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Obama's election: a postmortem

By Farooq A. Kperogi Last week’s epoch-making election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president will be remembered not just for the novel...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Last week’s epoch-making election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president will be remembered not just for the novelty of ushering in the country’s first nonwhite president but for the dramatic shifts it has engendered in American presidential politics.

First, because of the unusually high enthusiasm this year’s campaigns generated, this election recorded one of the highest turnouts in decades. According to Michael MacDonald of George Mason University, at least 133.3 million people voted in the presidential election this year, which represents about 62.8 percent of all registered voters.

This feat is matched only by the 1964 presidential election and outrivaled slightly only by the 1960 election in which John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon. It easily outstripped 2004's 122.3 million turnout, which had been the highest grand total of voters.

The turnout rate in 1996 was about 49 percent (that is, less than half of registered voters actually voted).

North Carolina, where Obama won in a major upset, had the greatest increase in turnout, according to election data. Other states where turnout increased dramatically were Indiana (where Obama also had a historic win), Georgia and Alabama.

A landslide or just a massive victory?

Obama’s win of 364 electoral votes dwarfs President Bush’s two previous mandates but falls short of others. So is it a landslide?

While there is no agreement among politicians and political scientists on what constitutes a landslide, Obama’s victory seems to fit the bill.

Kathleen Thompson Hill and Gerald N. Hill, in their book, The Facts on File Dictionary of American Politics, say a landslide can be defined as "exceeding expectations and being somewhat overwhelming."

President Bush won with just 271 electoral votes in 2000 and 286 in 2004. It takes 270 votes to win the presidency.

Lyndon Johnson had one of the biggest landslides in America’s modern history. He got 486 electoral votes against his opponent’s 52, earning him the moniker "Landslide Lyndon."

Obama’s coalition of strange bedfellows
Barack Obama’s decisively overwhelming electoral victory against John McCain was the consequence of an unstructured coalition of many strange political and cultural bedfellows: African Americans, Hispanics (immigrants from Spanish-speaking South American countries), young people across all racial groups, white women, and university-educated white men.

In ordinary times, these demographic categories are not the best of friends. For instance, there is an enduring tension between African Americans and Hispanics.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the wave of legal and illegal immigration of Hispanics into America has robbed many black people here of low-income jobs that used to be exclusively reserved for them. Second, Hispanics have displaced African Americans as the biggest minority group, and this fact has spawned intense rivalry between them, manifesting in sometimes violent aggressions between the two groups.

This tension was reflected in the refusal of Hispanics to support Obama during the Democratic primaries. They supported Hillary Clinton by huge margins. A Hillary Clinton pollster, Sergio Bendixen, for instance, told The New Yorker in January this year that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

It turned, however, that he was wrong. Data from last week’s election showed that Obama won almost 70 percent of Hispanic vote against McCain’s 31 percent. That’s the highest any presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democrat, has ever won.

Similarly, 56 percent of women went for Obama. Only 43 percent went for McCain. Obama and McCain split the male vote almost equally. Forty-nine percent went for Obama while 48 percent went for McCain. This is a feat for Obama as no Democrat has managed to win the male vote in decades.

White voters collectively favored McCain 55 percent to 43 percent, but Obama made this up by getting 95 percent of the black vote and nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Death of “Bradley Effect”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in last week's election was that there was not the slightest evidence that the much feared “Bradley effect” (the phenomenon by which white voters who oppose a black candidate mislead pollsters about whom they will vote for) was in play.

Although Obama did not win the majority of white male voters, a higher percentage of white men voted for him than they did any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included.

Evidence that there was no “Bradley effect” is demonstrated by the near mathematical precision of the prognosis of several major pre-election opinion polls. None wildly overstated Obama’s share of the vote or understated McCain’s.

Shortly before Election Day, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal opinion poll showed that 51 percent of voters preferred Obama and that only 43 preferred McCain. The Gallup Poll showed a 53 percent lead for Obama against McCain’s 42 percent, while CBS News had Obama up 51 percent to McCain’s 42 percent.

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll in late October had Obama ahead 51 percent to 43 percent. An AP-GfK poll in mid-October showed a virtual tie, 44 percent for Obama to 43 percent for McCain.

Web sites that combine major polls to estimate support also performed well. Among some popular sites, had Obama ahead 52 percent to 44 percent, saw Obama up 52 percent to 45 percent, and gave Obama a 52 percent to 46 percent advantage.

In the actual election, Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote against McCain’s 46 percent. That figure is close to most of the polls that preceded the election.

This confers on Obama the distinction of having won a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since President Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Senator that McCain has succeeded, 44 years ago. Even Bill Clinton won just 47 percent of the popular vote.

The youth vote took Obama to the edge

One of the most defining moments of this year’s presidential election is the unprecedented ways in which hitherto apathetic young people got passionately involved in the presidential elections.

According to data from the election, 66 percent of voters under the age of 30 voted for Obama. Only 32 percent voted for McCain. Obama’s share of the youth vote, which cuts across race, religion, educational attainment, is the most impressive youth mandate for a president in modern American history, according to analysts.

It outrivaled John F. Kenndy’s 1960 share of the youth vote by about 4 times. This feat becomes even more historic when it is realized that JFK’s share of the youth was considered so impressive that, in his inaugural address, he acknowledged the feat he had made by declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Until this election, no Democratic presidential nominee had won more than 45 percent of young whites in at least three decades. Obama won 54 percent of young white voters, who accounted for 11 percent of this year’s electorate. Young black and Hispanic voters accounted for 3 percent each.

“Never in post-war American politics,” declares, “have youth voted so differently than older generations as they did in 2008.”

Interestingly, most of these young voters are also newly registered voters. According to a report by Tuft’s Tisch College Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 60 percent of all new voters this year were under the age of 30, cumulatively accounting for 18 percent of the electorate this year. Nearly 70 percent of these new voters went for Obama.

Political analysts had predicted that the youth enthusiasm for Obama would dissipate before Election Day. “Are they going to show up?” Cokie Roberts of ABC News asked in February. “Probably not. They never have before. By the time November comes, they’ll be tired.”

He was wrong. According to CIRCLE, 53 percent of eligible youth voters turned out to vote, the highest percentage since 1992.

"Young voters have dispelled the notion of an apathetic generation and proved the pundits, reporters and political parties wrong by voting in record numbers today," said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote.

Obama also won among young white women without a degree by 54 to 45 percent, the first time a Democrat had more than 50 percent support from this group in decades.

But Obama’s highest level of support from young white voters came from college-educated women, who backed him by 61 percent. Only 38 percent of them voted for McCain.

While Obama won only 24 percent of white evangelicals (an ultra-conservative sect of Christianity that believes in personal conversion and the inerrancy of the Bible), a slight improvement from Kerry's 21 percent, 32 percent of young white evangelicals supported him, double the 16 percent who backed Kerry.

Obama redraws America’s electoral map
Although Obama lost miserably in the still racist Deep South (making him the first Democrat in decades to win a presidential election without having a southerner on the ticket), he made hitherto unthought-of inroads into traditionally Republican states.

(The Deep South refers to southeastern states of the United States such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana that were notorious for producing cotton and permitting slavery)

He won North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia, three reliably Republican states. No Democratic candidate has won North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976; Indiana and Virginia (where the erstwhile capital of the seceding Confederate states is located) last voted for a Democrat in 1964.

In addition, he won Ohio, which Bush won in 2002 and 2004. But the remarkable thing about Obama’s win in Ohio is that it is the first time since 1964 that a Democratic presidential candidate has won there with over 50 percent of the popular vote.

Even Clinton won the state with less than 50 percent of the popular vote, perhaps because third-party candidates in the 1992 and 1996 elections burrowed through his votes.

Obama also broke the Republican Party's decade-and-a-half-long hold on the American West by handily winning Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada due, in large part, to the massive support he got from Hispanics. Colorado has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only three times since 1948.

So Obama has not just redrawn the electoral map of America; he has printed an entirely new one.

Other electoral upsets
Some pundits had predicted that Obama would lose the numerically insignificant but symbolically powerful Jewish vote. It was thought that Joe Liebermann’s endorsement and campaigning for McCain would sway Jewish voters to the Republican side.

(Liebermann, the former running mate to Al Gore in 2000, is the most visible Jewish American politician).

It was also thought that last-minute smears about Obama’s friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian scholar who has taken the late Edward Said’s place at Columbia University, would scare Jewish voters.

Well, Jewish voters favored Obama 78 percent to 21 percent. That’s 4 points higher than John Kerry in 2004. The only demographic group that exceeded that support in percentage terms is African Americans, who voted for Obama 95 percent to 5 percent.

The changing demographics of the new American voter

What also became clear in the last election is that white Americans are progressively losing their majority status. A projection of the U.S. Census Bureau released August 14 this year said white majority in the U.S. will be outnumbered by Americans of other races by 2042, eight years sooner than previously projected.

This shift in demographics has already manifested in the last election, jeopardizing Karl Rove’s famous promise of a “permanent Republican majority” in the country.

(Karl Rove is the powerful former deputy chief of staff to President Bush whom Bush publicly acknowledged as the “architect” of his 2004 victory).

According to exit polling data, whites made up 74 percent of the 2008 electorate. In 2000, the percentage of the electorate that was white was 81. The downward slide in the percentile strength of white voters is attributed to the surge in black and Hispanic voters.

Breakdown by party voting also shows that Republican (read white) turnout rates are down quite a bit, while Democratic turnout rates are up. In Republican states, data shows, turnout dropped drastically in large part because the voters had given up hope that McCain would win.

Another disturbing sign for Republicans is that, according to exit polls last week, more and more self-described conservatives no longer consider themselves Republicans.

In addition, 51 percent of Americans now say they favor government doing more, not less. The centerpiece of Republican ideology has been less government.

Americans also overwhelmingly reject the Iraq war. That indicates a country moving center-left, and that’s the coalition that voted for Obama.

Further, and even more worrisome for the Republican Party, Obama was dominant among self-described “moderate” voters, a 60 percent swath of Americans who neither self-identify as “conservative” nor as “liberal.”

Has Obama devised a winning strategy for Democrats?
In his concession speech, McCain said, “I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election.” The conventional wisdom is that Obama won the election because of the precipitous slump in the U.S. economy.

Even McCain campaign staffers are pushing this narrative. “We were crushed by circumstance,” communications director Jill Hazelbaker said after McCain’s speech. “The economic crisis was a pivotal point in this race.”

But it is entirely conceivable that Obama would still have won this election convincingly even if the U.S. economy hadn’t cratered. McCain and his campaign lagged far behind Obama in every key index—money, organization, discipline, deployment of technology.

The cutting-edge technological prowess Obama deployed in his campaign was unprecedented in American political history, and was responsible for bringing in so many new voters.

For instance, as late as Tuesday afternoon on Election Day, the Obama campaign was able to deploy technology to identify and bring to the polls a last wave of supporters who hadn’t yet voted.

Through the Internet, Obama also raised more money than any politician in the entire political history of the United States.

However, it would seem that Obama’s biggest asset is his broad political appeal and positive message. While McCain and his running mate expended energies in ugly partisan attacks, a strategy that worked in the past, they only succeeded in exciting their xenophobic base and alienating moderates and liberals.

Obama, on the other hand, while swiftly and effectively repulsing the false attacks against him, sought to transcend partisanship and to court the affection of his rivals.

That explains why, for the first time in modern American history, he was able to persuade Republicans to cross over to the Democratic Party in large numbers. The reverse had often been the case.

The Obama campaign’s early decision to play on a more ambitious map than other Democratic nominees and their decision not to get negative were the source of his mandate.

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