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Election 2008 Mon Nov 17 2008

Was the 2008 Presidential Election Transformational?

The national punditry has, thus far, spent much of the post-election period arguing whether or not President-elect Obama received an electoral mandate on Nov. 4. The answer to that question is quite simply YES. In this era of closely fought presidential elections a 7 percent margin of victory in the popular vote coupled with at least 365 Electoral College votes and the flipping of nine formerly Red States is most definitely a mandate. Sean Hannity and his FOX News brethren need to stop spinning the election as something less than that before they lose what little credibility they have left as "journalists."

The much more salient point is whether the 2008 election was politically transformative in the way that Franklin Roosevelt's election was in 1932. And what was transformative about FDR's election, you might ask? Well, it wasn't his margin of victory or even the innovative policies he implemented once in office. It was the way in which his election shifted the political allegiances of whole demographic groups across the country, ushering in nearly 40 years of Progressive policy-making and Democratic electoral dominance. The answer to this second question is more complicated but here are some very encouraging signs, at least from this Progressive's point of view.

First, let's take a look at the total voter turnout in 2008 compared to recent presidential elections:
2004 turnout: 122 million voters
2000 turnout: 105 million voters
2008 turnout: 129 million voters (current estimate)

Despite many predictions that voter turnout would shatter national records and perhaps eclipse 140 million voters, 2008 saw a relatively modest increase of only seven million voters over 2004. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to lower than expected Republican turnout. Let's drill down a little further to see what that turnout tells us about the make-up of the 2008 electorate. Here is where things start to get really interesting.  

Obama received seven million more votes than John Kerry received in 2004. There were 3.2 million more African-American votes cast for the Democratic candidate, 2.4 million more Latino votes and approximately 1.5 million more professionals voting for the Democrat.

On the other side of the ledger, the Republicans received 7.1 million fewer votes in 2008 than they did in 2004. Approximately 800,000 fewer Latinos voted Republican, and nearly three million fewer veterans (I guess the military community wasn't as gung-ho about the war in Iraq as John McCain thought), while the remainder of the Republican drop-off of a little more three million votes was made up of Independents switching from R to D this time around.

These preliminary estimates based on exit polls provide us with a snapshot of an electorate in transition. The political bases of each party have shifted dramatically, as many Democratic pollsters and strategists have been predicting for nearly a decade, and now look something like this:

Democratic Base                Republican Base
African-Americans                Christian evangelicals
Latinos                                    Seniors
Professionals                           White working class
Youth
Single white women

What's probably most striking about this demographic shift is that each and every group in the Democratic column is growing while all but one demo on the Republican side is shrinking. The lone exception for the Republicans is seniors, where aging Baby Boomers are swelling their ranks. While whites currently make up 70 percent of the U.S. population, the census bureau projects that minorities will be the majority in America within 40 years. Even the loss of the white working class shouldn't set off alarm bells for Democrats as good-paying blue collar jobs continue to decline and the professional class has grown from seven percent of the U.S. workforce in 1952 to 25 percent of the workforce today.

The final nail in the Republican coffin may be the wholesale rejection by Latinos of the Republican Party's anti-immigration agenda. If Democrats can pass comprehensive immigration reform quickly, Latinos may be locked into this Democratic voting pattern for generations to come.

Some Republicans have argued that their base was turned off by John McCain's relatively liberal record and that in the future the party has to nominate a more right-leaning candidate. Unfortunately for Republicans, this analysis will simply lead to more electoral losses. There is absolutely no indication that the Republican base did not turn out this election. Exactly the opposite is true. Christian evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate in 2004 and grew to 26 percent of the electorate in 2008.

If the Republican base came out to vote, why then were so many fewer Republican votes cast? The answer is simple and quite telling: The Republican Party is shrinking. Professionals who were once the base of the Republican Party have been turned off by the party's socially conservative planks, Latinos have rejected the Republican anti-immigration agenda and young voters are no longer drawn to the failed conservative ideals that Ronald Reagan espoused in the 1980s. In a nutshell, there are fewer and fewer Republican voters to count on.

All of this is not yet written in stone, though. Democrats have to deliver on their campaign promises: ensuring that every American has health insurance, finding ways to reward work not just wealth, and ending the war in Iraq. So, was the 2008 presidential election transformative or not? This Progressive would argue that the groundwork has been laid, but Democrats in D.C. have to deliver the goods if they want to close the deal with voters.

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