Obama and Liberals' Fears

It's quickly becoming a cliché to call the 2008 election "historic," and we haven't even seen the passel of books about the race that will no doubt be hitting shelves six months or so from now. But before we become consumed with the blizzard of activity that will accompany President Obama's first 100 days, it's worth taking a look back at, not just what happened in 2008 but what didn't happen (and I should note that the week after the election, Prospect editor Mark Schmitt graded some of the pre-election theories; some of what he discussed is mentioned here). In fact, there may be no election in memory in which so many predictions turned out to be so wrong.

That's in part because there are so many more predictions swirling around the tornado of commentary that accompanies the modern campaign. But never have so many supposedly informed and knowledgeable people gotten so much wrong in a single election. Most of the misconceptions, it turns out, can be traced back to the fact that the pre-election conventional wisdom embodied so many conservative hopes and liberal fears.

We must start, of course, with race. There is no doubt that Barack Obama's race played a part in voting patterns. In Mississippi, for instance, 88 percent of whites voted for McCain, as did 88 percent of white Alabamans and 84 percent of white Louisianans. Just as surely, there were voters of all races who voted for Obama at least in part because of his race. But the simple declaration made by so many -- America just wasn't ready to elect a black man -- proved to be untrue. We won't ever know whether Obama's victory would have occurred in another year or with another candidate. But the fact is that it did occur -- a majority of the American electorate voted for an African American. And it only took 145 years from when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Another folk theory that fell hard was that of the relationship of the Democratic Party to the former Confederate states. Some pundits had argued that a Democratic presidential candidate couldn't win in the South unless he was a native son (and perhaps not even then), while others argued that a Democrat couldn't win without the South. Obama proved them both wrong. He won not only Florida (of which only parts could be considered "the South") but Virginia and North Carolina as well.

But more important, he also put together a non-Southern majority. Bill Clinton's two victories, which included wins in a number of Southern states, convinced many that Democrats needed to win there if they were to take the White House. But as frequent Prospect contributor Thomas Schaller points out in his prophetic 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, Clinton only won parts of the South because he was waltzing to huge electoral victories. "Unlike Carter and Johnson," Schaller writes, "Clinton was a southern Democrat who won the presidency on the strength of non-southern votes." Obama's pattern was much the same: Take away his victories in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, and he still would have won with a comfortable 310 electoral votes. One reason for this is that Obama won the Southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico (Schaller had urged Democrats to look to the Southwest as a region where they could mine electoral votes).

And speaking of groups of voters with declining influence, a Democratic candidate supposedly needed to overcome his party's problems with white male voters, or face electoral defeat. It's true that John McCain did slightly worse with white men than George Bush had: McCain won white men by 16 points, while Bush beat Kerry among this group by 25 points and Gore by 24 points. But it was Obama's huge support among nonwhite voters -- 95 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Latinos, and 62 percent of Asian Americans -- that point the way toward a future American electorate in which it will be Republicans who will struggle to assemble a winning coalition. Democrats will probably continue to lose the white male vote for some time. But it won't keep them from winning. In fact, it's the Republicans, with their white male Christian Southern base, who are becoming increasingly isolated by demographics in a country growing more diverse by the day.

Then there's the question of class. Not only was Obama, as the "wine track" candidate, supposed to lose the primary to the "beer track" candidate (as previous wine-trackers Bradley, Tsongas, and Hart had), many predicted that in the general election he would be unable to win the affection of working-class voters, what with his hoity-toity Harvard education and his elitist knowledge of arugula. The man can't even bowl, for Pete's sake! This was supposed to spell trouble for Obama in states with large numbers of regular Joes, like Pennsylvania and Ohio. And the McCain campaign certainly worked overtime to convince voters that Obama wasn't one of them.

It turned out, though, that Obama did quite well with the beer track. Although class can be defined in a number of ways, the most convenient surrogate is education. Voters without college degrees, despite their apparent economic interest in electing Democrats, had voted for Bush over Kerry by six points. In 2008, Obama won them by seven points.

Despite all the structural difficulties facing Republicans this year, the near consensus was that John McCain offered the GOP its best chance of victory, because he had such broad appeal among moderates and independent voters. So how did that work out? Not so well. Obama won independents by eight points and moderates by a whopping 21 points.

And remember all the hand-wringing about whether those who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, particularly women, would stay home or even cast ballots for McCain? Didn't happen. While Al Gore won the votes of 86 percent of Democrats in 2000, Obama garnered just what John Kerry had four years before: 89 percent. And while Gore won women's votes by 11 points and Kerry by only 3 points, Obama beat Bush among women by 13 points.

In short, Obama won in nearly every way he wasn't supposed to. There were other surprises in the election, as well -- remember how, because the nominees were Obama (champion of post-partisanship) and McCain (principled maverick), we were supposed to get a campaign free of negativism, a high-minded national deliberation on the country's future where attack ads and name-calling were nowhere to be seen? But mostly, the outcome contradicted so many predictions because those predictions were based on fundamentally conservative premises about how contemporary American politics works. And it was hardly just conservatives in thrall to those ideas.

Over the last four weeks, I have had dozens of conversations with progressive friends, relatives, and colleagues, who invariably say that they are still coming to terms with the fact that a Democratic candidate won the presidency. The last two presidential elections and the triumphalism of the right had them believing they would never win again. The ones who live in places like New York and San Francisco had convinced themselves that, although everyone they know thinks like them, their quaint enclaves of progressivism were tiny next to the mountain of conservative belief that supposedly covered America's great open spaces.

But they were wrong. Of course people who live in cities lean more left than those who live in rural areas. But the divide is not as stark as many believed it to be. A Democratic presidential candidate won a congressional district in Nebraska, and he even won the county that contains Salt Lake City. In Utah. The old red-blue map has been replaced.

Albert Einstein supposedly said that politics is harder than physics, where at least you can figure out whether your calculations are correct. But the complexity and unpredictability of politics is what makes it endlessly fascinating. Time to start making your predictions for 2012.

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