by Jay Johansen | Nov 6, 2008
As I write this, Barack Obama has just won the presidential election.
As I saw the returns coming in Tuesday night, I concluded that a few states that were close calls in 2000 and 2004, notably Florida, Ohio, and Nevada, came down on the Republican side. In 2008, those same close states came down on the Democrat side. This was enough to tip the election.
Then I saw a commentator on CNN yesterday saying that something far more dramatic was happening. He said that we were seeing a dramatic shift in America's political landscape, that the entire country was experiencing a tidal wave of political change.
Then he showed a fancy electronic map of the United States that highlighted the states that voted differently in 2008 than they had in 2004: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, a few others. He zoomed in on each of these states to show a map comparing how individual counties had voted. In Ohio. basically Cincinnatti voted Republican in 2004 but Democrat in 2008, which was enough to tip that state. In Florida there were a couple of counties in the "I-4 corridor" that switched. In Nevada Las Vegas voted Democrat in 2004 but had an even bigger margin for the Democrat in 2008, thus making up for the slightly Republican tilt of most of the rest of the state.
By the time he got to the end of his analysis, it seemed to me that he had completely contradicted his original thesis. The situation is, in fact, even less of a tide change than I had thought. It is not that a few states were shifting from Republican to Democrat. It was that a few counties were shifting, and this was enough to tip the vote in a few close calls.
Look at the final votes in these key states: Ohio: 51% Democrat, 48% Republican. Florida: 51% Democrat, 49% Republican. North Carolina: 50% Democrat, 49% Republican. These numbers are just marginally different from 2004, but just enough to slide over the line.
Indeed, look at the total popular vote nation-wide. In 2004, it was 51% Republican to 48% Democrat; in 2008 it was 46% Republican to 52% Democrat. (Totals are less than 100% because of minor party candidates and rounding.) So something like 4% of the voters changed sides.
When the Republicans won the 2000 election, a lot of Republicans were crowing about "the permanent Republican majority". At the time I thought this was a rather presumptuous conclusion: the victory margin had been extremely slim. I hear many Democrats today using similar language to describe their victory this year. I suspect this is equally presumptuous. The reality is that the American popular vote has been very close in every election for the last twenty-plus years. Sometimes it tips slightly to the Republican side and they win, sometimes slightly to the Democrat side and they win.
Realistically, there are some number of people in this country who are committed Republicans and some number who are committed Democrats, and whose votes can pretty well be counted on by their respective sides. Then there are a relatively small number of people who go back and forth. Some of these people appear to vote pragmatically, based on how well the incumbent's policies seem to be working. When the economy is doing well and international affairs seem to be going our way, they vote to re-elect the incumbent or to elect another person from his party. When things are going badly they vote to change the party in power. Others seem to vote based on which candidate is better looking or more eloquent. Et cetera. For good or ill, these "middle people" shift the balance of power back and forth.
What will happen in 2012? It's surely way too early for anyone to predict which party will win the next election. At this point we don't even know what sort of policies Obama will really pursue, whether they will be as liberal as conservatives fear and liberals hope or whether he will move to the center. But I can make a very easy prediction about how it will work out. If Obama's presidency appears to be successful -- if the economy does well during his term, the country is at peace or winning any conflicts we get involved in, and there are no major scandals or embarrassments -- Obama will almost surely win re-election. If not, he will lose. And if he does lose in 2012, the Republicans will announce that this reflects a tidal shift in the American political landscape.
Lest I be accused of skimming over facts that conflict with my theories, let me concede that there have been some shifts that seem to be more than the regular back and forth.
Colorado has been shifting decidedly Democrat over the last ten years or so. Democrats in that state have made huge efforts, spending big money and mobilizing lots of people, and they have apparently succeeded in moving the state in their direction. Anyone who has been paying attention is not surprised.
The one state that really did surprise me was Indiana. This used to be the second most Republican state in the country, after Utah. But in this election Indiana voted Democrat. By a razor-thin margin, but I was expecting this to be an easy Republican win. I frankly don't know what happened in Indiana, whether this was the result of a brilliant strategic plan by the Democrats, or if there was just some odd set of circumstances this year, or what.
© 2008 by Jay Johansen