The key question of the 2008 presidential election is whether it represents just a change in administration – or a change in our politics. Is it a reactive election like 1992, or a transformational one like the New Deal, the Great Society and the Reagan Revolution?
Time will tell. But the possibility is there.
There are three reasons this election may represent more than simply a one-time protest against an unpopular incumbent and a poor economy. One is the youth vote; another, the possibility of partisan realignment; and the third, the role of race. Each is worth a look.
Young voters, age 18 to 29, did not turn out in disproportionate numbers; they accounted for 18 percent of voters, compared with 17 percent the past three elections. But their vote was astonishingly lopsided, 66-32 percent for Barack Obama over John McCain – a 34-point gap. The previous biggest margins among young voters were 19 points for Bill Clinton in 1996 and 19 points for Ronald Reagan in 1984. John Kerry, counting on a boost from young voters in 2004, won them by just 9 points. Al Gore essentially split them evenly with George W. Bush in 2000.
First-time voters – two-thirds of them under age 30 – voted similarly this year, 69-30 percent for Obama, again far surpassing Clinton’s 20-point margin among first-timers in 1996, Al Gore’s tepid 9 points in 2000, Kerry’s 7 points four years ago.
We know that voting is habit forming; its best predictor is having voted previously. The question here is whether the Democratic preference of young and first-time voters in 2008 carries on in their age cohort. If so it could have long-lived implications.
Next is partisanship. Reagan forged a fundamental shift in political party allegiance in this country, one that lasted a generation – until Obama upended it yesterday. As reported in our full exit poll analysis, In the 1980 election Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 15 percentage points, 45-30 percent. Reagan won his “Reagan Democrats,” and four years later they’d become Republicans; the Democrats’ advantage in 1984 contracted to a mere 2 points, 38-36 percent. And there it roughly stayed: 3 points in 1988 and 1992, 4 points in 1996 and 2000 and then pure parity in 2004, when 37 percent of voters were Democrats, 37 percent Republicans.
This year, the shift: Democrats accounted for 39 percent of voters in this election; Republicans, 32 percent – their lowest turnout in 28 years. If it’s a one-off, it means little. If it endures, like the Reagan transformation, it would mean much.
Finally there’s race. The country is changing: In 1976, 90 percent of voters were white. That has declined in every presidential election since, to the point where this year white voters slipped under a quarter of the electorate, 74 percent. That’s one reason Obama could lose whites by 12 percentage points yet still win the election.
Obama does not appear to have lost whites chiefly because of his race; after all, Kerry lost them by 17 points, Gore by 12, Mike Dukakis by 19, Walter Mondale by 29, Jimmy Carter, in 1980, by 20. But it’s true, too, that previous Democratic winners did better with whites – Carter lost them by 5 points in 1976, Clinton by 1 in his first election and by 3 in his second. Given the stiff headwinds for the Republican Party this year, it’s fair to wonder why Obama didn’t do better with whites.
Affinity voting may be part of it – the notion that some voters, perhaps less rooted in ideology, may be inclined to support the candidate who seems to have the most in common with their own experience. Greek-Americans for Dukakis. Blacks for Obama. Some whites, yes, for McCain. And certainly, yes, racism may be a part as well.
Regardless, with whites at 74 percent of voters and shrinking, purely race-based voting by whites matters less. And those whites who voted against Obama out of racial discomfort now have four years to think about it. The fascinating question – the one that will answer whether we're seeing a transformation – is what they, like the young, first-time and partisan voters of 2008, do in 2012.