REPUBLICANS are consoling themselves today by noting that we still live in a "center-right country." Sure - but that's the good news. The bad news is: The GOP has lost the center.
Exit polls show Barack Obama winning moderates by a whopping 21 points on Tuesday, 60 percent to 39 percent, more than doubling John Kerry's 9-point margin over George W. Bush among moderates in 2004.
The electorate's ideological makeup was remarkably unchanged from 2004. Conservatives were 34 percent of voters; moderates, 44 percent, and liberals just 22 percent.
McCain underperformed Bush by six points among conservatives - but it was getting trounced in the country's great middle that doomed him.
Obama replicated nationally the strategy that had served Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) well in winning statewide races in their red states: Maximize the traditional Democratic vote while eating into the GOP vote just enough to yield a margin of victory.
Obama's vaunted turnout operation among the youth and African-Americans doesn't look so dramatic in the exit-poll data. African-Americans moved from 11 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008. In 2004, 17 percent of voters were under age 30; this year, 18 percent.
But Obama improved on Kerry's margin among both groups. He won 95 percent of African-Americans compared to 88 percent for Kerry. He won 66 percent of young voters compared to 54 percent for Kerry. And he ran 13 points better among Latinos than Kerry. This is Obama's base.
He augmented it by doing slightly better than Kerry among groups Democrats have had trouble reaching: up 4 points among white men, 2 points among white women and 3 points among white evangelicals.
How did Obama win the middle? Mostly, by dominating the central issue of the day. Sixty-three percent of voters said the economy was the No. 1 issue, and he won them 53-44, almost mirroring his popular-vote margin. The GOP's two strongest issues in 2004 (terrorism and moral issues) diminished to the point of disappearing.
Obama won the middle class, broadly defined: He beat McCain 55 percent to 43 percent among voters making $30,000 to $50,000 a year. He lost by one point in the $50,000-to-$75,000 bracket, and won the $75,000-to-$100,000 group by three points. Kerry, in contrast, won the $30,000-to-$50,000 bracket by a point and got wiped out in the others.
Obama neutralized the historic Democratic vulnerability on taxes. Seventy-one percent said taxes would go up if Obama won, but 61 percent said they'd go up if McCain won. And he connected on economic anxieties, a challenge for him all year long. More voters thought he was "in touch with people like you" by an 18-point margin.
All this gave Obama a victory that reached into every region in the country. He took away three of the faster-growing former red states, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina. He left Republicans with a coalition that is looking older, whiter, more rural - and increasingly rickety.
Of course, Obama had a wind at his back, if not necessarily the "righteous wind" he always talks about. In retrospect, if any candidate gearing up for a presidential run two years ago had to pick one word to characterize his campaign, he would have said, "change."
As Bismarck said, "Political genius consists of hearing the distant hoof-beat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails." Obama got a firm grasp on the coattails.
As for Republicans, it's small comfort to live in a center-right country unless they can reach the center.