Five reasons why last night was such a big deal (other than the obvious):
1) According to the exit polls, African Americans comprised thirteen percent of the electorate last night and went for Obama by an incredible 95% to 4%. In 2004, Blacks were 11% of the electorate and gave 90% of their votes to John Kerry. In absolute terms, about 13 million Blacks voted in 2004 and gave Kerry a roughly eight million vote margin over Bush. This year, roughly 16 million Blacks voted and gave Obama an incredible 15 million-plus margin over McCain. That’s a massive advantage, one that McCain had no hope of overcoming unless Obama’s white support completely collapsed.
2) One reason it didn’t collapse is the youth vote. Early exit polling indicates that 18% of the electorate was between the ages of 18-29. This is slightly higher than their share from 2004. Whereas John Kerry won 54% of the vote from this age group, Obama is estimated to have won 66% of voters under 30. This is a enormous win – by far the most one-sided election for this group since data was first collected on age cohorts in 1976. It justifies the huge bet that Obama made on youth support, as voters under thirty gave Obama a roughly seven million vote advantage over McCain.
3) Karl Rove believed strongly that the Republican Party needed to make inroads into Hispanics’ support for the Democratic Party. And, though Hispanics still supported Kerry over Bush by roughly 60-40 in 2004, this represented progress for the Republicans. The increasing right-wing tilt of the party, however, including the party base’s deep anger about illegal immigration and the more general threat that immigrants pose to America, has cost the Republicans dearly. An estimated 66% voted for Obama helping to swing Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico firmly into the Obama column. More important for the long-term, Hispanics now comprise a larger portion of the population than African Americans. At eight percent, they still do not represent as a big a share of the electorate. However, their slice of the electorate is only going to increase in subsequent years. Republicans may think they can blow off the Black vote. They cannot blow off the Black vote and the Hispanic vote and remain competitive.
4) These demographic changes have led to a re-drawing of the political map. As I mentioned last night, this is unlikely to be a one-cycle fluke. Lots can happen in two or four years, of course. And Obama and the large Democratic majorities in Congress face daunting challenges. As of right now, however, the Republican Party is speaking to an increasingly narrow slice of America, and appealing to that slice on the basis of resentment and reaction. They are no longer competitive in the Northeast, on the West Coast or in broad swaths of the industrial Midwest – areas that are worth well over 200 electoral votes. Virginia now has two Democratic Senators a Democratic governor and gave Obama a solid win last night. North Carolina is a firmly purple state. Florida and Ohio, with large and increasingly diverse populations have tipped. The Republican Party will need to develop a more inclusive, less reflexively negative vision to regain their footing. Sarah Palin, incidentally, won’t help them do that.
5) This election is a political watershed in a way that Clinton’s 1992 victory wasn’t. Ronald Reagan won a landslide in 1980 and, more than that, ushered in a period of dominance for a political movement – the New Right. That period has transformed the nation’s courts, limited the public’s sense of what public policy can do to improve people’s lives and made values conflicts central to our political struggles. Clinton’s two victories were, at best, a rearguard action that did nothing to thwart meaningfully those developments.
Last night represented, in important respects, the defeat of the New Right and its politics. An increasingly tolerant, increasingly diverse electorate rejected the politics of cultural polarization and of laissez-faire government – the two hallmarks of the New Right, all at once. While it’s true that Clinton swept to power with large Democratic majorities in Congress, those majorities were much more heavily populated with conservative and Southern Democrats. No “movement” could plausibly be said to have brought Clinton to power – just a very smart campaign waged against a deeply unpopular President.
By contrast, like Reagan, Obama’s win can be seen as a victory not only for a candidate. Instead, it is a victory for a movement – a mobilized, dedicated base of support whose aim is to remake politics, not merely decide who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Obama energized that movement and helped bring it to maturity. That movement has had its roots among dedicated younger Americans marinating their grievances and their visions on the internet and forward-thinking Progressives who believed a multi-cultural coalition could be a majority coalition. Sick of the politics of cultural polarization, and first given a taste of their power during the Dean campaign in 2003-04, the new progressives first got angry, then got organized.
We have not entered an era of conflict-free Obama love. John McCain won 55 million votes. Furthermore, the new progressives lack the institutional foundation of the New Right (rooted as it was in Evangelical churches). This makes it an arguably more tenuous phenomenon than the New Right has been. Dan Charnas was right when he said last night that much remains unchanged in America. Still, the New Right, 28 years lately, has been directly and decisively repudiated. And, that does mean, as Ronald Reagan liked to say – it’s morning in America.