Elections create stories, it’s true, moments that bring a sense of narrative structure to our world, reinforcing either our hopes (that virtue is rewarded, that majorities agree with us) or fears, or, all-too often, our excuse that we lost everything with one tactical campaign blunder.
Political scientists play a vital role by putting these stories to a rigorous test, often disabusing casual observers of simplistic reasoning. Fortunately, John Sides and Andrew Gelman do not crush all our hopes of narrative coherence, like those political scientists who insist that the electoral cake was already baked by a set of economic indicators long before the campaign began, and that all the tactical decisions, debate performances, running mate choices, and last-minute ads were meaningless rituals.
But they could leave us with even greater narrative coherence if they were to interpret the election more expansively, treating 2008 as a particularly action-packed chapter in a longer story. That story involves an electoral shift from the consolidation of Republican power in the South in 1994, to the rise of the Southern-based Republican Party to total power in the first Bush term, to the 2004-2008 backlash that pulled much of the Northeast, Midwest, Mountain States, and West solidly toward the Democrats. The numbers in 2008 may not differ that dramatically from John Kerry’s in 2004, yet we should not dismiss them: Kerry set the stage for the current political alignment, but (because campaigns do matter) his shortcomings as a candidate, the then-underdeveloped Democratic field operation, and the lingering effects of the post-9/11 obsession with security gave the Republicans an extra four years of power.
Nor should we dismiss the idea that Obama created a new electoral map, even though the state-to-state shifts in the electoral coalition are not as striking as in previous decades when big states such as California and the Southern states were pivots. In several former swing states, particularly in the upper Midwest, Obama’s performance outpaced Kerry’s by a considerably greater margin than the nine-point national shift. Wisconsin, for example, went from a virtual tie in 2004 to a fourteen-point Obama victory in 2008. Many of those states, which had been both congressional and presidential battlegrounds over the previous two decades, may have now been consolidated into the safely Democratic base. Several other states that cemented Obama’s victory—Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina—had been overwhelmingly Republican in presidential elections for as long as anyone can remember. Republicans used to win these states by twenty points in years when they captured the presidency, and by seven or eight when they lost. In 2008, however, Indiana swung from a twenty-point Kerry loss to a one-point Obama victory.
These individual states matter not because of the size of the electoral coalition they create, but because the coalition’s geographic and demographic structure differs significantly from Democratic coalitions of the past, and thus suggests different policy possibilities.
An undercurrent of the long battle for the nomination between Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton involved a debate between two hypothetical electoral maps. The map not chosen, the Clinton map, would have involved winning known swing states and retaking one or more of the conservative Southern “border states”—Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia—that Bill Clinton had won. The Clinton map’s 51 percent electoral coalition clung desperately to a last remnant of the old Southern-based Democratic majority, the majority that since 1964 could only elect a candidate with a Southern accent. In the Obama map, those border states remained as solidly Republican as they have since 2000, and Obama lost them by almost exactly the same margin as Kerry did in 2004. But the Obama map replaced those lost states with gains in the growing areas of the South—states with large African-American populations and rising numbers of professionals—and in the Midwest and Mountain West. By letting the older, shrinking states of the South go, Obama’s coalition was poised to move on toward a progressive national agenda.
And by letting go of the South and border states in order to consolidate its gains everywhere else, the Obama coalition pushed the Republican Party back to the status of a Southern regional party, all but wiped out in the party’s own birthplace, the affluent suburbs of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio. One of the last Northern Republican Senators, George Voinovich of Ohio, recently complained that his party had been “taken over by the Southerners” who “scare people.”
As of this writing, Republican conservatives lack Voinovich’s self-awareness, and seem eager to recreate the backlash that crippled Clinton in the first year of his presidency and led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. That backlash required unleashing a latent conservative majority in the South and to a lesser extent the West in districts that had been voting for Democrats largely for historical reasons. Republicans cashed in on them in 1994, but they cannot do it again—most of the Democratic-held districts that Newt Gingrich was eyeing fifteen years ago are now solidly Republican. Meanwhile, the older Republican seats in the Northeast and Midwest are gone. Republicans cannot form anything close to a majority.
What kind of opportunity does this create? Sides and Gelman are correct to warn against using the term “mandate” lightly. Obama’s victory cannot be read as a national referendum on comprehensive health reform, cap and trade, or the other policy priorities. As in almost every previous election, a majority supported the president because they thought he generally shared their view of the world and/or would do a better job than his opponent in solving both known and unforeseen problems. Even the 1980 election, to which Sides and Gelman compare 2008, was more a referendum on Ronald Reagan’s tone and leadership compared to Jimmy Carter, than an affirmation of Reagan’s conservative agenda. Reagan built a mandate in 1981 by governing successfully, by creating the bipartisan congressional majorities that allowed him to pile victory on victory, especially in the late summer budget and tax bills. Obama will have to do the same, which is why the Republicans are so focused on trying to deny him those congressional majorities and supermajorities.
If brute-force opposition does not bring Republicans immediate political benefits, the GOP will crack as remaining Northern Democrats such as Voinovich defect. And Obama will add to his victories. If the economy begins to turn around in the coming year, and Obama is perceived as responsible, he will have constructed a real and durable mandate. Its roots will lie not only in the 2008 election, but in the years of development and infrastructure-building in progressive politics that preceded the election—preceded, in some cases, the Obama campaign itself—and the months of governance that have followed.