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.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dean Group Appeals to Democrats to Continue Dean Strategies

Recently the political action organization Democracy for America (DFA) sent two emails to supporters asking them to petition the next DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and ask the current Virginia Governor to reinstate the famous 50-State-Strategy.

The brainchild of outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, the 50-State-Strategy has been hailed by supporters and even former critics for establishing volunteer networks, donor bases, and other party infrastructure that was crucial to the 2008 Democratic victories across the country.

As we have written before, Dean has said he will appeal to his successor to continue many of the strategies he has implemented for the Democratic Party. Little did we realize he would use DFA - which he founded in 2004 - to advance his agenda through a public campaign.

Dean's brother Jim - who currently serves as Chairman of DFA - sent this message to the email list Wednesday night:

"The 50 State Strategy will go down as one of the most successful long-term programs the Democratic National Committee has ever implemented. Not just for Barack but for candidates up and down the ballot all across the country. But while there has been a lot of talk about keeping it alive, all of the original DNC 50 State Strategy organizers have been let go.

"With special elections, local mayor and city council races all coming up soon, this is one decision that can't wait any longer. Call on Tim Kaine to immediately renew the 50 State Strategy and we'll make sure he gets the message."

After Kaine accepted Barack Obama's nomination for DNC Chair the next morning, DFA sent the following message last night to follow up:

"It's official. Earlier today, Barack Obama personally announced Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as the next chair of the Democratic National Committee…

"…The 50 State Strategy got lip service. They both had many nice words to say about Gov. Dean's DNC leadership and vision. They also credited Howard with creating a 50 State Strategy that delivered historic Democratic gains during his term. But praise is not action. And when Gov. Kaine laid out his top three goals for a new DNC, the 50 State Strategy was not included."

Again they called for supporters to petition Gov. Kaine.

As we have said before, the 50-State-Strategy has been a major factor in Democratic success stories in recent years, and Dean does deserve credit for insisting it be executed.

More relevant to what we see today - however - is how Dean will continue to be a major force within the Democratic Party, and will use whatever means available to him to continue his vision for a successful party.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why Obama Won - By Jason Rae

When people look back at the 2008 presidential election, everyone can claim that this policy or that program or this group made the difference and helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency. In the end, it is probably likely that many, many factors went in to play, from issues like the economy to events like the debates and even to specific campaign tactics. There is one group of the electorate though that was pivotal in helping Obama secure the necessary electoral votes: young voters.

The media has often failed to properly portray the youngest generation of voters. Instead of identifying them as a civic minded and service oriented generation, the media and some political elite have labeled young voters as apathetic and uninvolved. The media, party elite, and others who underestimate the role of the youth vote need only look at the 2008 election results to see how important young voters are in any given election.

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tuft's University, estimated that in the 2008 election 23 million young voters (defined as under 30 years of age) cast ballots for president. This is an increase of about four percentage points based on the 2004 exit polls, and the highest youth turnout since 1972 – another election held right in the midst of an international conflict.

One of the greatest strengths of the Obama campaign strategy was a concerted effort to register new voters. In states like Wisconsin, that is not as important because we allow same-day registration at the polls. However, in places like Virginia and Ohio, two states that were crucial to Obama's victory, the Obama campaign made a targeted effort to register new voters. Obviously, new voters are not synonymous with young voters. However, the efforts made on college campuses and large urban areas to register young voters before registration deadlines certainly helped to contribute to the over 23 million young voters casting ballots.

Beyond the number of voters, there is a number that is even more striking: 34 points. That is the margin between Obama and Senator McCain. President-Elect Obama received the support of 66% of young voters, while Senator McCain only had the support of 32% of young voters. This difference is one of the largest since the reporting of exit polls in 1976. The 34 points is crucial to understanding why Obama won in November. Had the margin been smaller, like previous elections, many of the states that were decided by only the narrowest of margins would have gone the other way. Take for example places like Indiana or North Carolina. Drop the support of young voters from 66% to say, perhaps, only 60% and you would likely see an entirely different person taking the oath of office on January 20.

An important question to be asked then is "why did President-Elect Obama finish the election with such a historic margin of support from young people?" Young voters today are the most progressive and most diverse group in the electorate. Despite government failures of leadership in trying times like September 11 or Katrina, young people see government as a vehicle for social change. This is different from the Generation X which saw business as the main force for solving problems.

Obviously, it was not young voters alone who got Obama elected, but young voters were instrumental in the effort. The campaign deserves credit for their work in developing peer-to-peer organizing efforts and providing for youth directors on the ground in most battleground states. The campaign knew full well that it could not neglect the youngest generation of voters and knew that we Millennials do matter. The Obama campaign, rightfully so, invested millions of dollars in targeting and turning out the youth vote.

However, this is not the end. Sadly, the record turnout did not necessarily translate into as many down ticket wins as Democrats may have hoped. This shows the party on a national and a local level must continue the efforts and funding of specific efforts to engage young voters. When young voters are engaged and involved, with campaigns specifically reaching out and involving them, we can see record turnouts. It shows that young voters are not a group that can be taken for granted. For when young voters vote, they help make decisions in elections.

Young voters have played and will continue to play an important role in elections in this country.

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

Jason Rae is a member of the Democratic National Committee and the current Chair of the College Democrats of Wisconsin. As one of the country's youngest Superdelegates and a leader within Wisconsin's Democratic political scene, he has worked to increase turnout among young voters and advocated for a greater youth participatory role within the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New Power Plays of Harry Reid

As he enters his second term as Senate Majority Leader - this time with more fellow Democrats in the chamber and another in the White House - Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has taken it upon himself to demonstrate his power this week over two seats: one from Illinois and the other from Minnesota.

Although Roland Burris went to Washington to fulfill his appointment from Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-IL), Reid and the Senate Democrats refused to confirm him yesterday officially because he did not have the Illinois Secretary of State signature due to allegations that Blagojevich was planning to sell the President-Elect's former seat.

"Mr. Burris is not in possession of the necessary credentials from the state of Illinois," Reid told the press.

And while legal issues still linger over the hotly contested Senate seat in Minnesota, Reid decided to accept the state's initial ruling that former comedian Al Franken would be the next Senator from the Land of a Thousand Lakes.

In a very striking comment, Reid told reporters that Coleman would "never ever" return to the Senate.

But the icing on the cake of his new-found confidence was that he declared he would serve as Majority Leader until at least 2015.

Yet his confidence does not seem to make him more effective at holding the Democrats together. Not only has Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) disagreed with the decision to block Burris, but now Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) has strayed from the party line saying "despite the controversy, we can't go down the road of having essentially a few subjective considerations to decide who gets seated. That would be an affront to states and their laws."

Furthermore, rumors of backdoor deals to seat Burris have come to light, and many media outlets are now reporting that Burris will in fact take the role of Senator.

While it is important for the dominant party to have a strong leader, Reid is skating on a thin ice of power before falling into the chilly waters of arrogance. Not only will this make his fellow Democrats weary of his position, but it will demonstrate crude partisanship to independents and moderates, and infuriate the GOP.

In fact, the notion that Republicans may try to make Reid a vulnerable incumbent in his 2010 re-election race was a topic of yesterday's press conference.

"You know, to be honest with you, I hope I am," he said. "That way, [the Republicans are] going to spend lots of resources on me and leave states we're looking at. They won't have as many resources — and we have a lot of targets."

We would advise the Majority Leader to "be careful what you wish for."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why Obama Won - By Kelly Fero

The oldest campaign slogan in the book is, "It's time for a change." In 2008, it really was.

The president-to-be earned his victory by running a campaign of nearly flawless mechanics. He assembled a crack staff, honed a message that was both relevant and emotional, stuck to that message with admirable discipline, and worked hard to guarantee that his tone almost always matched the mood of the country. His ground game had genuine spark. He outraised and outspent the opposition. He adhered to his strategy of a state-by-state march toward 270 electoral votes with a great mix of confidence and flexibility, especially after Hillary Clinton revived her primary campaign with narrow wins in Texas and Ohio on March 4. He harnessed technology and targeting to tap into new voters where they live, not where media consultants say they live in order to rake in bigger commissions.

The next president won by capitalizing on an international yearning for an end to Washington's failed foreign policy. On the night of the election, President Christina Kirschner was speaking to an outdoor rally in Argentina and paused to announce that Obama had been elected; the crowd gave him a 20-minute standing ovation. While Obama was being hailed on his European tour last summer, a poll in Australia — a largely white nation and proud member of George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" — showed that Aussies favored Obama over John McCain by a 76-10 margin. In nation after nation, the hope for a man of the world in the Oval Office was palpable, and U.S. voters showed that sometimes what others think matters.

The President-elect won because in September, just as attention focused most fully on the race, the global financial system went into free-fall. Initially viewed as a little halting in his response, Obama benefited by comparison with the bizarre behavior of his opponent, who first declared the fundamentals of the collapsing economy "sound," then suspended his campaign to rush back to Washington but instead rushed into the arms of Katie Couric for a CBS News interview. Erratic, indeed.

In the end, every presidential election is about accomplishing two goals: taking away the voters' permission to vote for your opponent and granting them permission to vote for you as an acceptable alternative. After 22 months of coolheaded and evenhanded campaigning, Obama was the one left standing when the economic crisis hit during the third week of September. For all the rhetoric about "turning the page" and "leaving the old politics behind," he won by embodying the oldest campaign slogan in the book: "It's time for a change."

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

An award-winning journalist and author who covered politics and civil wars from Central America to California, Kelly Fero has three decades of experience in developing political and public policy strategy at the state, national, and international levels. He is a recognized expert on how to create messages that communicate complex programs to the broadest possible audiences.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why Obama Won: A New Series

From now until the Presidential Inauguration on January 20th we'll be taking a look into why Barack Obama was elected – hearing different perspectives from a panel of sources.

Perhaps it was the strength of his campaign's strategy. Perhaps it was mistakes made by the McCain campaign. Perhaps it was demographical shifts. Perhaps it was really just time for a change.

Our "Why Obama Won" panel will consist of respected Democratic consultants and strategists, academic minds in the political science field, and other progressive political professionals. Ever other day (or so) will feature a post with a different analysis from a different source.

A great many factors went into the President-Elect's decisive victory in November. But there are many perspectives as to the key reason or reasons why the United States has chosen this Commander in Chief. We hope you enjoy the different accounts to why Obama won.

Have your own ideas to why Obama won? Give us the full scoop on your own Key Reason at