[29 July 2009]
Take your seat seconds before the professor steps to the lectern, run your hand through the hair you wish you’d had time to wash, and try to minimize the damage from the coffee you just spilled on your still-warm-from-the-printer mid-term essay. Today’s topic: how did Obama prevail in the 2008 election and what can we learn from it? The book you were supposed to have read (and were totally planning to until your roommate spontaneously organized a midnight volleyball tournament): Winning the Presidency 2008.
Here’s what you missed. William J. Crotty, an accomplished professor at Northwestern, has gathered ten wise academics, including himself, to put the 2008 campaign in historical perspective by comparing it to past campaigns and exploring whether this election signals lasting change in the electoral fortunes of the two major US political parties.
The book begins with articles that outline key events in the campaign, the central issues debated, and the political landscape—namely, the record-setting unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the economic crisis. To be honest, you probably would have skimmed over this section (or pretended to have read it while watching Heroes), because the election is still fresh in your head. You don’t need to be told that “Barack Obama ... was a young and largely unknown US senator and an African-American” or that “McCain’s choice of a running mate added one more twist to an unpredictable if fascinating campaign year”. The authors clearly are writing for posterity, and are not trying to capture the lingering electricity of Obama’s victory. All the emotion and immediacy has been drained out of events that still seem fresh and eminently memorable.
But, if you had persevered, you would have come across some insightful analysis that probably would have helped you craft that now-stained mid-term essay. Howard L. Reiter writes about the nominating process, and explains how the “rules of the game influence the outcome of the contest”. In Republican primaries, the winner takes all of the delegates for that state.
In contrast, Democratic Party rules allocate delegates proportionally according to how much support the candidates received. In Reiter’s analysis, if the Democrats used the same rules as the Republicans, Hillary Clinton would have won the nomination, primarily because she was more successful than Obama in large states. Reiter also discusses “the invisible primary”—all the events that take place before one primary or caucus vote is cast—and its effect on the election outcome.
Arthur C. Paulson writes about “realignment”, a periodic phenomenon that “involves significant and persistent shifts in the electoral coalitions of our major parties ... resulting in new majority parties, governing coalitions, and policy agendas”. Experts have identified five such realignments in US political history, which puts us in the “sixth party system”—a system that emerged in the 1960s. It has been characterized by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans becoming the torchbearers of their respective parties.
Now, you are young and likely don’t know that any other arrangement existed. But, Paulson describes this ideological polarization as almost “un-American” because it differs so much from previous systems in which the parties encompassed coalitions that cut across ideology (such as in the 1940s and ‘50s when Democrats were more progressive on economics, but more “traditional” and conservative on social issues, including civil rights).
Ideological polarization has promoted ideological homogenization within parties. Without ideology motivating people’s votes, other facets have become more important, specifically candidate styles and the voters’ evaluation of the person. He says that “ironically, the 2008 Democratic campaign became more personal and apparently negative because of the underlying party unity among Democrats”.
In other words, because there was so little to parse through in terms of ideological issues, the debate almost had to turn personal. At the same time, as this election showed, ideological homogenization also makes it easier for parties to unite behind a candidate, because there aren’t such wide discrepancies between where they stand on the issues. There was never any question that Clinton would throw her support behind Obama when the time came.
Evelyn M. Simien does an interesting analysis of how African-American women voted in 2008, and their importance as a voter bloc in this election. She begins by hypothesizing that “[t]he fact that Africa-American women have historically subordinated matters of vital concern to them as women for the sake of advancing the position of African-American men in the struggle for civil rights suggests that they might do the same in American electoral contests”. Her hunch is borne out by the data. African-American women not only voted for Obama, but they turned out in large numbers, which meant that they cast votes that determined the outcomes of state primaries in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
You’d have picked up some interesting tidbits on the role of the Internet in 2008 and the impact of voter mobilization (surprise, surprise, young voter participation was up). Then, you’d have reached John Kenneth White’s concluding article, in which he terms 2008 “a transforming election” that could signal the beginning of a realignment. He describes several pieces of evidence, including the fact that “[v]oters ... concluded that they could no longer afford the luxury of having an election dominated by social and cultural issues—such as guns, gay marriage, abortion, Willie Horton, William Ayers, or even the Rev. Jeremiah Wright”.
Instead, voters were more interested in which candidate could bring about needed change. He also points out some trouble for the Republicans, including the fact that, when polled, the word people most often associated with the Republican Party, after “don’t know”, was recorded by pollsters as: “respondent used a negative word”. At the same time, the so-called “real majority” of white, middle-income, middle-aged voters (which leans Republican) has now become a “real minority”. White describes 2008 as “a moment when a new demography caught up to a new politics”.
Winning the Presidency 2008 captures a moment in time—a moment that could be one of the most critical of your life. Pick it up before starting that final essay. Hmm. I see you shaking your head. All right, you may not read it this semester, but, Ms. PoliSci Major, keep in on your shelf. The details of the elections will soon fade, and you’ll want to have this recap and analysis to reflect on.