Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why Obama Won - By Arnold Shober

John McCain.

Pundits and the party faithful might swoon over Barack Obama's delphic message of hope and change. Or the solid support he received from the under-30 crowd. But that message had little resonance with most voters who didn't already have a horse in the race. Instead, Barack Obama's campaign was able to sit by while John McCain's strengths — recently one of America's most popular politicians — became liabilities.

There is no doubt that Barack Obama did better than John Kerry in 2004 in many demographic groups in the population. He improved his standing with most demographic groups compared to John Kerry, but especially so with those under 30. He did much better among African Americans (88% of African-Americans voted for Kerry, versus 95% for Obama). African Americans in Indiana and North Carolina tipped those states for Obama and helped significantly in Ohio and Virginia. But Obama still lost whites by definitive margins and was effectively tied with McCain in other age groups. And he didn't produce any new patterns among religious voters (whatever their affiliation) despite all of his efforts to reach out to non-African American Christians.

These patterns, if not the numbers, are consistent Democratic patterns.

Except that he won. And he had the best Democratic victory since 1964 (though nowhere near Johnson's margins).

What happened?

John McCain, his opponent, was John McCain. And John McCain lost crucial Republican voters.

McCain has a clear political philosophy that structures how he thinks about politics. McCain says what he thinks, even when he shouldn't. He knows what he doesn't know. And he says what he doesn't know, even when he shouldn't. McCain has significant legislative experience and, right through election day, trumped Obama on the question "Does [candidate] have enough experience to be president?"

McCain's candidacy opened three avenues for victory for Obama. Though any election is a combination of many factors — the precipitous drop of the stock market in September did McCain no favors — McCain's legislative pragmatism; his consistent opposition to government subsidies; and his weak support among white, evangelical Protestants proved fatal to McCain's chances for winning.

Having a political philosophy doesn't mean ideologue. The McCain campaign had no trouble producing a web ad featuring Howard Dean, Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Joe Biden — and Barack Obama — praising him in variously glowing terms. One cannot quite picture the '04 Bush team doing the same thing. There was chatter in '04 about Kerry picking McCain for a running mate. "I'm a pro-life, free-trading, defense and deficit hawk," he responded, in typical fashion. "I'm a Republican for chrissakes."

The legislative experience that led to his pragmatism made conservative Republicans uncomfortable. Chief among his sins was McCain-Feingold. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the National Review, and Commentary all provided a forum for conservatives who lambasted McCain's involvement with undermining free speech, in their view. Viscerally anti-liberal Ann Coulter denounced McCain for this and similar transgressions.

McCain should have been more worried about Republicans coming to the polls than the favorable commentary of ousted South Dakota Senator Daschle.

Second, McCain has repeatedly attacked government subsidies for various programs, services, and commodities. None was more damning, perhaps, than his opposition to so-called bio-fuels — many of which are produced in the Midwest. Over the last decade, midwestern politicians of both parties have been loath to criticize these subsidies, especially ethanol, because of the generally positive reaction voters have had to the idea of ethanol. When McCain repeated his opposition to ethanol in his closing remarks to the third presidential debate, he only further repelled rural, likely Republican voters.

John McCain received 2.6 million fewer votes in the Midwest than George W. Bush did in 2004.

Third, McCain could not overcome the distrust of a significant block of white, evangelical Protestants. In 2000 and 2004, George Bush actively courted the white evangelical and Hispanic Pentacostal vote. Bush had no trouble talking about his own spiritual regeneration on the campaign trail. In 2000, he sought to project a "compassionate conservatism" based on that faith. He sought, and received, the active support of several white, evangelical Christian leaders.

Even though McCain is one of the most consistently pro-life U.S. Senators, a sine qua non for many evangelical Christians, he has not been warm toward them as a political bloc. Though he attends a Baptist church that is most certainly evangelical, he keeps his faith away from public view. And, in his 2000 campaign, he publicly disparaged some prominent Christian leaders.

In 2008, McCain knew he was viewed coolly by evangelicals but, given his temperament, was unable to change himself for their benefit. McCain's lively performance at the August 16 Saddleback Civic Forum on the Presidency convinced some doubters to support him (notably James Dobson) — but that was months after McCain had become the Republican nominee. Such lukewarm support could not have endeared him to this important Republican constituency. There were 4.1 million fewer voters who attended church at least once a week in 2008 — by most lights, these likely would have been Republican voters. And many of them live in Ohio (where Obama received fewer votes than John Kerry), Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina.

McCain could not overcome this deficit.

John McCain was perhaps the best chance Republicans had to keep the White House in 2008. Obama's election returns were not impregnable and showed no new patterns in the electorate. Indeed, they showed that the voters who did not show up — the '04 Republicans who did not vote at all — took Obama from a 50-50 candidate to a 53-46 candidate. McCain could have won, too, perhaps with a more consistent campaign style, an even-keel economy, or a more positive message. Like the only heartfelt political rhetoric in 2008: McCain's concession speech.

Do you agree or disagree with Arnold? Be sure to leave a comment!

Arnold Shober is an assistant professor of Campaigns and Elections at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. He studies electoral politics, education policy, and American federalism. His forthcoming book, Building Government (SUNY Press), argues that competent and independent state-level bureaucracies make it difficult for government officials to avoid responsibility, thus enhancing the democratic process.

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