Friday, November 7, 2008

364-162. A Mandate?

Even as we wait for the final results from Missouri to come in, it is already clear that the 2008 election has exceeded all democratic hopes from the primary season. With Barack Obama's nomination, new swing state opportunities were expected to open up (Colorado, Virginia), but traditional swing states like Florida and Ohio had seemed to move into the "leaning red" column again. Obama's sweeping success in all swing states has thus created the label "landslide" for this election, and the electoral college may suggest so. But is this election truly a mandate for the Obama administration? Has the country united and spoken with one voice, rejecting the Republican party of the past years? A historic perspective and a closer look at these results may help us to answer this question.

The electoral college system with "winner takes all" in nearly all states inherently tends to overstate the winner of a race. It is in fact statistically feasible to have an electoral sweep with only 51 more votes than one's opponent. The more balanced the political attitudes across states are, the more likely it is for a relatively small popular vote advantage to turn into an electoral landslide. Barack Obama has worked the electoral college exceptionally well, translating a 6.2% popular advantage into a 38% advantage in the electoral college. Missouri aside, Obama has won all close states, three of them by an average margin of 1.3%, translating into 53 electoral votes. It has been great to see that Obama could pull through in these tight races, but we need to remember that these states may be called blue now and will be in play for democrats in the future, but that they have a very large red minority that will almost certainly be reenergized with the Bush years in more distant memory.

The popular vote spread is 7.8 million, or 2.6% of the total US population, 3.4% of the voting-age population. While we cannot assume that those who have not voted on Tuesday had a genuine interest in the political future of the country, it is important to remember how small the 7.8 million difference really is compared to the US population. Under the given circumstances and with the nationwide disapproval of the Bush administration, this result is still surprisingly low.

After two long election nights (one of them taking many weeks until we knew the result), we had certainty before the last polls closed this year. But a look at the elections before 2000 (and thus before my personal political memory) will give us a better perspective on the true meaning of Tuesdays electoral college results. Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton had all won each of their elections with at least 370 electors in their favor, and of the 21 elections since 1920, 17 (81%) have been by at least that margin. Roosevelt's 523 and Reagan's 525 are among the outliers for nationwide landslides, and the popular vote has swung the same way. It seems surprising after our euphoria on Tuesday, but Obama's win had been the 7th closest in the electoral college of the last 24 elections.

With all this said, I will not fall into agreement with Robert Novak's column, who tries to make this election look like a close one. It hardly seems possible any more to get the lopsided wins that FDR or Reagan won in their times, with the nation's political opinion's so regionally polarized. A democratic Kansas seems as unlikely as a Republican Vermont. The number of independent voters who make up their mind anew for every election is small, and the swing for Obama is thus very significant. But we need to remember that with all the current Democratic dominance, we are by no means safe from losing it all over the next four years. It will thus remain crucial to work across party lines, not only to avoid a filibuster. The disapproval of the Bush administration still has not solidly turned into Democratic support.

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