Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is 2008 a Realigning Election? Numbers Offer Some Clues

By Stuart Rothenberg

The big question that everyone is asking is whether this month’s general election marked the beginning of a political realignment that will create a new dominant party. Have Americans shifted their loyalties and fundamental assumptions about the parties and about the government, or did we just witness a short-term reaction to years of bad news?

Let’s be clear: The election results in 2006 and 2008 constitute the kind of one-two punch that is rare in modern American political history. It would be silly to portray this year’s election as a minor hiccup. The nation elected a liberal African-American Democrat from the North as president, and it gave him a majority of all votes cast.

Moreover, in the past two elections, Democrats gained at least a dozen Senate seats and at least 50 House seats, taking total control of Congress. At the state level, they now have 4,090 state legislators to the GOP’s 3,221.

Polls show that the Republican advantages on foreign policy and pocketbook issues have either shrunk or disappeared. While there remains a stark contrast on cultural matters between the parties, Democrats have sought to mute that difference on both guns and values, and those issues clearly were not what the 2008 elections were about.

If demographics are indeed destiny, then the 2008 national exit poll at the very least raises questions about where the GOP goes from here.

For the first time ever, whites constituted less than 75 percent of the electorate, a considerable problem for the Republican Party given its historical problems attracting minorities. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) drew just 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) drew 67 percent of it four years later — a remarkable showing considering that many of those voters preferred Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic contest and supposedly were resistant to voting for a black candidate.

While the highly anticipated surge in younger voters never materialized, those voters younger than 30 who did participate went overwhelmingly for Obama, 66 percent to 32 percent. That 34-point margin was almost four times the 9-point margin that Kerry had with voters younger than 30.

As many analysts have pointed out, if these younger voters carry that Democratic preference with them through their lives, they could constitute a strongly Democratic cohort for the next 40 or 50 years.

Just as bad for Republicans is the fact that over the past dozen years, there has been a noticeable shift in voters’ attitudes toward government, according to an exit poll question that has also been asked for years in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

In December 1995, only a third of respondents said that “government should do more to solve our country’s problems,” while 62 percent said that government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.” But in this year’s exit poll, a slim majority, 51 percent, said government should do more, while only 43 percent said it was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

That’s a potentially significant change in attitudes that suggests voters may be more willing to accept a more activist government that regulates business and seeks to affect outcomes, rather than merely ensures a neutral playing field.

Democrats and liberals would prefer the story to end here, but it doesn’t. Other data paint a different picture.

First, in an election with a highly unpopular Republican president and a severely damaged Republican brand, the Democratic share of the presidential vote increased from 48 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004 to 53 percent of the vote in 2008, hardly a landslide figure or evidence of a new dominant political coalition.

Obama’s victory was built largely on a number of factors: higher black turnout, a bigger Hispanic vote, big numbers among younger voters and first-time voters, and more support from independents. It’s far from clear that any of those numbers will be replicated in 2010 or 2012, because these groups could well have been motivated by Obama’s personal appeal, not ideological or partisan dogma.

Second, one of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) biggest problems among core groups was a 5-point drop among white men. President Bush carried 62 percent of white men in 2004, while McCain won only 57 percent of them.

The drop easily could have been caused by growing concerns about the economy, as well as the lesser salience of national security concerns between 2004 and 2008, rather than a fundamental shift in partisan loyalties.

Third, the lack of any statistically significant shift in self-described ideology of voters also argues against a fundamental realignment. In 2004, 21 percent of voters called themselves liberals, while 34 percent said they were conservatives. This year, 22 percent said they were liberals and the same 34 percent identified as conservative.

Finally, the 2008 exit poll found far more Democrats turned out than Republicans. In the exit poll four years ago, self-identified Democrats and Republicans each constituted 37 percent of the sample, but this year 39 percent of voters were Democrats compared with 32 percent of Republicans. Fewer Republican voters meant fewer votes for Republican candidates.

While this change could reflect a fundamental shift in self-identified partisanship, it could merely be a dip in GOP turnout caused by any number of factors (possibly dissatisfaction with McCain’s candidacy, the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate or the issue agenda of 2008) or a one-time shift in partisanship. Party ID, after all, reflects the popularity of the party at any moment, and the damage to the Republican brand certainly could have caused a short-term dip in GOP identification.

At this point, it is far too premature to claim that 2008 was anything more than a dramatic reaction to an unpopular president and to a party hurt by its own ineptness. Obama will have a chance to change the nation’s political landscape. But his election, by itself, isn’t necessarily a sign of a new partisan alignment.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 10, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.