The Exceptional Election of 2008: Performance, Values, and Crisis

Article excerpt

Bringing several years of nomination and general election campaigns to a close, more than 131 million voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, choosing Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain. The two-party popular vote split 53.7% for Obama to 46.3% for McCain. With 365 electoral votes cast from 28 states and the District of Columbia (with one electoral vote from Nebraska) for Obama and 173 electoral votes from 22 states cast for McCain, Senator Barack Obama was elected to serve as the forty-fourth president of the United States and the first African American to occupy the office.

The margin of Obama's popular vote victory ranks seventeenth among the 36 presidential elections since the Civil War. Sixteen margins were smaller and 19 were larger. (1) Compared to recent elections, it was larger than either of President George W. Bush's victories and slightly smaller than President Bill Clinton's 1996 election. It was about the same magnitude as President Clinton's 1992 and President George H. W. Bush's 1988 popular vote margins. While the size of the 2008 winning vote margin was solid but unremarkable, neither especially close nor particularly large when set in historical perspective, the route to the electorate's verdict was exceptionally unusual.

Early readings of the fundamentals in 2008 were extremely favorable for the Democrats. An unpopular president conducting an unpopular war and presiding over a sluggish economy amounted to heavy baggage for Republicans. On this basis, it would be easy to regard 2008 as a simple retrospective election. The in-party was not doing well, so voters made the easy decision to throw them out. On closer inspection, though, the weight of the baggage for the Republican candidate was somewhat exaggerated, and several aspects of the "fundamentals" suggested a close election. Partisan parity, ideological polarization, an open seat election, and nomination circumstances in both parties set the stage for another tight race--not unlike the two preceding elections. The polls leading up to the parties' conventions suggested as much.

Then there were other reasons why the electorate may have looked favorably on Senator McCain. He had an unusually centrist congressional record for a Republican presidential candidate, and Senator Obama had a record as a Northern liberal Democrat. One might also have anticipated that Obama would face some resistance as the first black presidential candidate of a major party. The polls coming out of the parties' conventions supported the view not only of a close election, but also of one tilted a bit toward McCain. In the end, what was most exceptional about this election was that it turned on the public's reaction to the financial credit crisis that struck the national economy during the campaign in mid-September. What became known as the Wall Street meltdown was a "game changer." It was the "October surprise" that struck in mid-September and turned the election decisively to Obama. Never before in the history of modern presidential elections had an event like the Wall Street meltdown struck in the middle of a campaign and effectively changed the course of the election.

A Democratic Year

Before the protracted nomination struggle between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was settled, and even before the unusual Republican nomination contest drifted to Senator John McCain, the conventional wisdom was that 2008 would be a banner year for the Democrats. There was widespread unhappiness with the direction of the country during President George W. Bush's second term. Between April and July 2008 in four Gallup polls, a mere 15% of respondents on average said that they were satisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time." (2) The verdict about the performance of the Republican administration could hardly have been clearer or more negative. In late July, Alan I. Abramowitz, Thomas E. …