Thursday, November 6, 2008

Why 2008 is as Historic as They Say

On Tuesday, Barack Obama won eight more states than Al Gore did in 2000, and nine more than John Kerry in 2004. Yet he could not pick up Montana, North Dakota, Georgia, or Missouri, which newly became toss-up states this year.

But something happened in these states.

In fact, something happened across the entire country. According to a map in today's edition of the New York Times, the vast majority of counties nation wide saw dramatic increases in Democratic performance. Even in Utah, the most Republican state in the nation, not a single county showed more support for the Republican ticket than it did four years ago. Salt Lake City, for example, carried McCain by only 2,000 votes, compared to 80,000 for Bush in 2004.

The same was true in Indiana, which narrowly slid into the Obama column. Even in reliably Republican, rural counties, there was as much as a 20% increase in performance for the Democratic nominee.

A Brilliant Campaign

No one can deny that this was, in part, due to the brilliant and revolutionary campaign put together by David Plouffe and David Axelrod.

Conventional wisdom in campaign politics is, and has long been, "Fifty-Percent Plus One", and Karl Rove had been able to get as close to that number as possible in 2000 and 2004. The old "divide-and-conquer" negativity tactics of Lee Atwater were combined with new micro-targeting techniques to deliver moderate voters to George W. Bush while emboldening his evangelical base.

There is no question about it, Rovian political strategy delivered Bush his wins in 2000 and 2004 - but it was not a sustainable strategy for the Republican Party. Not only have Americans become desensitized to negative ads and micro-targeted contact with Republican operatives, they are tired of being pitted against one another.

So Plouffe and Axelrod followed the lead of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and employed the now-famous 50 State Strategy, opening offices in every state, including the Republican states of Montana, Utah, and Georgia, among others.

Democrats in these states, who had never seen a Democratic campaign before, eagerly volunteered to get out the word about the junior Senator from Illinois. They registered new voters and convinced independents and moderate Republicans to support the candidate of change.

They built upon the successes of other Democratic campaigns in states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Virginia, rather than ignoring these places to try to guarantee a win in more populated states such as Florida and Ohio.

Most importantly - while they failed to win all of these Republican states - they set up the infrastructure and volunteer bases for future Democratic candidates. As the blue shift continues, local Democratic parties and activists will be ready to capitalize on it. While "Fifty-Percent Plus One" might give you a victory for any particular election, it does not create the atmosphere for a party legacy.

A Brilliant Candidate

And then there was Barack Obama. His speeches and his ground game touched millions of voters who had always been cynical towards the electoral process. But he was not only inspirational – he was inclusive.

Part of it was that he had to be. Early on, he needed to win over white Democrats in Iowa to win the caucuses. When he won, he convinced the strong African-American base of the party that a black candidate – or at least this black candidate – was viable in the eyes of the majority.

Yet it did not end there. Throughout the entirety of his candidacy, his message was that of a united nation – inseparable by the divisions of class, religion, and race. There was no populist America or elitist America; no Christian America or non-Christian America; no black America or white America. From the very beginning, in his introduction to the country four years ago at the Democratic National Convention, he made his mantra clear: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America, there's the United States of America."

Even after the decision was made, the votes were tallied, and he was clearly the President-elect of the country, the message continued. "We rise and fall as one people…to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn: I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."

Unlike the claims made by Bush after he won 51% for his second term, it was clear that Obama did not believe his victory was a mandate. He was well aware that nearly half of the country did not trust him, but he made clear he wanted to work with them, and listen to them "especially when [they] disagree".

And with this mantra he has kept throughout the past four years – with only the possible exception of a few words at a fundraiser in San Francisco – he touched the hearts and minds of people in Montana, Indiana, North Carolina, and even Utah.


But a brilliant campaign and a brilliant candidate were not the only factors towards this victory. Regardless of whether or not the Obama campaign had succeeded in the primaries – or even began at all two years ago – the word of this election would still have been "change".

Throughout history, political realignment has been fairly consistent – a 25-35 year phenomenon in which a moment of historical significance brings people to shift their political leanings to one party, and pass the loyalty down to their children. But as time goes by, demographics change and loyalty fades, until a new moment of historical significance that creates new party loyalties.

It happened in 1860 when the new Republican Party rose to support abolition, free land, and tariff policies that were at odds with the South, creating a long period of Southern hate for the GOP.

It happened in 1896 when Democrat William Jennings Bryan evoked populist approval for his tirade against the Gold Standard, putting off the more populated Northeast, and giving way to firm Republican control of the country for the next 32 years.

It happened in 1932 when Roosevelt introduced his New Deal policies to relieve the country in the wake of the Great Depression, granting large Democratic majorities nationally.

It happened between the late 1960s and 1980 when FDR's coalition of Democratic supporters was split by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War – and when Ronald Reagan brought the GOP into the neo-conservative movement.

Finally, the results of neo-conservative ideology and its populist Evangelical twist have created a new realignment.

Realignment Today

Nationally, Americans are more than ready for an end to the Bush Era. But there are other changes happening regionally as well.

Let's begin in the West, where Hispanic populations have boomed in states like Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Between the surge of Latino voters and other new voters going west for new jobs, Obama won big because Republicans were doomed.

From the New York Times:
The broader problem here was Republican infighting — over immigration, small government versus large government, and socially conservative issues," said David F. Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Between the libertarian tradition of the West – currently at a crossroads with the Evangelicals in the GOP – and the strong Republican rhetoric against illegal immigration, Republican candidates failed in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada. Not only did Obama win these states, the Udall cousins won Senate seats in Colorado and New Mexico, and Democrats were elected in House races across the southwest.

In Montana, the folksy Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer easily won his re-election. In Idaho, Democrat Walt Minnick was elected to Congress. Even in Wyoming, the home state of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Democrats nearly picked up a statewide seat.

On the opposite side of the country – the northeast – the GOP was all but eliminated. Christopher Shays (R-CT), the long-time incumbent and last Republican House member from New England lost his re-election to Jim Himes, a politically unknown challenger. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) lost his re-election to former Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

Their ties to Bush rocked the incumbents, but there was something else happening. After years of being labeled elitist, anti-American, not part of "real" America, Northeasterners were not going to tolerate the Republican Party anymore. The "Fifty-Percent Plus One" strategy that pitted the populists and Evangelicals of the country against the Northeast had come back to bite the GOP.

Then there are the Great Lakes states, which early on appeared to be the central front in the war for the White House. As the financial crisis got worse and worse, state after state became out of reach for John McCain.

He completely pulled out of Michigan, the RNC stopped their ad-buys in Wisconsin, and even Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann seemed at risk in Minnesota – not to mention Senator Norm Coleman. Eventually, Ohio was declared "leaning Obama" and the so-often Republican state of Indiana was competitive.

But the one reliable region for the GOP – where Rove had built the base – was no longer safe. This is, of course, the South.

While states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana (thanks to the demographic realignment of Hurricane Katrina) supported McCain in greater numbers than Bush, the Bible Belt was seriously competitive. Obama won in the former Confederate states of Virginia and North Carolina. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) could not garner the 50% needed to avoid a run-off, and Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) was handedly defeated. Even Senator Wicker was at some risk in Mississippi.

But these gains for Democrats are not new, or a coincidence. They are part of a realignment that began in 2006.

The Iraq War, corruption scandals, and budget deficits left the competence of Republicans in question and Democrats were elected to enough seats to take back both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Meanwhile, Democrats picked-up State Legislatures and statewide administrative offices nationally.

Perhaps the best example is Virginia where Governor (now Senator-elect) Mark Warner (D-VA) created jobs for southern Virginians and metropolitan liberals spilled into the DC suburbs. As a result, the Democratic Party grew a base in Virginia to elect Governor Tim Kaine and Senator Jim Webb.

Or in Rhode Island, where moderate Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffe was defeated for no other reason than the party he belonged to.

Or even Colorado, or Ohio, which had similar stories that year.


It is not certain that Obama could have done this without his Plouffe and Axelrod – or whether the three of them could have done it at all four years ago.

But this much does appear to be true: Barack Obama was the right candidate with the right campaign at exactly the right time.

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