The election cycle has been full of surprises. Both parties produced nominees that came from positions of relative instability and low funding to frontrunner status through a series of Primary upsets. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber have risen from unknowns to household names. Pollsters have chewed through their fingernails, hoping to get it right this time. In light of the turbulence of the campaign, the election passed with a decisive ease unseen in recent times. It almost felt like there was a collective sense of wonder and amazement: in the context of recent electoral cliffhangers, the political Super Bowl was over by eleven pm Eastern time without any questions as to the validity of the results. National exit polls allow for an investigation of what worked, with whom, and how. Prior to the election, there were a lot of questions about whether Barack Obama would be able to overcome the demographic fragmentation of the Democratic primaries. Did region, race, age, and religion play an impact in the results? Last week we examined the Bradley effect, which had impacted a number of campaigns in previous history. Did the numbers suggest any suspicious deviations in the behavior of undecided voters? And what issues were most important to the electorate before pulling the lever? In the brief pause between now and January 20th, we have time to reflect on and digest the historic implications of this election.
The news cycle was buzzing before November 4: Obama had a substantial projected lead in the polls in a majority of states and the popular vote. But questions loomed about the daunting objectives of his campaign agenda: break into Bush states, perform with demographics that had favored Hillary Clinton, organize historically reliable unmotivated voters, and gain ground with religious voters who are typically skeptical of Democrats. Obama’s focus had always been to run a national campaign, and this was realized in great part by tremendous organization and resources, as well as the fiercely contested Democratic contest.
Regionally, there were a few surprises. McCain’s advantage came in the typical Republican strongholds: the South and the West. However, Obama managed to flip Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia. Indiana and Virginia had not cast electoral votes for a Democratic candidate since 1964. Obama also achieved high margins among minority voters, garnering 95% of the black vote nationally and 67% of the Hispanic vote. John Kerry was only supported by 88% of black voters, and 53% of Hispanics nationally in 2004. Although John McCain won 55% of white voters, Obama outperformed Kerry among whites by 2 percentage points.
Turnout increased around the board, but it’s also important to note the changes in the distribution of the electorate. Obama’s strength came from a coalition of enthusiastic supporters from a number of constituencies, including younger voters. African Americans, Hispanics, and voters ages 18-29 each made up a slightly larger portion of voters than in previous years. Obama won commanding margins with all three groups. John McCain captured a majority of the white vote, and held on to voters over the age of 65. However, the percentage of the electorate in both these groups is smaller than 2004.
Obama also won larger margins with religious voters, Catholics and Jews both granting Obama majorities, as well as 45% of Protestants. Obama won 24% of the white Evangelical Christian vote, three percentage points higher than John Kerry’s 21%, but a huge loss to McCain’s 74% of the group. It must be noted, though, that Obama’s gains among Evangelicals came particularly from young Evangelicals aged 18-29.
Examining late-deciders indicates no impact of a Bradley effect among the demographic, those voters splitting evenly between candidates. As much fun as it was “picturing yourself as a racist” last week, it seems that voters are becoming more comfortable discussing their preferences with pollsters.
National exit polling paints the picture of a very concerned electorate. At least sixty percent of voters said “yes,” when asked if they were concerned about the following issues: another terrorist attack, health care, offshore drilling, and Supreme Court appointments. An additional 63% of Americans expressed disagreement about the direction of the war in Iraq. These trends are in line with other polling of the American public, considering that only 11% of Americans surveyed by Gallup at the beginning of November felt the country was on the right track. However, the most overwhelming anxiety was about the economy. The national exit poll indicates that 85% of American voters nationally expressed some concern about the economy going into the voting booth, and 54% of those concerned Americans cast a ballot for Barack Obama. Nationally, 63% of Americans said that the economy was the most important issue going into the race. The other issues on the list—Iraq, terrorism, health care, and energy—did not reach ten percent. Concern about the economy was practically universal, the difference being who voters thought best suited to address the situation. Even in states where McCain had commanding margins of victory, a plurality of voters indicated the economy was the most important issue, significantly higher than other issues listed, and the majority supported McCain. Overall, the candidate that won the state did so by winning on the economy.
So we have the numbers now. How did Obama win? It seems like a simple concept: get more votes than the other candidate. But the contributing factors are so much more complicated. McCain’s weaker margins in the west are largely attributable to the organizational efforts of the Democratic primary. Both campaigns registered a significant number of new Democrats, and Obama’s organization in the western caucuses translated into monster field offices for the general election. Obama’s targeted emphasis on early voting, through the bombarding supporters with text messages, e-mails, and carrier pigeons emphasizing important deadlines also proved beneficial. Republicans tend to vote early in elections, whereas Democrats tend to wait a little longer. This year, the early vote was split pretty evenly on the national scale, but provided Obama a critical advantage in Nevada, and due in great part to the focus of the Obama campaign. Obama also owes a debt to the increased turnout and distribution of support from African Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. Although these demographics benefitted Obama across the board, Hispanic voters in particular aided Obama in the conversion of Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Obama benefitted by securing a higher percentage of growing demographics, a trend to watch in subsequent elections. Should these demographic shifts hold, it could prove very dangerous for Republicans, whose appeal may be confined to a shrinking segment of the electorate.
Obama managed victory in Virginia due to demographic shifts in the Northern and Southeastern parts of the state that have been emerging more and more in recent years, contributing to the victories of Virginia Democrats such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb. However, the stagnant economy that has forced Kaine’s recent spending freeze couldn’t hurt.
Obama benefitted across the board from the anxiety of the American voter. Research has indicated that anxious voters are most likely to defect from their party in elections. The Republican brand is also highly damaged by the economic downturn. The foreclosure crisis, rise in the cost of food, gas, and college tuition, rampant job loss, and stock market volatility have all occurred under a Republican president after a period of economic prosperity under a Democratic president. A majority of the battleground states have experienced different downsides of the economic downturn, from Florida’s depreciating property values to startling job losses in Ohio. Obama won by selling the economy.
The most important rule of political campaigns is to define yourself before your opponent defines you. Each campaign offered different appeals to the electorate (we’ll discuss this more next week). The main points of Obama’s campaign were that Barack Obama was a qualified and cool-headed leader, and that John McCain was out of touch with the common man. The main points of McCain’s narrative were that Obama lacked the leadership capabilities for this uncertain time, and Obama’s plan would cause a strain on American businesses. Through exit polling, we find that 50% of Americans felt that Barack Obama had the leadership capabilities to be president, and 60% of voters felt that John McCain was out of touch with voters like them. Of those who felt that Barack Obama had the proper leadership experience for this time, 93% gave him their vote. Of those who felt McCain was out of touch with people like them, 79% voted for Barack Obama. Of the 71% of Americans who felt that their taxes would increase under Barack Obama, only 55% voted for John McCain. Although the prevalence of notions from both narratives was high, Obama established the more effective appeal on the most important issue to voters before the election. What he does with that victory remains subject to speculation on both sides of the aisle.
For Further Reading:
Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain. New York: Public Affairs.
The Exit Polls