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Putting Obama's Win In Perspective

Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Republicans and some pundits are attempting to minimize Obama's win, while many Democrats and other pundits are throwing around "realignment" talk. I think this is an issue that deserves some close attention, less because of what it tells us about the future, but more what it means about any "Obama mandate."

As far as electoral college and popular vote margin victories, Obama's win was fairly modest. The latest estimates have him winning by around 7% of the popular vote and with 365 in the electoral college. That's very much in line with Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996. He also received about 53% of the national vote, which is clearly a majority, but scarcely a landslide. So from a straightforward historical perspective, Obama's win is solid, but nothing to get too excited about.

But (and there are always buts) there are other things to consider. This was an open seat election, which tend to be extremely close. The huge landslides we remember tend to involve incumbents getting re-elected by large margins (1964, 1972, 1984) or getting crushed (1932, 1980). When there isn't an incumbent, partisan attachments tend to be a bit more determinitive and the election is more prospective - voters are trying to decide what a candidate will do, rather than what they have done. The post-war open seat elections have usually been quite competitive, with 1960, 1968, 1976 (I really don't consider Ford an incumbent), and 2000 all squeakers. There have been some lopsided victories - Eisenhower won with 55% in 1952, and Bush I with 53% in 1988. While the electoral college margin was greater for H.W. than for Obama, Obama's win looks a lot like Bush's. It's therefore one of the most substantial for a race without an incumbent. Not a spectacular victory, but certainly a convincing one.

Should Obama's victory be considered more substantial because of his race? Well, perhaps. It's possible he was more competitive in North Carolina than a white democrat would have been because of extremely high black turnout. It's hard to say. But your Bill Clinton-type candidate (a white southern male) probably would have had a good chance at winning Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia - states that McCain actually did better in that George Bush. It's hard to prove counterfactuals, but I expect that an equally charismatic and disciplined white candidate might have been able to add a point or 2 to his margin and picked off a few states, but that's just a hypothetical and I could be completely wrong. You heard very similar discussions about Kennedy in 1960 - did he win with huge Catholic support no other Democrat would have gotten, or were margins among white protestants badly depressed? There's just no way to answer the question.

Now there is one other way to look at election victories, and that is coattails. A president's success is greatly influenced by his or her ability to influence Congress, and a president who is elected with expanded majorities probably has a far greater claim to a mandate than one who doesn't. If the voters are supporting the entire party, then that party has a reason to believe it is supposed to govern. Most presidents since World War II haven't been able to make such a claim, as they have either looked at minor gains (or even losses) for their party, have faced congressional majorities of the opposite party, or both. Truman in 1948, Eisenhower in 1952 and LBJ in 1964 could all claim decisive partisan victories, as each were elected with new or expanded majorities in Congress. Republicans tried to make the same case in 2004, but Bush's margin was so slender and the gains in the House so meager that I'm hesitant to grant that argument. Reagan in 1980 had major gains in both houses and flipped the Senate, but the Democrats retained control of the House, so he doesn't get scored for a big partisan win either. Heresy, I know. All the other elections - 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 - were in some sense draws. (It reminds of that Indigo Girls song about "the endless split decision that never solves anything."). In 2008, on the other hand, the Democrats made substantial gains in the House (20+ seats) and Senate (6+ seats) to pad their majorities, which certainly counts as a major win according to the coattails criterion.

A number of commentators are comparing Obama's 2008 win to Clinton's 1992 win, and claiming that Obama should not over-reach that way Clinton did, resulting in the 1994 debacle, i.e. that he doesn't have a partisan mandate (although I'm not sure that 1994 was due to over-reach at all). Superficially the elections look similar, with around 6-7% popular vote margins, House majorities in the 250's, around 56 or 57 seats in the Senate. The analysis above should demonstrate how silly this is. Clinton won a clear anti-incument election, while Obama won the usually much more competitive open seat. Clinton didn't receive a majority of the popular vote, which Obama did. The Democrats actually lost seats in the Congress in 1992, while they made gains in 2008. All of this makes Obama's victory much more impressive than Clinton's.

So let's give a quick run-down:

1948: Trumans win a comfortable popular vote victory but not a majority. Major gains and a new majority in Congress.
1952: Major popular vote majority for Eisenhower, narrow congressional gains flip both houses of Congress.
1956: Eisenhower re-elected in landslide, no gains in Congress
1960: Kennedy wins a narrow plurality, loses seats in Congress
1964: LBJ re-elected with large majority, large gains in Congress
1968: Nixon narrowly elected with plurality, minor gains but an opposition Congress
1972: Nixon landslide, minor gains in House & losses in Senate, opposition Congress
1976: Carter wins narrowly, no change in Congress (but large Democratic majorities)
1980: Reagan wins a majority in multicandidate race, big gains but Democrats hold the House
1984: Reagan re-elected in a landslide, loses seats in Senate and some gains in the Democratic-controlled House.
1988: Bush wins comfortable majority, but loses seats in the House and Senate, opposition Congress
1992: Clinton wins a modest plurality, loses seats in the Congress, large Democratic majorities in Congress
1996: Clinton re-elected with comfortable plurality, loses seats in Senate and gains some in the House, opposition Congress
2000: Bush loses the popular vote, loses seats in the Congress, but Republicans narrowly control Congress
2004: Bush re-elected by small majority, small gains in the House and somewhat greater in the Senate, modest Republican majorities in Congress
2008: Obama wins a comfortable popular vote majority, substantial gains in the House and Senate, substantial Democratic majorities in Congress.

The data seems clear. The victory by Obama and the Democrats is the most substantial by either party in 44 years, the ranks second among all victories since World War II, second to LBJ's 1964 triumph. It demonstrates a clear desire by the public to give Obama and the Democrats a chance to implement a new agenda. In no other election do we see significantly expanded congressional majorities in both houses and decisive margins in the popular vote in a two-candidate race. While this may not necessarily mean that we have become a "center-left" country, it certainly means that Obama and his political allies have every reason to believe that this is their moment to change the country.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:10 AM
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