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.



  1. In terms of the Congressional numbers, it makes sense to include the off-term election preceding or following a presidential win to chart these transformative waves. If you look at 2006/08 together, they equal +51 Dems in the house, +12 (or more) senate. The same numbers from the “Republican Revolution” of 1994/96: +46 house, +10 senate. (To be fair, R house gain in ’94 was +54, so the 2 year cume includes some backsliding.)

    I completely agree with you that Obama is more riding a wave than causing it. But it’s a pretty significant wave. Given that the talk in the mid-1990s was of permanent shifts and decades of Republican domination, it feels warranted to view the past 2 years as an equally significant transformation (which is to say important, but with overstated historical transformations).

  2. There is one respect in which the 2008 election was different from almost all of those since 1932: neither of the two major candidates served in the preceding administration. Each of the elections on this list except one (1952 – Eisenhower vs. Stevenson) featured a sitting president running for reelection or a vice president running for the top office. Do you think that the presence of two fresh candidates in the 2008 election might distinguish it from the ones you analyzed? Or do you think McCain’s Republican party label made him, in essence, a kind of incumbent candidate?

    Also, I think the list above may be slightly misleading, because it includes those elections in which a president was running for reelection. Notably, every president who won reelection did so by a larger popular vote margin than in his first election (excluding FDR’s 3rd and 4th victories). If those races are excluded (Johnson’s victory in 1964 is an anomaly because of JFK’s Assassination, but I left it in), it looks like this:

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

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

    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

    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

    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

    On this list, Obama’s victory looks a little more impressive, especially if you consider the events surrounding the three presidents who rank above him.

    1. Kennedy’s assassination played a big role in 1964, and Johnson also could make sharp distinction on social policy between himself and Goldwater.

    2. FDR was running against Hoover, who had presided over the collapse of the economy and the beginning of the great depression.

    3. Bush 41 was running on Reagan’s legacy and had a fairly weak opponent in Dukakis.

    Don’t get me wrong, Professor Dickinson, I think you’re right in saying that Obama’s election does not show the traditional signs of being a major political realignment; nonetheless, I do think that his victory was above average, because excluding incumbent victories knocks a lot of elections off the top of the table. But this gets back to the fundamental problem of studying presidential elections: the sample size is pretty small, especially if you want to compare elections that have occurred since the invention of the television! When you only have a small number of fruit to work with, you can’t be too picky in deciding which ones are apples and which ones have more of an orange tint.

  3. Jason – You are right in suggesting the inclusion of off-year elections results to track “waves’ in electoral dynamics. But these figures don’t get at the issue I tried to address: Obama’s coattails, defined as the number of congressional seats gained by Democrats that we can possibly attribute to his being on the ticket. Of course, as I suggest in the post, it’s not clear who is generating the wave!

    Conor raises a great point: how should we characterize presidential elections? Some political scientists believe that elections – and subsequent presidencies – follow predictable patterns, punctuated by periodic “realigning” elections that occur every generation (30 years or so). But others, like Yale’s David Mayhew, reject the notion that elections follow cyclical patterns. Mayhew suggests instead that each election is an event unto itself, with its own unique dynamics. Following Conor’s logic, however, I think the list of comparable elections could be pared even more to include only a change in party control of the presidency. That narrows the list to the elections of 1932, 1952, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000 and 2008. From this perspective Obama’s election looks even more impressive – he would trail only Roosevelt in the popular vote total. The problem, of course, is that once you begin differentiating elections on these criteria, you complicate the comparison by in effect choosing on the dependent variable; that is, you try to decide which elections are comparable by using the election results to determine the criteria on which to compare them. But why should we eliminate incumbents from the comparison if our goal is to measure the support behind the winning candidate? After all, not every incumbent won reelection – presumably they face the same problem as any other candidate: how to win the most votes possible. It’s not clear to me why we should exclude incumbents from that comparison. Indeed, we might turn your logic around and argue Obama had it easier because he wasn’t facing an incumbent. (And lest we accuse Conor of pulling a Biden, note that television really didn’t become a factor in presidential elections until 1952!) I think Conor raises some good points in suggesting that not all elections are alike. But I’m not sure I’m willing to arbitrarily throw out some elections from the comparison without a more compelling reason to do so.

  4. All of this historical talk raises a question for me. Where do you think Obama will fit in Skowronek’s “Political Time” framework? Do you think the Reagan era is over already or is Obama simply an opposition president in a Republican era?

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