into an attack ad from Romney opponent Newt Gingrich's campaign. It also inspired a Halloween costume or two.
John Edwards Tried and Acquitted
There are political scandals. There are sex scandals. There are political sex scandals. And then there is John Edwards. If someone pitched a fictional movie script with the twists and turns of the John Edwards saga, the story would be laughed off as unrealistic. A presidential candidate who has an affair while running for president impregnates his mistress and says that one of his aides is the father, all while his wife — whom the whole world adores — is dying of cancer. Then there's the detail that he may or may not have used campaign cash to keep his baby mama quiet.
Edwards was tried on six corruption charges related to the use of campaign funds to conceal his scandal. He was acquitted of one charge, while the jury deadlocked on the others, resulting in a mistrial. Though he will not face retrial, a permanent cloud hangs over his once-promising legacy.
Republicans Talk About Rape
If you asked the average Republican a year ago to predict which issue might cost them the election, it is unlikely any would have responded "rape." But a strong case could be made that this was the defining issue of the 2012 election cycle. Republican candidates just couldn't stop talking about it. The first rape gaffe of the season came courtesy of Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin, who said during an interview, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." The comment sparked a huge backlash and moved a number of high-profile Republicans to disavow them. He was a key piece in the GOP plan to reclaim the Senate from Democrats by unseating incumbent Claire McCaskill — but not after his remark.
Days before the election, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said in a debate, when asked for his own position on whether abortion should be legal in the case of rape, "I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." The remark not only hurt him — he lost — but it also hurt Mitt Romney, who had just appeared in a campaign ad in support of Mourdock.
Paul Ryan's Ex-Girlfriend
One of the most talked-about people of the general election ended up being someone who wasn't even running for office. When Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan was selected as Gov. Mitt Romney's running mate, it emerged that he had been in a long-term relationship with a black college classmate, Deneeta Pope, before settling down with his wife. The disclosure was one of many surprising details that painted a more complex picture of America's first Gen X vice presidential candidate, who, despite appearing to be the embodiment of every conservative stereotype, isn't so conservative in some areas of his life, including his musical tastes. It also emerged that he is a big Rage Against the Machine fan.
Clint Eastwood Talks to a Chair
When one of Hollywood's greatest legends offered to lend a hand to the Romney campaign, Republicans probably hoped Eastwood would turn out to be as heroic in real life as he has often been on-screen. Unfortunately, he wasn't. During his speech to introduce Gov. Romney on the final night of the Republican National Convention, Eastwood decided to talk to an empty chair, which was supposed to represent President Obama.
The performance was widely panned but was not a total loss. It spawned a new meme: "Eastwooding," featuring photos of individuals and empty chairs, and also spawned the biggest retweet of the GOP convention: a photo of President Obama's chair with a visible nameplate in the White House, and the words "this seat's taken," tweeted by the Obama campaign.
The 47 Percent
The 1 percent versus the 99 percent were the numbers that became a political rallying cry in 2011, but in 2012 it became all about one number: the 47 percent. Secretly recorded video was unearthed in September of Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser saying, "All right, there are 47 percent who are with [the president], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That, that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The comment played perfectly into the stereotype that he was out of touch and thought that anyone outside of his tax bracket was a lazy, mooching loser. Needless to say, the video wasn't helpful, and weeks before the election, he was still apologizing for it.
It seemed awfully coincidental that in the years following the election of the first black president, states with predominantly conservative local leaders became especially concerned about voter-identification laws. Civil rights advocates noted that such laws seemed to disproportionately target voters of color and young people (black Americans are less likely to possess a government-issued ID), who vote for Democratic candidates, including President Obama.
In the end, 37 states enacted or considered enacting some sort of voter-ID law beginning in 2011, and although the laws were struck down for this election cycle in three states, many feared that even the discussion of such laws would intimidate voters and have a chilling effect on the electorate. Apparently it did have a significant effect: Voters of color turned out in extremely strong numbers — particularly in some of the very swing states that attempted to enact voter-ID laws. Probably not the outcome for which the conservatives promoting such measures were hoping.
What was turning into a snoozefest of an election was transformed into a horserace literally overnight when President Barack Obama delivered one of the most cringe-inducing debate performances in recent memory. Polls universally dubbed Mitt Romney the winner. In more blunt terms, if it had been a fight the ref would have stopped it.
But besides Romney, there was another winner that night: the media. All of a sudden, an all-but-certain Obama victory became a neck and neck race that the media loved covering and many voters seemed to get a kick out of following. In the short term, the debate seemed to inspire some unenthusiastic Republican voters, but in the long term it may have scared some apathetic Obama voters to the polls.
After President Obama's lackluster performance in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney gained ground and seemed to have momentum on his side in the election's closing weeks. But two characters appeared in late October to inadvertently turn things around for the president. A hurricane named Sandy gave the commander in chief a chance to be on television much more than either candidate was on TV in campaign commercials and also gave him a chance to look presidential in the eyes of many Americans.
The second character was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Though he had been one of the GOP's most reliable Obama critics throughout the election, he became one of the president's biggest cheerleaders regarding his response to the disaster. The president saw a bump in the polls and ultimately won re-election.
Despite the first debate loss, the president ultimately won the election, and it wasn't even that close. Though many of us prepared for a late night, it was all but over before midnight. In many ways this Obama term is even more hotly anticipated than his first, with his supporters hopeful that an Obama presidency unencumbered by re-election worries will be able to realize the full potential of the "hope and change" mantra on which he first ran in 2008.