Small changes can have dramatic consequences. The electorate
shifted about 4 points toward the Democrats in between the 2004 and 2008
elections--from 48.3 percent of the popular vote four years ago to 52.5 percent
today. But those 4 points gave Obama the largest share of the vote since 1988,
the best showing by a Democrat since 1964, the first black president, the first
non-southern Democratic president since John F. Kennedy, and likely larger
Democratic majorities in Congress than when President Clinton took office in
1993. In a closely divided America, a swing of four votes in a hundred can mean
a decisive victory.
Obama's achievement can be explained with a few numbers. The
first is 27 percent--President Bush's approval rating in the national exit poll.
Pretty dismal. The poll found that voters were split on whether John McCain
would continue Bush's policies. But those who thought McCain would be another
Bush broke overwhelmingly for Obama, 91 percent to 8. That's a huge, damning
The second number is 93 percent. That's the percentage of
voters who gave the economy a negative rating in the exit poll. They supported
Obama. And they were right to give the economy a negative rating. The financial
crisis is spilling over into the real economy of goods and services.
Unemployment is rising and consumption is falling. The week before the
election, the Commerce Department announced that consumer spending had dropped
3.1 percent. Consumer spending hadn't fallen since 1991, and this year's
decline was the largest since 1980.
day before the election, the auto companies announced that they had had their
worst month in a quarter-century. When economic conditions are as bad as this,
of course the party out of power is favored to win an election.
Considering those numbers, the 2008 electoral map isn't all
that surprising. Bush, the economy, and Obama's personal and political appeal
have pushed the nation toward the blue end of the political spectrum. But, for
the most part, the shift is gradual and on the margins. Obama will be president
because he took states that Bush won in tight races four years ago. Bush won
Ohio by 2 points in 2004. This year Obama won it by 4. Bush won Florida by 5
points in 2004. This year Obama won it by 2.5 points.
Obama's victories in the West were impressive. Bush won
Colorado by 5 points in 2004. Obama won it by 7. Bush won New Mexico by 1 point
in 2004. Obama won it by a substantial margin--about 15 points. Bush won Nevada
by 2 points in 2004. Obama won it by about 13 points.
Virginia has been trending blue since 2001, when Mark Warner
was elected governor. In 2004, John Kerry won the Washington suburbs of
Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, but still lost the state to Bush, 45 to 54
percent. The next year, another Democrat, Tim Kaine, succeeded Warner. And the
year after that, voters replaced incumbent Republican senator George Allen with
Democrat Jim Webb in a contest decided by just a few thousand votes. In 2008
Virginia went totally blue. It handed the Democrats as many as three more House
seats, replaced retiring Republican senator John Warner with Mark Warner (no
relation) by a vote of two-to-one, and swung for Obama by a margin of 5.5
points. Virginia's electoral votes went for a Democrat for the first time since
two major surprises on our new map are North Carolina and Indiana. Bush won
North Carolina by 12 points in 2004. This year Obama erased that margin and won
by a couple tenths of a point. It's the first time since 1976 that North
Carolina has voted for a Democratic president. In Indiana the swing toward
Obama was even more pronounced. Bush won there by a huge margin of 22 points in
2004. Obama made up all of that ground, eking out a victory of about a point.
No Democrat had won Indiana since 1964.
If I were Obama strategist David Axelrod, I'd--well, I'd
probably be exhausted right now. But I'd also make sure that President-elect
Obama spends the next four years visiting North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia,
Ohio, and Florida. He needs to deepen his support in all five states. And I'd
also make sure Obama visits Missouri, where at this writing it appears he barely
lost; Montana, where he lost by 2.5 points; and Georgia, where he lost by 5.5
points. If Obama holds all the states he won this year and adds those three to
his column in 2012, he'll be reelected in a landslide. That's a big
"if," of course. The key is a successful first term.
Where does this leave the Republicans? In deep trouble. The
GOP is increasingly confined to Appalachia, the South, and the Great Plains.
When the next Congress convenes in 2009, there won't be a single House
Republican from New England. The GOP is doing only a little better in the
mid-Atlantic. There will be only three Republican congressmen in New York's
29-member delegation in the next Congress. Only a third of Pennsylvania's
delegation will be Republican--about the same proportion as in New Jersey.
There will be a single Republican in Maryland's eight-man delegation. The Rust
Belt is hostile territory, too. So are the Mountain West and the Pacific Coast.
The GOP is like the central character in Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling
Stone." It's on its own, no direction home.
The Republicans are in demographic trouble. When you look at
the ethnic composition of Obama's coalition, you see that it's kind of a
mini-America. About two-thirds of Obama's supporters are white and a third
minorities. The Republican coalition, by contrast, is white, male, and old.
There's the first problem. Overall, Obama may have lost the white vote (while
still doing better than Kerry did), but in 2008 whites (not counting Hispanics,
per Census convention) made up the smallest proportion of the electorate since
the start of exit polling. Obama scored tremendous victories among minorities.
He won more than 90 percent of the black vote. He won the Hispanic vote by a
two-to-one margin. He won the Asian vote by a similar margin.
Then there are the young. Voters under 30 turned out in only
slightly higher numbers than they did in 2004, but they overwhelmingly backed
Obama, 68 percent to 30. A successful Obama presidency could lock these voters
into the Democratic column for a long, long time.
The most striking divide in 2008 is between rural voters and
metropolitan voters. Rural voters back the Republican party overwhelmingly. The
problem is that there aren't many of them--and there are fewer all the time.
It's the metropolitan voters, the voters who live in cities or suburbs or
exurbs, who are growing. And these voters are trending Democratic. Obama won
the Philadelphia suburbs, the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the Chicago suburbs in
Illinois and Indiana, the Denver suburbs, the suburban counties that make up
the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and many more. He won the Orlando
suburbs by 20 points. Disney World is Obama country.
Suburbs and exurbs are the most dynamic, fastest-growing
places in the country. They are future-oriented. Republicans win when they
build out from their rural base and gain support in the exurbs and suburbs.
That's how Bush won in 2004. But in Bush's second term, things went awry. The
suburban voters abandoned the GOP for the Democrats. The exurbs became volatile
battlegrounds. And the GOP was left a minority party.
I think of places like Loudoun County, a northern Virginia
exurb. Bush won Loudoun County by 12 points in 2004. In 2008, Obama won Loudoun
by 6 points. For the GOP to have a future, it has to reverse that 18-point
swing. Otherwise, Republicans better start praying for rain.