Monthly Archives: November 2008

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.

Did Obama Redraw the Electoral College Map (I like my single malts)?

As many of you know, Professor Kateri Carmola and I made a bet regarding the outcome of the popular vote and the Electoral College vote – Kateri said Obama would break the 55% popular vote barrier and the 350 Electoral College vote.  Although CNN is still holding at 349 Electoral College votes, I’m pretty confident that North Carolina will go to Obama, which will give him 364 Electoral College votes  As our forecast models and polling suggested, Obama didn’t come close to 55% (CNN has him at 52%, but he might get bumped up to 53% with rounding).  So, the bet turns out to be a push.  Maybe I’ll buy Kateri dinner in return for her buying me a (good) bottle of scotch.

The somewhat different results once again illustrate a peculiarity of the Electoral College – it can appear to turn relatively close popular votes (and historically Obama’s victory margin is in the mid-range – decisive but not a blowout) into the perception of an electoral landslide.  Whether this is a redeeming feature of the Electoral College or not often depends on your perspective. But it reminds us that candidates’ strategies are designed to maximize Electoral College votes – not popular votes.  That’s why I’ve never had any sympathy for those who claim Gore “won” the 2000 election by virtue of the popular vote.

I’m going to talk at length about the relative effectiveness of the two candidates’ campaigns, but I hope it goes without saying that I’m skeptical of the post-election day media frame that Obama’s campaign strategy was flawless while McCain’s was not.  To give you food for thought, here’s an interesting intellectual exercise: how much do you think the fundamentals (the economy and change) were worth at the start of this campaign?  Using the forecast models, let’s assume conservatively that they are worth a net gain of 3% for the Democratic candidate.  Go back to the 2004 map, and add a net shift of 3% to each state’s 2004 outcome.  Which states flip?  Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Florida New Mexico, and Nevada, totaling 73 Electoral College votes. Without any additional states, the Democrat wins with an additional across-the-board 3% by a very comfortable Electoral Vote margin of 325-213.

This leaves Virginia, Indiana and possibly Missouri and North Carolina as states that one would not predict would necessarily go Democratic in a Democratic year – for electoral votes ranging from 24 to a maximum of 50 if we give them all to Obama.  (Missouri with +3% is essentially a tossup from 2004 and North Carolina hasn’t been called yet).

In short, the race was Obama’s to lose from Day 1.  To his credit, he didn’t lose it, and we might argue that he marginally expanded the Electoral Map by taking Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina (although there are idiosyncratic factors influencing the outcome of each of those states that I will discuss at length).

Bottom line: we didn’t see a dramatic reshaping of the Electoral Map. Not yet.  But we may be seeing the beginning of a gradual redrawing of some lines.  Much depends on whether the Democrats repeat the mistakes they made in 1992, when they overreached on health care and taxes and ended up losing the Congress within 2 years.  If Obama’s electoral gains are to translate into more enduring Democratic gains, he needs – along with congressional Democrats – to govern wisely.  In a later post I’ll suggest how to do so.

Why no dramatic reversal of the Electoral College map?  Because the Democrats were already very competitive in many “red” states, and the U.S. has never been as polarized into “pure” red states and blue states as the pundits would have us believe.

And Kateri – I like the single malts.

Some Thoughts Before the Analysis

Long night (I entered my last post at 5 a.m.) – late start this morning. I’ll need a couple of days to fully digest the numbers coming out of last night’s events (and to catch up on sleep).  So for this morning let me just begin the post-election analysis with a few observations.

As most of you know, I take a bit of pride in not getting emotionally invested in any candidate, in order to analyze elections (and the presidency more generally) as objectively as possible. This sometimes drives my students (and readers of this blog) nutty, because they want me to post comments that reaffirm their gut feelings regarding which candidate is better, why their opponent is scum, etc.  By now, I hope you’ve developed a bit of a grudging respect for my perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.

However, this doesn’t mean I’m dispassionate about the presidency, or about elections.   It will be said over and over again in the coming days, and much more eloquently than I can say it. But I’ll say it anyway.

We, as Americans, should take pride in what happened last night.  First, we affirmed an ideal that for far too long in this country has been more often talked about than acted upon: that the only qualifications one needs under the Constitution to become president are the ones related to age, citizenship and residency (subject to term limits).  Last night we took a step closer to realizing that ideal. We aren’t all the way there, of course, but it was a huge symbolic victory.

Second, and more important I would suggest, is that we once again transferred power from one party to the other without threat of coup, bloodshed, intimidation, vote stealing (well, ok, my guess is that there was not a little vote stealing going on).  We take this for granted now.  But it’s not the norm across the world, and it has not even always been the norm in our country (although we have a pretty decent track record dating back to 1800.)

Democracy, American-style, is an on-going experiment.  We did pretty well last night.

Ok. Now on to the important things: how well did our forecast models work?  Pretty darn well. I’ll address that, and related election issues, in the next post.

PS. I know that some of you had trouble logging in to post on the live blog last night. None of the tech people were able to explain what happened. I’m very sorry you weren’t able to participate, but I do hope you were at least able to read the exchange. Lots of great comments – Andy outlasted me, and was still posting excellent updates at 4 in the morning – I finally had to tell him to go to bed at 5 am.  I’m sorry that I couldn’t provide the more detailed election night analysis of exit polls that you’ve become accustomed to, but my effort to do simultaneous election night commentary at the college and the online blogging  meant that I didn’t do either particularly well!  A lesson for next time…

And let me say special thanks once again for Professor Bert Johnson’s willingness to cohost the Election Night event – as always, his insights and comments made it a better night for everyone.

The Race is Tightening! (Well, sort of)

Ok, not really. But there are potentially – I say potentially – interesting developments afoot, which has delayed (along with teaching) my presentation of the final polling results before today’s election.  Now, I don’t want you to overreact to this, because in the end I don’t see how they change the final outcome of this race. Barack Obama should win.

But John McCain is closing in on, or pulling away from, Obama in every battleground state, with the exception of Pennsylvania and possibly Georgia  Now, let’s be clear here. I am not saying that he is going to win the Electoral College vote!  Indeed, even if he wins every one of these states, which today looks less preposterous than it did a week ago, he still will fall short in the Electoral College. Obama’s firewall remains Pennsylvania, with Virginia serving as a backup. I don’t see McCain winning either of those states.

Also keep in mind that these state-level survey results become essentially meaningless if Obama’s much-hyped GOVT proves as effective as some media outlets are suggesting. Keep in mind that Gallup estimates 64% turnout, up 4% from 2004, including a whopping increase in African-American voters.  If this plays out, it may render the state-level surveys irrelevant.

But without presuming anything about turnout, the results show that McCain has made across the board gains in almost EVERY BATTLEGROUND STATE.  I’m not sure why the media is not making a bigger deal of this, but the polling data is there to see. What interests me, as a political scientist, is how McCain can appear to be gaining ground at the state level, but not in national polls. Keep in mind that in some of these states the gains are within the polls’ margin of error, so it might simply be random noise.  But one would think that pure statistical noise would not manifest itself in every battleground state as gains for McCain – some of them should favor Obama.

As always, let’s look at the numbers.  Just to be sure, I’ll give the current polling average in both RCP and, since they use slightly different methodologies, with the person ahead in parentheses.  And I’ll show the trend in the RCP graph for the last week (Pollster doesn’t show a trend graph that is as easy to use).


North Carolina 48.4-48 (M)                 48.8-44.4 (O) McCain +2

Indiana             47.8-46.4 (M)              48.1-46.9 (M)  McCain +1.7

Florida             49.0-47.2 (M)              48.8-47.1 (O) McCain +4.5

Ohio                 48.8-46.3 (O)              49.4-46.3 (O)  McCain +2.8

Georgia            49.8-45.8  (M)             49.5-46.6 (M)  McCain NO RCP GRAPH

Missouri           48.5-47.8 (M)              48.5-47.4 (O)  McCain +1.3

Virginia 50.2-45.8 (O)              51-4-51.6 (O)  McCain +2.9

Pennsylvania     51-43.7 (O)                 51.6-44.4 (O) McCain +4.5

So it appears the late deciders are breaking for McCain – heavily in some cases. Lest I appear to be named Matt Drudge, let me reiterate: the bottom line is that Obama is ahead in most of these states, although his lead is well within the margin of error.  Moreover, most of McCain’s gains are within the margin of error as well. But the most recent polls in almost all these states show McCain narrowing the gap, or even taking the lead – that’s an interesting development worth keeping an eye on to see if it shows up in other states.

Now we need to keep this in perspective.  I see no evidence at the national level of a last minute surge toward McCain.  Can McCain lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College by stealing these battleground states?  The math doesn’t work for him.  Without Pennsylvania, he falls short.  He needs to pick up another state or two, depending on the electoral size – and I don’t see any other states for him to win.

But he’s making it interesting.

By the way, many of you have asked if I will do an Electoral College projection.  I won’t, because it’s theoretically uninteresting.  Anyone can add up some polling data at this stage and put together a reasonable estimate for the final total – you don’t need my expertise at all to do this. It’s akin to standing atop Mt. Worth, watching the sky go grey over Lake Champlain, and predicting rain tomorrow in Ripton. You don’t need to be a meteorologist to do that – you just need to be observant. So it is with predicting the Electoral College vote the day before the election.  I would just be cluttering your inbox with extraneous information that you can easily put together yourself.  I’m sure Chuck Todd and the various talking heads have presented their own models.  No need for me to add to the clutter.

Remember, I made my prediction in September. I see no reason to change it.

Festivities begin in about three hours at the Grille. Meanwhile I’ll be parsing the polls a bit more, looking for any national trend, and taking a second glance at some western states: Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico that might make for a long night if McCain could steal two of them.

A final reminder: typically there are three waves of exit polls, with each successive wave calibrated to adjust for what the consortium is seeing in turnout. Drudge usually leaks the first one in the early afternoon – IT WON’T NECESSARILY BE ACCURATE!