Was Obama’s victory a “transformative” moment in American politics? It was, certainly, in terms of what it says about our ability to actually live up to one of our most cherished ideals: the notion that access to the White House is open to anyone, regardless of race. It’s hard to overstate the significance of that! In the immediate aftermath of the election, however, too many in the media are conflating the hugely important symbolic significance of Obama’s election with the belief that we have undergone a wholesale restructuring of the electoral landscape that opens the way for Democratic dominance of electoral politics for a generation to come. I see few signs that anything of this significance has occurred. Instead, the election results seem to reaffirm what one might call “normal” presidential politics.
To be sure, the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign can point to some significant accomplishments in this most recent campaign. Most notably, Obama’s proportion of the popular vote (roughly 52.4%) is the highest for a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it is more than a 4% gain from John Kerry’s performance 4 years ago. (By the way, Obama’s vote total was almost exactly what the political science forecast models predicted back in August – I’ll devote an entire separate post to patting myself and my colleagues on the back in this regard.) And the Democrats padded their majorities in both the House and the Senate, picking up from 20-23 House seats and 6-8 Senate seats (all pending final results, resolution of the Stevens mess, etc.) So this was a decisive victory.
But upon closer inspection, there are elements of Tuesday’s results that should concern Democrats and which make it clear that this did not represent a fundamental restructuring of the political landscape. First, despite the much publicized increase in voter registration, overall turnout in 2008 among eligible voters was not much – if at all – higher than in 2004. Although preliminary numbers indicate Democratic turnout went up by about 2.6%, Republican turnout dropped 1.3%. So Obama’s margin of victory owes quite a bit to lackluster Republican participation. Second, despite an increase in African-American support, Obama was still not able to match Clinton’s ability to break the Republican stranglehold on the South. Recall that in 1996, Clinton won more electoral votes (379) in large part due to his electoral strength in the South; he took Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, in addition to Florida. Third, Obama wasn’t able to close the deal with those bitter, gun-toting, bible-thumping Reagan Democrats that did support Clinton (and Carter). Although Obama won Ohio, he did so with a smaller total vote than Kerry received there in 2004, and he lost West Virginia. In those states where Obama did expand the electoral map, notably in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, he did so primarily on the strength of upper-income suburbanites and African-American voters.
Finally, Democratic gains in the House – somewhere between 20-23 seats as of this writing – fell short of pre-election expectations, suggesting that Obama’s “coattails” were no greater than that of previous presidents.
We shouldn’t overplay these weaknesses. I will look more closely at demographic trends among voters, as revealed by exit poll data, in a separate post. But they suggest that the Democrats, if they play their cards correctly in the next two years, are poised to build on some of the strengths revealed in this election, particularly among young voters, women, and suburbanites. But these gains are likely to come as they did on Tuesday – incrementally, through the normal ebb and flow of electoral politics, rather than through any single “transformative” electoral moment. The Democrats are in the majority, but they are far from being entrenched as the majority party. Essentially, they have regained ground lost to the Republicans since 2000, putting them back on rough parity with their strength at the start of Clinton’s presidency in 1993. In Clinton’s first two years, Democrats controlled 57 seats in the Senate, and controlled the House 258-176: almost identical to what their numbers will be in the next congressional session. Lest Democrats get overconfident, remember that after Clinton’s first two years they lost control of both houses to the Republicans for over a decade. That should give Democrats pause for thought!
In short, I see no evidence that the nation has become predominantly blue, or that this was a “transformative” election in the basic political sense. But, if the Democrats don’t reprise the Clinton’s first-term mistakes by overreaching on the mistaken belief that they have an electoral “mandate”, they could conceivably build on the electoral trends revealed on Tuesday to once again become the dominant political party, much as they were for most of the New Deal era. They just aren’t there yet.
A final, sobering, thought. Four years ago, Karl Rove – on the heels of George Bush’s reelection based on an increased vote total from 2000, and continued and expanded Republican control of Congress – openly speculated that the Republicans were on the verge of replicating the realignment of 1896, when McKinley’s election ushered in thirty-years of almost uninterrupted Republican dominance of American politics. The emerging Republican dominance, Rove predicted, would be predicated on a new “compassionate” conservatism that melded a diverse coalition of suburbanites, Latinos, evangelicals, and a growing middle-class dominated by soccer Moms and young entrepreneurs. The Democrats seemed increasingly marginalized, with their dwindling base largely restricted to cultural elites, African Americans and labor unions. Geographically, the Democrats seemed to have lost the American heartland. Rove’s analysis was shared by many Democrats and those in the media.
It is a stark reminder just how quickly political “transformations” can end.