It’s all over; let the parsing commence. The political equivalent of skiing in fresh powder-commentators out doing themselves to find the most compelling, counterintuitive narrative to explain “what just happened”-is now the sport of the moment. David Brooks is in there early. Having been the commentator who did most to popularise the notion of an exurban revolt in 2004, this time he sees three seismic shifts:
Economically, it marks the end of the Long Boom, which began in 1983. Politically, it probably marks the end of conservative dominance, which began in 1980. Generationally, it marks the end of baby boomer supremacy, which began in 1968.
Not to be outdone, here are some quick, mid-morning thoughts on last night.
First, don’t entirely write off the divided nation. Obama won, but he didn’t “win big.” He is likely to win fewer electoral college votes than Clinton in either 1992 (370) or 1996 (379.) His 52 per cent of the vote, while a clear mandate, is only a single percentage point more than Bush in 2004. In short, after two close polls and the embedding of a notion that liberals must always win or lose by inches, this is not an epic change in the political georgraphy of the United States. It is what a relatively normal Democratic victory look like.
Second, while McCain clearly ran a poor campaign, he did no worse than median expectations. Indeed, he did better than Bush Snr, and Bob Dole, in their respective defeats. Very few of the “stretch” targets for the Obama campaign fell. Florida went, as did Elizabeth Dole’s Senate seat. But Georgia and South Carolina didn’t. Equally, some wilder hopes—Democrats to pick up the Senate seat of Mitch McConnell, for instance—also didn’t come to pass.
Third, the most significant change of the election will be the swing away from the Republicans in the mountain west—in which Colorado, especially, went strongly for Obama. In an election whose headlines focus on race, it is Latino voters, a fast growing demographic now vital in American elections, who will have made the difference. That said, some of the bigger changes in Latino voting patterns appear not to have happened. Despite carrying Florida, Democrats do not seem to have taken a number of closely watched southern Florida congressional races, in which traditionally right-wing Cuban Americans had been anticipated to switch sides.
Fourth, exit polls don’t seem to have delivered much of a surprise, showing the economy as the nation’s most important issue. Obama’s poll lead began the day Lehman went under, and never looked back. The number saying Iraq was the most important issue—around 1 in 10—has plunged since the beginning of the campaign. This, fundamentally, is the story of McCain’s defeat. It confirms a long-run rule of American politics, that Democrats only win if domestic concerns dominate voters’ minds.
Fifth, watching Obama’s victory speech, I was struck by how similar it was—almost a rewrite—of his concession speech in New Hampshire, and his victory speech after beating Clinton. Despite running in many ways a remarkable, era-redefining campaign, his race has also been traditional, with a strong, consistent, comprehensible message at its core. That message: (1) change, not more of the same (2) the economy and (3) don’t forget about healthcare—also happens to have been exactly the same as Clinton in 1992.
Sixth, underneath a story of racial healing, expect a slightly darker tinge to emerge. While record turnout among African Americans is heartening, it looks like white men in the south didn’t exactly flock to Obama.
Seventh, watch to see if more evidence of the impact of Obama’s much admired turnout machine emerges. The turnout in the election indeed does seem to have been huge, around 64% on some estimates, higher than the last election in the UK. And huge efforts put into voter registration and mobilisation seem likely to have been the difference in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. But a brief scan of the results raises questions about how large that impact will have been. There doesn’t, for instance, seem to be much abnormal in the size of the vote in the most important states. Case in point: Bush, in 2004, won 3,955,656 votes in Florida. Obama seems to have won 4,066,978, strongly suggesting that some of the “growing the electorate” narrative may have been a little overplayed in some cases, despite the highest turnout overall in nearly a hundred years.
Finally, a few things to watch for as the day goes on, and the US wakes up. How did the evangelical vote play out, and did Obama win a majority of Catholics? As I wrote a few issues ago, Obama’s team put a lot of effort in here, but a big shift didn’t seem likely. Was there any evidence of a Bradley effect, anywhere? Especially in the south, it seems unlikely it didn’t exist at all. Third, did the much heralded boost in youth turnout actually happen—early evidence suggests perhaps not. And lastly, as mentioned above, what evidence comes to light that the Obama machine was able to use its new organising muscle to win in places that the national polls suggest should have been out of reach.