JOHN DEMPSEY: Changing the Rules: Obama Election May Create a New Pattern
The author, a political scientist, is president of Sandhills Community College.
Well, it's finally over.
Tuesday marked the end of the long-est presidential campaign in American history. Red states turned blue, blue states turned bluer, and when it was all over 133 million Americans had gone to the polls and elected Barack Obama their 44th president.
Observers more skilled than I will slice and dice these results for weeks and offer a multitude of reasons for Obama's victory. A bad economy. An unpopular incumbent. Obama's amazing capacity for raising money (nearly $650 million) and spending it wisely. McCain's non-choice of Mitt Romney as a running mate.
Whatever the reasons, the election of Obama will stand forever as the first in which Americans elected a president who was not a white male. Who knows? The way the country is changing, maybe we will one day remember the 2004 election as the last one in which we elected a president who was a white male.
In seeking to put this into some historical perspective, I've been trying to see if it fits into one of the traditional categories political scientists use to describe American elections.
According to the people who study politics for a living, presidential elections are considered to be one of three types: "maintaining, deviating or realigning."
-- "Maintaining" elections are just what they sound like -- elections in which the two parties' coalitions of support groups do not change. They represent business as usual.
-- "Deviating" elections change the electoral picture, but those changes are temporary, often caused by particular circumstances or unusually attractive (or unattractive) candidates. Once those circumstances have passed and those candidates depart, things go back to normal.
-- "Realigning" elections shift the political landscape in a more meaningful way. Their effects are enduring and significant.
To understand this concept, it is useful to remember that America's two parties enjoy the fairly stable support of different social groups in our country. Poor people generally support the Democrats, Protestants support the Republicans, union members are Democrats, farmers are Republicans, and so on.
Support for the two parties -- based on race, income, religion, region, etc. -- is fairly stable over time. When one or more of the groups that historically supported one party moves to the other and stays, the consequences are significant. A political realignment has occurred.
Realigning elections are fairly uncommon, occurring once every 30 to 40 years. Such elections in the 19th century occurred in 1828, 1860 and 1896.
Most historians agree that the election of 1932 was a realigning election. This election, coming in the middle of the Great Depression, brought Franklin Roosevelt to power for the first of four terms. Roosevelt won the support of many groups who had been affected badly by the Depression, and who now looked to government to help with their dilemma. Most prominent among them were the unemployed, union workers, recent immigrants, residents of cities, and people with little or no education.
These groups, coupled with white Southerners whose aversion to the GOP went back to Reconstruction, constituted what came to be known as the New Deal Coalition -- the basis for a Democratic majority that dominated American politics for nearly forty years.
The next realigning election occurred in 1964. It was an election that solidified black support for the Democrats (barely 50 percent in 1960, now at 85 percent plus) and began the movement of white Southerners toward the Republicans. Central to both those trends was Barry Goldwater's opposition to Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the message that opposition sent to both those important electoral groups.
White Southerners -- people who had voted for Stevenson over Eisenhower and even for the Catholic Kennedy over Nixon -- voted for Goldwater and gave him victories in the only states he carried outside of Arizona. Those voters left the Democratic Party in 1964, and they show no signs of returning.
It is really too early to predict whether Tuesday's election will lead to a permanent party realignment, but my sense is that it will not.
True, Obama carried several states that have traditionally voted Republican. True too is his impressive showing among Latino voters (70 percent compared to Kerry's 60 percent). This is interesting, and it may provide a new building block for the Democrats in the nation's fastest-growing ethnic minority.
I haven't yet seen the returns broken down by religion, but I would guess that Obama pulled less than the traditional Democratic share of Catholic voters. This is a group which has been inching away from its historic Democratic home in recent years over the abortion issue. Obama is a firm supporter of Roe v. Wade -- perhaps one reason why he beat McCain by 15 points among women voters -- and that firmness surely cost him support among Catholics.
All this said, I see some movement -- but nothing that looks remotely like realignment in Tuesday's returns. Maybe rather than a realignment, Obama's election will turn out to be an entirely new kind of political event. For lack of a better term, I'll call it a "dealigning" election -- one in which traditional party allegiances don't so much shift sides, but instead weaken.
Perhaps -- again, only time will tell -- it will mark a departure from a time when Democrats could rely on the working class and Republicans on professional and white-collar types. Obama blurs a lot of lines, and his election may be telling us that we are not as stratified as we've been. It may tell us that we're more of a hybrid people where social class, occupation, region, and religion have lost the predictive power they had in past elections.
Maybe the elections of the future will be more fluid, with candidates, issues, and the electronic community of the Internet more important than traditional social groupings. If that is true, elections in the future will be more analytical, one might even say more corporate, than they've been in the past.
If we look at it as an analytical exercise, maybe we can understand this past campaign and Tuesday's election as history's longest job interview.
Think of it this way: A company is struggling with a myriad of problems -- problems that make the Board of Directors glad that the CEO is nearing his mandatory retirement date. The board creates a selection committee (with 133 million members!) to pick the CEO's successor. After about a year of preliminary screening, the field of applicants is narrowed to two finalists. One of these candidates is internal (though by no means a close protg of the outgoing CEO), and one is from outside the company.
Age Vs. Energy
The internal candidate is older and more experienced. He's a fairly sure and safe choice, but some on the committee fear he won't be able to take the company in a new direction. The outside guy seems smart and capable, but his resume is really thin and there's just something about him that gives some people pause.
The selection committee observes the two finalists in a variety of circumstances. In three head-to-head interviews, the outsider seems at least the equal of his more experienced opponent. During the interview process, the company's third quarter earnings come in -- and it seems than things are even worse than the board had feared.
Though the committee has a lot of appreciation for the internal candidate and respect for his long service to the company, it decides that these new circumstances require a wholesale change of leadership. They decide to take a chance and pick the outside candidate -- a riskier choice perhaps, but one that the circumstances seem to require. In the end it seems that the internal candidate reminds the selection committee too much of the outgoing CEO.
It's impossible to tell at this point if the committee chose wisely. Folks from other companies seem to be patting the search committee on the back. What is certain is that this was a CEO search that will make an exciting business school case study, and it is one that will be talked about for generations to come.
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