Putting Obama’s Victory in Historical Context

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.


  1. I’m not sure you “do requests,” but wouldn’t a look at 2004-2006-2008 help us to see whether there is a transformation of US politics? (I agree that Obama himself hasn’t transformed US politics).

    And what about demographic shifts? (h/t: Ruy Teixeira).

    Here’s something I’m watching closely: How will Obama use his massive Internet operation starting January 20?

  2. Olivier – Yes it would. I’m in the process of writing a post on that right now, using exit data from elections back to 1996. It shows tantalizing evidence that Democrats might be able to capitalize on some favorable demographic and political trends, but nothing that suggests a fundamental shift in the underlying political dynamics that drive elections. At least not yet!

  3. This will be a transformative election if democrats fix the problems that we face-principally economic although not entirely.

    If the economy rebounds, we aren’t attached, Osama is caught, etc then they will have achieved much and will deserve to retain control and to expand it.

    The American voters that count- the center 30% that swing every election aren’t very ideological but rather practical, personal and emotional- ” how am I doing, how do I feel about this candidate?”

    The answer to Reagan’s key question “Am I better now than I was 4 years ago? Is the decider for most of them.

    The Republicans forgot that and blew it.

    They center voters expect solutions and the Democrats have all the levers- lets see how they pull them and what comes down upon our heads when they do.

  4. Quick turnout question – how much do the D/R turnout stats you quote depend on shifting registration numbers? Since there seems to have been a massive increase in D registrations, and decrease in R, might the decline in R turnout be more of realignment rather than reduced enthusiasm among the base? I guess I’m just unsure of what these data really refer to – % of the registered voter pie turning out, or decline in total numbers from each party turning out.

  5. Is the issue really realignment? That will come, it seems to me, because what matters is memory.

    This really looks like a new chapter in our country’s history. Think of all that has been laid to rest or begun to heal in election night’s spectacle:


    Herbert Hoover.

    Race riots.

    Barry Goldwater.

    The 1968 Chicago Convention.

    Vietnam on the homefront.


    Meek-looking post-Watergate politicians and malaise.

    Florida in 2000.

    Karl Rove and Grover Norquist.

    Dick Cheney.

    Monica Lewinsky.

    The Bush and Clinton Dynasties.

    What else is still missing?

    Right now, even as I’m terribly sobered by the economy and know the tough row this president has to hoe, even knowing that Vermont is much more likely to secede than Texas or Alaska, I’m still doing one of those carefully concealed celebration dances!

    On the other side of the aisle/ledger, it was historic in the sense that John McCain’s Phoenix concession speech revives all the best political traditions in our Constitution, thanks to the great instincts that led him to forge such a close bond with one of the best speechwriters of our time, Mark Salter.

    The Party is in a fragile state, and while the daggers are drawn, and there’s tumult in the leadership, it seems to me that McCain has still accomplished something huge: His stature was undiminished by making this election’s graceful, selfless concession. Moreover, Senator McCain is now the only Republican that the Obama White House will trust to not play politics when the country’s recovery is on the line. He has now become, as I see it, the most pivotal Republican Senator since Henry Cabot Lodge.

    Why Lodge? He was the Senator who coaxed Ike Eisenhower into running for President to distance the Party from the petulent, narrow-minded Robert Taft.

  6. Wait. Monica Lewinsky? Reall? Sorry, I got a little hyperbolic there.

    I meant that more as synecdoche, to stand for the Gingrich Revolution in Congress, and the nadir of Washington’s pettiness.

  7. Jason – Sorry, I should have been more clear. the data refer to changes in the percent of eligible voters who actually turned out in the election that called themselves Democrats or Republicans. According to Curtis Gans, who is the best guy out there on this stuff, Republican voting declined 1.3 points, to 28.7 percent of the electorate, while Democratic turnout rose from 28.7 percent to 31.3 percent of the electorate. But you are right – in absolute numbers turnout was up, although not nearly as much as many expected based on registration figures.

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