Caution: Obama won, but he didn't redraw the map

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama didn't get all the way there Tuesday — not yet anyway.

He won the presidency, to be sure, in a solid victory that also saw his Democratic Party add to its majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

However, he fell short of the kind of realignment that would've immediately altered the political landscape and forged an enduring majority that could dominate the national agenda for years. Instead, like Richard Nixon in 1968 or Ronald Reagan in 1980, Obama laid the groundwork for such a potential shift, but probably will need a strong re-election to consolidate and build a new order.

"We don't know yet if this is an anybody-but-a-Republican election or a major shift in the inclinations of voters toward the Democrats," said Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "I don't think we'll know until he runs for re-election."

Obama's win in the popular vote was impressive, taking an estimated 52 percent to Republican John McCain's 46 percent. That's the biggest margin for any president since George H.W. Bush won 53.4 percent in 1988, and the biggest for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's 61.1 percent in 1964.

His victory in the Electoral College was even more commanding. He led by 349 to 163, with Missouri and North Carolina still to be decided.

Obama won by squeezing out bigger margins and turnout among key groups such as young people, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Voters aged 18-29, for example, turned out in greater numbers than ever before, outnumbering voters 65 and older for the first time in history. They broke 66 percent for Obama, a much greater edge than the 54-45 margin they gave Democrat John Kerry four years ago, according to exit polls.

African-Americans surged to the polls for the African-American candidate, their share of the vote rising to 13 percent from 11 percent four years ago, and their support for the Democrat rising to 95 percent for Obama from 88 percent for Kerry.

Hispanics held steady at 8 percent of total turnout. They broke heavily for Obama, however, giving him 66 percent of their vote, versus 53 percent for Kerry.

More significantly, perhaps, Obama and the Democrats established beachheads in once solidly Republican regions, taking Virginia in the South, Indiana in the Midwest and Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in the West, not to mention hard-to-get swing states, including Florida and Ohio.

"There are some signs of a fundamental realignment," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. "The inroads Democrats are making in the West suggests something is going on. And the Republicans now have to defend the South."

Yet Obama lost the white vote by 12 points, and whites still make up 74 percent of voters.

In addition, his gains in Congress — picking up five seats in the Senate and 17 in the House as of Wednesday — were smaller than expected.

Moreover, in a horrible environment for Republicans — with President Bush's popularity among the worst on record, two unpopular wars and a financial meltdown all turning people sharply against the GOP — McCain still managed to win 46 percent of the popular vote.

The test for Obama, then, will be whether he can increase his support among his base while making inroads into those who are still suspicious of him if not hostile, such as white men.

In 1968, Nixon won a close three-way election, taking 43.4 percent of the popular vote and 301 Electoral College votes, effectively starting the breakup of the Democratic coalition that had dominated politics since Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932.

Four years later, Nixon started a new era of Republican dominance with a landslide re-election that took 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 520 Electoral College votes. The Watergate scandals, which ended his presidency, interrupted the emerging Republican majority in the 1974 and 1976 elections, in which Democrats made large gains.

Then came Ronald Reagan. He won in 1980 with 50.7 percent of the popular vote, a smaller share than Obama won Tuesday, and 489 Electoral College votes, a larger share than Obama won. Four years later, he took a landslide 58.8 percent of the popular vote and 525 Electoral College votes, and forged an era of center-right political dominance that lasted until Tuesday.

This week's election returns include some signs of a demographic shift that could help Obama make similar gains.

While it's doubtful that he could get much more of the African-American vote, the Democrats' share of the Hispanic vote could grow. Also, if Obama can keep young people tuned into politics — always a challenge — he could gain as they replace older voters.

However, he'll also have to reach out to other voters, such as independents, and do it as the incumbent president, not as the beneficiary of a widespread rejection of the unpopular incumbent from the other party.

"This was a verdict against the GOP brand and Bush, not necessarily a verdict FOR Democrats," Schier said. "The Democrats have to govern and earn loyalty and votes. A realignment would mean throwing out the old and enthusiastically embracing the new. We're halfway there."

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