The Exceptional Election of 2008: Performance, Values, and Crisis
Campbell, James E., Presidential Studies Quarterly
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. Mann, and Larry J. Sabato (2008) summarized this outlook: "It is no exaggeration to say that the political environment this year is one of the worst for a party in the White House in the past sixty years."
The fundamentals were decidedly unfavorable to the Republicans. Long before the first caucuses convened in Iowa to select delegates to the national conventions, the public had grown dissatisfied or impatient with the war in Iraq. In the months leading up to the conventions, polls showed substantial opposition to the war. Eighteen separate polls conducted by CNN/Opinion Research throughout 2007 and through July 2008 indicated that about twice as many Americans had come to oppose the war in Iraq as supported it. Despite progress in the "surge" strategy in Iraq, the war remained a political liability for Republicans. (3)
The economy leading into the 2008 campaign season was also bad news for Republicans. Real growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) was -0.2% in the fourth quarter of 2007 and only 0.9% in the first quarter of 2008. (4) The historical record indicates that voters' expectations set a growth rate of about 3% as the politically neutral point between punishing and rewarding an in-party's economic record. Leading into the 2008 election season, the Republican administration had presided over half a year of economic malaise. What made economic matters worse politically was that voters were reminded of these problems every time they filled up their cars and paid their heating bills. Soaring oil prices hit voters and the economy hard throughout this period. Making matters even worse politically was President Bush's well-known Texas oil connections. Oil men were not very popular when, in July 2008, gas prices had almost doubled from what they had been in early 2007 and had nearly tripled since early 2002. (5)
The clearest indication of the severity of the bad climate for Republicans was President Bush's anemic approval ratings. While presidents need not hold 50% approval ratings in order to win elections, they generally need ratings in the mid-40s. President Bush's approval ratings, according to Gallup, had been below 40% since October 2006 and remained below 35% throughout 2008. (6) In the five Gallup polls conducted in the 10 weeks prior to the conventions, his approval rating averaged a mere 31%. With less than a third of the public indicating approval of the Republican president, there was certainly good reason to think that 2008 would be a Democratic year.
Prospects for a Close Election
There were, however, other indications that the election would be closely decided. Beyond the recent history of the controversial 2000 election and the closely decided 2004 election, the broader history of open seat presidential elections was one of narrowly decided contests. Table 1 presents the popular vote margins in the 35 open seat and incumbent elections from 1868 to 2004. Elections are grouped into three categories: near dead heats, competitive elections, and landslides. (7) Near dead heats are those in which the winning candidate received 51.5% or less of the two-party vote. Landslides are those in which the winning candidate received more than 57% of the two-party vote. Competitive elections are closer than landslides, but not as close as near dead heats. As the table shows, near dead heats are uncommon when an incumbent is in the race and common in open seat contests. Almost half of open seat elections have been near dead heats. Near dead heat elections are more than three times more likely without an incumbent in the race than with an incumbent. Incumbents (especially those whose party has held the White House for just one term) are not only more likely to win their elections, but also more likely to win them by wide margins (Campbell 2000, 2008; Mayhew 2008; Norpoth 2008). (8) While electoral verdicts about incumbents are more likely to be decisive, open seat elections are more likely to be toss-ups.
Open seat elections have been close, in part, because retrospective voting is less applicable to them. Voter reactions to the previous administration's performance do not fully carry over to the next election when the incumbent is not running. Accountability is assigned partly to the in-party and partly to the president. Successor candidates receive only a portion of the credit or blame for the successes or failures of their predecessors (Campbell 2001; Campbell, Dettrey, and Yin 2008; Holbrook 2008; Nadeau and Lewis-Beck 2001; Norpoth 2002). Open seat elections are, in effect, muted referenda. While Republican candidate John McCain would carry considerable baggage into the election from the widely perceived failings of the Bush presidency, it would be far lighter than the burden that President Bush would have shouldered had he been the Republican candidate.
Beyond the general tendency of open seat elections to be closely decided, the near parity in partisanship in recent elections, coupled with the increased ideological polarization of the electorate, increased the odds of a closely and intensely fought election. Figure 1 displays the percentages of reported voters holding Democratic or Republican party identification in elections from 1952 to 2008. Following Keith et al. (1992), independent leaners are counted as partisans. The National Election Study (NES) data have been reweighted to match the actual turnout rate of the voting-eligible population and the vote division of actual voters. The pure independent portion of the electorate, ranging from 5% to 10% of voters, is the residual unplotted category.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
As the figure shows, the balance of party identification strongly favored Democrats from the 1950s to the 1970s and then shifted to near parity in elections beginning in the mid-1980s. The staggered realignment of the parties from the 1960s to the 1990s sorted ideologues into two more evenly balanced and ideologically homogeneous parties: a more conservative Republican Party and a more liberal Democratic Party (Campbell 2006a; Fiorina 2006; Paulson 2007). While presidential voting habits changed in the late 1960s, changes in party identification lagged (Norpoth 1987). When they did change, they did not indicate a new majority party, but a new competitive party system. Democrats had been the majority party …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Exceptional Election of 2008: Performance, Values, and Crisis. Contributors: Campbell, James E. - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 40. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2010. Page number: 225+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.