Monthly Archives: November 2008

Obama and the Iraq Withdrawal Campaign Pledge

Governing, as President-elect Obama is undoubtedly discovering, is different from campaigning. The issues suddenly appear more complex, the solutions less obvious, and the political players are less easily identified as either supporters or opponents. Governing does not mean the end of politics, but the political process becomes exceedingly more complicated, in large part because it is a repeated game in which the president’s choice on any single issue must be considered in light of its probable impact on other, many as yet unknown, decisions.

To illustrate, consider Obama’s stance on the Iraq war. More than any other issue, it was his opposition to this war, beginning with his claim that he would have opposed the resolution authoring military force in Iraq, which brought him the support of the netroots and the Democratic left that proved so crucial to his election. Even before that, as a member of the Senate beginning in 2007, he introduced legislation that would have removed all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008. Having declared his candidacy for presidency, however, and in light of the evidence that the troop “surge” which he opposed was contributing to growing stability in Iraq, Obama modified his position, if not his underlying principles, by embracing a plan to remove all combat troops from Iraq within a 16-month period, or by mid-2010. When he showed signs of modifying that pledge during the campaign, McCain accused him of “flip-flopping”, at which point Obama reiterated his initial pledge to support the 16-month timetable. He stuck to this pledge even after meeting with General Petraeus, the author of the surge strategy, who opposed the Obama timetable. The AP report of Obama’s meeting with Petraeus stated, “Noting that the job of president and that of Gen. David Petraeus were different, Obama said he was setting ‘a strategic vision of what’s best for U.S. national security’ that he believes must include a mid-2010 target for removing American combat forces.”

Now that he is president, however, he inherits a status of force agreement negotiated by the Bush administration that, on its face, differs from the Obama campaign pledge. The Bush-negotiated agreement, which was recently ratified by the Iraqi parliament on the eve of the expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq, allows U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq until the start of 2012, although under gradually tighter restrictions, including the removal of US combat troops from urban areas beginning next June.

From Obama’s perspective, however, this much is clear: the agreement continues the U.S. military presence for up to three more years, or more than 1 ½ years longer than what Obama promised on the campaign trail. As such, it is sure to add more fuel to the fire started by the netroots on the left who are convinced that Obama has backed away from his campaign pledge to be an agent of change. As one of the netroots argued in reaction to the news about the status of force agreement: “Why should Obama obey it? To honor the good word of George W Bush to his puppet government?  I don’t get it.” Note that the agreement is still subject to a nationwide referendum next summer. And much of the implementing details are still to be worked out. Nonetheless, it will fall to Obama, as president, to oversee the implementation or modification of this agreement from the U.S. side. Certainly he will be asked about it during the transition period. As a result, he faces some decisions. Should he:

  1. Stick to his campaign pledge by having the Democratic majority in Congress renegotiate the status in force agreement to reduce the American occupation to no more than 16 months, effectively removing all U.S. combat troops by June 30, 2010, rather than December, 2011. Remember, Obama has argued that it is wrong for Bush to negotiate a status of force agreement that must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, without also asking congressional approval, particularly an agreement that involves the use of military force. So he can justify his decision to bring this to Congress. His rallying cry should be, “I wasn’t elected to continue four more years of the failed Bush-Cheney policies, but instead to bring change to Washington.” By renegotiating the agreement to bring it in line with his campaign pledge, he gains the added benefit of mollifying the netroots on the Left who have grown increasingly suspicious of his ideological leanings.
  2. Buy some time by claiming that, although he opposes the Bush-Cheney policy, he will not, once in office, act in haste to revoke the agreement until he has time to consult with members of his foreign policy team. One of his first actions as president will be to send members of that team to Iraq, to assess the situation in consultation with our military on the ground there. Any decision in Iraq must be made in the context of our overall strategy for fighting global terror, which will also necessitate lengthy conversations with our allies. Until this takes place it would be unwise to move too hastily to revoke or renegotiate the Iraq agreement. In the interim, Obama will hope that the declining civilian and military death toll and apparent growing stability in Iraq will continue, thus allowing him to bring troops home at an accelerated pace, even if the Bush agreement remains in place. Alternatively, the Iraqis might reject the agreement next summer through the referendum process, in which case Obama has political cover for bringing the troops home earlier.
  3. Claim victory by arguing that the Bush agreement, by laying out a timetable for troop withdrawal, is consistent “with the principles underlying my campaign pledge”, even if it allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq “a while” longer. Note as well that for several years Bush resisted all efforts to adopt a timetable for withdrawal, and it was only after pressure from Obama during the campaign that the Bush administration finally reversed itself and signed the status of force agreement laying out the troop withdrawal guidelines. By accepting the status in force agreement, Obama also signals his willingness to work within the broader network of agreements that govern relations between foreign nations, in contrast to Bush’s penchant for acting unilaterally. Obama should then immediately shift the focus to Afghanistan, citing it as the main front in the war on terror. Let Iraq recede from the limelight, and quietly implement the Bush policy.

So, which will it be? Which would you recommend (or would you opt for something else, or a combination of these choices?)  Obama must choose – even if that choice is to make no decision.  He no longer has the luxury of basing his candidacy on ill-defined “change” – he is now the “decider-in-chief”. His Iraq withdrawal pledge was the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but implementing it may look a lot different from the perspective as president than it did when running for office.

In thinking about the difference between campaigning and governing, I’m often reminded of the comment by the celebrated campaign strategist and Ragin’ Cajun James Carville who, in discussing how to implement health care reform at the start of the Clinton presidency in 1993, famously observed: “I now see this as real. When I do a campaign and f—k up, someone just loses. But if you f–k up, you f—k up the country.”


Palin, Women and the Future of the Republican Party

When a political party loses a presidential election as decisively as the Republicans did this year, party members inevitable engage in a very public spectacle of playing the blame game. Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, they exchange recriminations, dissect candidate choices, replay campaign strategies, and generally proclaim that the party’s very existence is in jeopardy unless some dramatic changes are made.  As I noted in an earlier posting, it was only four years ago that Democrats openly worried that they had become a permanent minority party, geographically marginalized to urban centers on the coasts along with decaying Midwest rust-belt cities, with a constituency consisting primarily of cultural and intellectual snobs (i.e., college professors!), African-Americans and labor union leaders.

Now it is the Republicans turn to despair. They are now, if media reports are to be believed, the geographically isolated party, their support limited to the South and Great Plains, and their constituency reduced to the famous bible-thumping, gun toting rural white voters. Media stories are replete with accounts of battles between cultural conservatives, small government fiscal conservatives, and social libertarians for the soul of the Republican Party.

What are we to make of this?  Accounts of the death of the Republican Party, I would suggest, are greatly exaggerated. I see little evidence that the 2008 election presages an era in which the Republicans are destined to wander in the political wilderness for 40 years any more than the 2004 results foretold a similar story for the Democrats. In part, this is because Obama won not on the basis of any particular set of ideas or overriding political or governing philosophy so much as on his ability to present himself as an agent of “change.” As I’ll show in another post, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, she likely would have won by a similar margin of victory.  In short, this was a Democratic year not because of what Democrats stand for, but because of what the Republican administration did for the previous 8 years. There was no single issue or cluster of issues separating the two parties ideologically in a way that caused a fundamental shift in voter allegiances, as is usually the case with a realigning election.  This was not an election that turned on an issue equivalent to slavery, or currency based on gold or silver, or the role of government in the free market.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that the political winds will necessarily reverse themselves again in four years to favor Republicans. The biggest obstacle to regaining the presidency, I argue, is the failure to attract women voters. In 2008, according to exit polls, women voted overwhelmingly for Obama over McCain, 56-43%. In contrast, the two candidates essentially split men.  This is a gain among women voters of 10% since 2004, and is the largest gender-based differential in a presidential election since 1996, when women supported Clinton 54-38% over Bob Dole (with another 7% siphoned off to a 3rd party candidate). (To be sure, Obama also gained 10% among men from Kerry’s performance in 2004, but it only brought him even with McCain among these voters).  It is also the 5th presidential election in a row, and 7th of the last 10, in which Republicans received less than 50% of the women’s vote. Of perhaps greater concern, the 2008 results reverse the trend evident in the two previous presidential elections, in which George Bush, largely on the basis of security concerns, had cut into the traditional Democrat edge among women, gaining 8% between 2000 and 2004.

The media has made much of Obama’s gains among young (18-29 year old) and African-American voters. But African-Americans comprised only 13% of voters in the last election (about a 2% increase over 2004), and the 18-29 year olds were but 18% of the vote. In contrast, women constitute more than half (53%) of voters (I’m ignoring overlap among the demographic categories for the moment). They thus represent the single biggest voting bloc (assuming, of course, that women can be viewed as a voting bloc – more on that below) in the electorate.

What can Republicans do to cut into this gender gap? First, it is important to realize that the gap is not due to party differences regarding what the media often describe as “women’s” issues: abortion and reproduction rights, equal pay and workplace discrimination, child care, etc.  Instead, the difference is primarily due to Democrat’s greater willingness to support government action to protect the less powerful in society: children, the poor, the less educated, etc.  Women, more than men, are motivated to vote based on these issues.

If Democrats “own” these issues, however, as voting in recent presidential elections suggests they do, might the Republicans cut into this gap through other means?  Might they play their own version of identity politics by running a woman at the top of their ticket in 2012?  And, if so, isn’t Sarah Palin the ideal candidate?

Yes and No. Yes, it could be that by running a woman at the top of the ticket, Republicans might make some inroads among women voters. But it’s not clear to me that Palin is the ideal candidate to do so, at least not based on the 2008 results. Those of you who have followed my posts throughout the campaign season remember that Palin’s selection by McCain to be his vice presidential nominee prompted an initial surge in support among women voters for the McCain ticket. Indeed, it was the only moment in the entire general election that McCain actually led Obama in polls. But in the end, Palin proved to be a very polarizing figure, in large part, I would argue, because the McCain campaign used her in the traditional vice presidential candidate role – as partisan attack dog.  Although she helped bring the social conservatives back into the Republican fold, her strident attacks on Obama undercut, I think, her ability to reach out to disaffected Clinton supporters, particularly women who in the end voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama.

This is not to say that Palin’s choice was a mistake – in fact, the exit polls suggest the opposite: McCain rolled the dice and it paid off, although the payoff was perhaps less than it might have been. Thus, 60% of respondents said Palin was not fully qualified to be president, and they went for Obama 82-16%.  Thirty-eight percent said she was qualified, and they voted for McCain 91-8%.  (This is almost the mirror image of Biden’s numbers; 66% said he was qualified, and 32% said he was not). However, as I suggested back in September when Palin was chosen, vice presidential picks are rarely consequential in terms of their impact on the presidential vote.  Biden’s selection, for instance, appears to have had almost no impact on Obama’s support.  However, Palin’s pick proved more influential than most previous V.P. picks (certainly more than Biden’s); fully 60% of voters said it influenced their vote. Of these,  7% of voters said McCain’s choice of Palin was the most important factor in how they voted, and they broke exactly along the lines of the overall presidential vote: 52-47% for Obama.  Fully 33% of voters said Palin’s selection was an important, if not the most important, factor in their vote, and they went for McCain in much greater numbers – 52-47% – than did voters as a whole. Another 20% said it was a minor factor in their vote, and they also went for McCain by 2 to 1, 66-33%. In short, among those voters (60% of the total number of voters) who mention Palin’s selection as influencing their vote, McCain did much better, winning this group 56-43%, while losing those who did not consider Palin’s selection at all when voting by 65-33%.  In other words, when voters factored the Palin choice into their vote, they were more likely to support McCain.  Obama won only among the 7% who said Palin was the most important influence on their vote, and even here he did no better than he did among voters overall.

In short, the exit polls numbers indicate that Palin was a net benefit to McCain; voters who used her selection as a factor in their vote were much more likely to vote for McCain than those who did not.  (Of course, we always have to be careful about inferring causality when identifying correlations of this type.)  However, even if we accept that Palin helped bolster McCain’s support – and the exit poll evidence is consistent with this claim – it doesn’t appear to be the case that she boosted his support disproportionately among women.  Keep in mind that Obama’s gain among women was no bigger than his gain among men, compared to 2004, so it is possible that Palin’s impact was a wash, in terms of gender.

Unfortunately, exit polls numbers do not provide data regarding the breakdown of support for Palin by gender.  They do reveal, however, some differences among women voters that suggest what Palin must do to win back women voters in 2012.  To begin, McCain did about equally poorly among women with children as among those without (57-41 Obama compared to 56-43%)  Interestingly, McCain won the father’s vote 50-48% – men without children went for Obama 51-48%. When we look at marital status and the vote, we see almost no difference between married men and married women – except among married men and women with kids.  Married fathers support McCain, while married mothers back Obama.  However, McCain lost “working women” badly, 60-39%, while just about breaking even in the “all other women” category (70% of voters) by 50-48%.  (Keep in mind that if we control for race, however, we see that McCain actually won white women by 7% – still a far smaller margin than his winning margin of 16% among white men.)

What does this suggest for 2012?  That the “women’s” vote is not as monolithic as one might think.  In fact, there are differences among women based on marriage, children and work status.  This suggests that if Palin is to gain traction at the national level during the next four years, then, she is going to have to broaden her appeal by playing up her hockey Mom credentials to win over mothers with children, while downplaying her social views that may cost her support among educated, single working women.  It may be, however, that Republicans would do far better by choosing a candidate – man or woman – who can make a credible case that her or his policies on issues like health care, education and the economy align more closely with women voters’ views on these issues than they would by playing identity politics.

Or they could nominate Condi Rice!

Should Hillary Clinton become the next Secretary of State?

Should Barack Obama offer the Secretary of State position to Hillary Clinton?  And should she take it?

No, and no.

A little background is in order. For most of this nation’s history, the Secretary of State was the 2nd most powerful executive in the nation, behind only the President. That preeminence was largely because the Secretary served as the face of the nation in all diplomatic matters. Indeed, the position was often viewed as a steppingstone to the presidency.  But State’s preeminence began to erode as the presidency entered its modern era beginning with FDR’s election in 1932. Roosevelt served as his own chief diplomat, particularly during World War II when he personally conducted war time negotiations in direct consultation with Stalin, Churchill and other foreign leaders. His Secretary of State Cordell Hull did not even attend any of the wartime conferences of the “Big Three”.

The Secretary of State’s diminishment was hastened by the creation of new foreign-policy related positions through the 1947 National Security Act, including the Secretary of Defense, the CIA director, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and – eventually – what became the national security adviser.  All competed with the State Department for the president’s ear in the foreign, military and intelligence policy realm.  In particular, the NSC adviser, bolstered by an increasingly bigger and more specialized staff, and with no other institutional allegiances, gradually assumed the primary role as the president’s foreign policy assistant, charged with coordinating the foreign policy process on his behalf.   At the same time, presidents continued to view State as a bastion of timid “striped-pants cookie pushers” – career diplomats whose excessive caution was matched only by their lack of imagination.  Kennedy openly complained about State’s inability to come up with creative foreign policy initiatives. He was the first president to give the NSC adviser a West Wing office, and he established a Situation Room in the ground floor of the White House to receive incoming diplomatic and intelligence cables. No longer did presidents need to rely on State for communications from overseas. Increasingly presidents turned to their own, White House-based national security staff to develop and oversee the implementation of foreign policy. Nixon simply cut his Secretary of State William Rogers out of the decisionmaking loop altogether and instead relied on his national security adviser Henry Kissinger to conduct foreign diplomacy.  Eventually he gave Kissinger both jobs – Secretary of State AND national security adviser.  And so the die was cast.  Cyrus Vance resigned as Secretary of State after Carter continually spurned his advice in favor of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recommendations, particularly when it came to using force to secure the release of Americans held hostage by Iran.  Similarly, Ronald Reagan ignored his Secretary of State George Schultz’s objection to the arms-for-hostage trade with Iran. James Baker had a close personal relationship with George H.W. Bush prior to entering the presidency, and worked well with Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.  But neither Warren Christopher nor Madeline Albright replicated that type of relationship with Clinton. And Colin Powell lasted one term as Bush’s Secretary of State before finally resigning, to be replaced by Bush’s former national security adviser Condi Rice.

The lesson is clear.  The most influential Secretaries in the post-war era either have had a strong personal relationship with the presidents entering the office, as Baker did with George H. W. Bush, or they developed that relationship, sometimes by serving first as the president’s national security adviser, before moving to State, as was the case with Kissinger and Rice.  In contrast, those secretaries who have lacked that relationship have tended to be marginalized, particularly if they were viewed as too willing to rely on input of the career diplomats at State for advice or if they sought to assert a more prominent foreign policy role.

Given this history, why would Barack Obama offer Clinton the position?  They remain political rivals, although that rivalry was muted by their joint desire to defeat the Republican presidential ticket. But it is clear from their nomination fight that they are not of like minds when it comes to foreign policy.  Moreover, they lack the personal affinity that is necessary to overcome the centrifugal institutional forces that cause presidents and secretaries of state to grow apart.  The more effective Clinton is at pushing her own foreign policy agenda, the less likely that Obama will include her in his inner circle.  But it is unlikely that Clinton will want the job if it means she is merely Obama’s mouthpiece.

It may be, however, that by appointing Clinton Secretary of State, Obama hopes to marginalize her, much as Powell was viewed as a peripheral player in Bush’s administration.  If that is Obama’s motive, however, it is too little too late – historically, the easiest way to neuter a political rival is to make him the Vice President. It is what Kennedy did with Johnson, Ford with Rockefeller, and Reagan with Bush. This tactic would have done double duty for Obama because Clinton’s vote-getting ability among key constituencies almost surely would have increased his final popular vote total, making it easier for him to claim a true mandate.  As it is, he missed that opportunity.

Nonetheless, although Obama missed his primary chance to isolate Clinton in the vice president’s position, where he could both keep tabs on her and prevent her from meddling in the policy process, while taking advantage of her support in the general election, he might still see some benefit in removing her from the Senate and trying to isolate her at State.  (This assumes Clinton would have taken the V.P. job – a big assumption.)

But appointing her Secretary of State is much riskier than making her VP. If he appoints her Secretary of State, she immediately assumes a more autonomous and more visible position than the vice presidency from which to push her own more hawkish policy views.  And, much as Richard Armitage did so well for Colin Powell, she could use her staff and her strong media ties to undercut Obama’s foreign policy through careful leaking while appearing to stay publicly above the fray.  She will have frequent opportunities to testify on Capitol Hill, and public forums across the globe to lay out her version of U.S. foreign policy.  In contrast, as VP she would have no such opportunities, short of the occasional state funeral and ribbon-cutting ceremony.  And, if necessary, she can resign her post as Secretary of State to dramatize a difference in principle with Obama, thus leveraging the position and resignation to set herself up as the alternative leader of the party. In contrast, VP’s never resign, no matter how isolated or impotent they become.  They are essentially trapped, their influence entirely dependent on the president’s willingness to throw them the occasional bone.  As Dick Cheney admits, his power derives entirely from George Bush’s desire to have him play an integral policy role.  And as Bush has acknowledged, he was only willing to do that because Cheney had no electoral ambitions of his own.  That wouldn’t be the case with VP Clinton.

In short, appointing Clinton Secretary of State is not a good move for Obama, even – particularly if – he is seeking marginalize her.

Nor is it a good move for Clinton.  By staying in the Senate, she retains political autonomy, while still exercising real leverage over the Obama policy process.  More importantly, perhaps, she retains leadership in the party and remains well-positioned to challenge Obama in 2012 should he falter in the next four years.  At the very least, she should not even consider accepting State without first knowing who will be Obama’s national security adviser and how Obama expects to utilize that person.  History suggests it is the NSC adviser, and not the Secretary of State, who exercises the greatest foreign policy influence on the president.  Without knowing who that is, Clinton would be wise to reject the offer.

Since it makes little sense from either Clinton’s or Obama’s perspective to make her Secretary of State, why are unnamed sources on Obama’s staff leaking the idea?  It may be because they assume she won’t take it.  By offering the position to her, then, they mollify her supporters and put the onus on her to turn it down by taking herself out of the running without a formal offer being made.

Whatever the motive, history suggests that both Obama and Clinton will be better off if she remains in the Senate.  If they are both smart, she won’t be the next Secretary of State.

Assessing Obama’s Election: Some Historical Data

In an earlier post I suggested that many pundits are conflating the historic symbolism of Obama’s election with a fundamental shift in the underlying political dynamics that govern presidential politics. In fact, Obama’s victory – while decisive – does not qualify as a realigning or transformative victory in the traditional way political scientists define those terms. Historically speaking, this was an “average” victory; Obama will enter office with a solid but certainly not overwhelming store of political capital.

To see why, consider the characteristics of a realigning or transforming election. Typically they include an overwhelming margin of victory in both the popular vote and electoral college, significant coattails that sweep fellow partisans into Congress, a restructuring of the voting coalitions supporting the major parties, and a shift in political control at the state level as well. Where does Obama’s victory rank on these criteria?

Looking only at the modern political era, we see that there have been 20 presidential elections, including Obama’s, dating back to FDR’s victory in 1932. In the chart below I order them top to bottom from biggest popular vote share by the winner to smallest. I also include the actual popular vote (in thousands) and the Electoral College vote results for both candidates.  Reading from left to right, I list the year, the winning candidate’s popular vote, popular vote average and electoral college vote, followed by the same totals for the losing candidate.

Year Winner Loser Total Votes Percent Electoral College Opponent’s Totals

1964 Johnson  42,825 61.1 486 Goldwater 27,147 38.7 52

1936 F.D. Roosevelt 27,752 60.8 523 Landon  16,681 36.5 8

1972 Nixon 46,740 60.2 520 McGovern 28,902 37.2 17

1984 Reagan  54,167 58.5 525 Mondale 37,450 40.4 13

1956 Eisenhower  35, 581 57.4 457 Stevenson 26,739 43.1 73

1932 F.D. Roosevelt 22,821 57.4 472 Hoover 15,761 39.6 59

1952 Eisenhower 33,779 54.9 442 Stevenson 27,315 44.4 89

1940 F.D.Roosevelt  27,313 54.7 449 Willkie 22,348 44.8 82

1944 F.D.Roosevelt  25,613 53.4 432 Dewey 22,018 45.9 99

1988 Bush  48,643 53.1 426 Dukakis 41,717 45.5 111

2008 Obama 66,361 52.7 365 McCain 58,024 46.8 163

2004 Bush  61,837 50.6 286 Kerry 58,895 48.1 251

1980 Reagan 43,643 50.5 489 Carter 35,481 41.0 49

1976 Carter 40,826 50.0 297 Ford 39,148 48.0 240

1960 Kennedy  34,227 49.7 303 Nixon 34,108 49.5 219

1948 Truman  24,106 49.6 303 Dewey 21,969 45.0 189

1996 Clinton 47,402 49.2 379 Dole 39,198 40.7 159

2000 Gore  50,996 48.3 266 Bush 50,465 47. 271

1968 Nixon 31,710 43.4 301 Humphrey 30,989 42.4 191

1992 Clinton  44,858 42.9 370 Bush 38,799 37.1 168

We see, then, that based on the popular vote, Obama’s victory falls squarely in the middle of presidential outcomes in the modern era – it is as “average” as an election gets. In fact, the average popular vote total for the winning candidate in this period is 52.9% – almost exactly what Obama received.

How about in the Electoral College? Again, Obama’s total of 365 votes (67.8% of the total number of votes) falls far short of an electoral landslide. Indeed, it is below the average vote total – 404.5 – for winning candidates in this period (without adjusting for the smaller size of the Electoral College prior to the admission of Hawaii, Alaska and the District of Columbia.)

Turnout was up this year, but it fell short of projections. Although the numbers are still being crunched, Curtis Gans suggests that turnout will be slightly over 2004 levels, with the total vote numbering somewhere between 126 to 128.5 million people.

When we consider Obama’s “coattails”, as measured by the number of Democrats swept into Congress in this election, we see a similar story. Democrats will gain somewhere between 6 to possibly 9 Senate seats for a total of between 57 to 60 Democratic Senate seats. Democratic Senate gains in this presidential year compare favorably to the presidential elections of 1932 (gain of 10 seats for 59 total), 1936 (7 seats to 76) or 1980 (12 seats to 53). On average, the winning president takes office alongside an additional 2.6 Senators in this period, so Obama ‘s Senate coattails are comparatively strong (if we attribute the Senate outcomes to Obama’s influence). Note, however, that the Democratic gains in the Senate preceded Obama’s election; in 2006 the Democrats picked up 5 seats to regain control of Congress.

In the House, Obama’s coattails are, historically speaking, not much better than average. Consider gains in the “realigning” or mandate-proclaiming elections: Roosevelt swept into office alongside an additional 97 House Democrats in 1933. LBJ picked up 36 Democrats in 1964. Reagan gained 34 House Republicans in 1980. Democrats may pick up 22 House seats in this election cycle, after winning 31 two years ago in the midterm election. On average, the winning presidential candidate picks up a bit more than 18 seats in the House in this period, so Obama slightly exceeds the average. But as with the Senate, major Democratic gains preceded Obama’s candidacy, suggesting he is riding the wave of voter discontent with Republican dominance more than he is creating such a wave.

To be sure, these are crude measure of coattails, and the numbers overlook important caveats (such as the number of Senate and House seats held by each party going into an election), but they reinforce the impression created by the historical comparison of the outcome of previous presidential elections: Obama’s victory, despite its historic significance, while clearcut, does not appear to herald a new political era of Democratic dominance. Not yet at least.

In subsequent posts I’ll look at changes in the Democratic coalition, as measured by exit polls dating back to 1980, to see whether Obama has peeled off voting blocs that in recent years have been voting Republican, as well as examining state-level outcomes. Both provide little support for the notion that this is a transforming election.


One More Take on a Historic Night

I thought you might get a kick out of this email I received from a former Middlebury College student, now working in Washington DC, who happens to be one of the four people who voted for McCain in that area.

“I have to say, even though I ended up voting for the other guy, last Tuesday was an event that I’m going to remember for a very long time. It was totally unreal experiencing it here in Washington. When the networks called it for Obama as the western polls closed at 11 o’clock, the city, for lack of a better word, just exploded. I had been watching the returns in the U Street area with friends and we ended up walking down to the White House and then back up to U Street. I don’t know how familiar you are with the different DC neighborhoods, but U Street was where most of the upper-middle class black families in the city used to live. In 1968, it burned to the ground, and it is only within the past five years or so that the area has really started to recover. I remember driving through the neighborhood periodically when I was much younger and seeing boarded up buildings for blocks – and this was in the mid-90’s, almost thirty years after the riots.

Anyway, U Street was total pandemonium. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone in the area simultaneously took to the streets and started an impromptu block party, which went on for hours, with people yelling, crying, dancing, and celebrating with random strangers. It was like nothing I have ever seen before (and I live in Dupont Circle, where totally insane things happen with a surprising regularity). Anyway, seeing people celebrate the culmination of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream in an area that had paid such a heavy price in the wake of his assassination was very, very cool. We have a ways to go, and I’m not yet sold on Obama’s politics, but there was a lot to be proud of on Tuesday, and I’m glad I got to witness it.”


And in the next post I’ll begin to present exit poll data demonstrating why the historic symbolism of Obama’s victory will not necessarily translate into increased political clout.