March 19, 2009 – Americans elected Barack Obama in November with the largest margin of victory by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. A forthcoming book by University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato holds that Obama's victory was rooted in election fundamentals foreseeable months in advance and propelled by long-term demographic shifts that favor Democrats.
Those demographic trends and Obama's election may be the foundation of an enduring Democratic majority, and may eventually push Republicans to the center, suggested a panel of experts who contributed to Sabato's book, "The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House." They gathered Tuesday in U.Va.'s Special Collections Library to discuss the book, expected to go on sale April 15.
However you slice the election returns, Sabato noted, "You can't find demographics that are positive for Republicans."
A "triple squeeze" of long-term demographic trends is tilting the field toward the Democrats, explained Rhodes Cook, a political analyst and contributor to Sabato's Crystal Ball Web site. Three major groups of voters — non-whites, the young and those with graduate-level educations — all vote decidedly Democratic and make up growing proportions of the American electorate.
The increased turnout of young voters seen in 2008 is probably a long-term trend, said panelist Diana Owen, a professor of political science at Georgetown University, thanks to institutionalized support from groups like Rock the Vote and the rise of social networks like Facebook and MySpace to motivate turnout.
Obama's 9.5-million-vote margin of victory was built with broad support from across the nation. He won 28 states, including three in the South and three in the Mountain West, Cook said, in addition to large margins in the traditionally Democratic-leaning states along both coasts. Outside the South, Obama garnered 310 electoral votes versus 60 for McCain.
"Republicans are left basically with the South, while they were trampled in the rest of the country," Cook said.
The regional base of the Republican Party is also evident in Congress, where Republicans hold only about one-third of the House and Senate seats outside the South, Cook said. Many moderate Republicans outside the South have been ousted in recent elections, leaving the most conservative members as the core of the party.
Along with demographic trends, said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, several "election fundamentals" favored a Democratic candidate: Bush's low public approval ratings, an unpopular war and a sagging economy (well before the financial crisis heated up in October.)
Contrary to the media's trumpeting of supposed "turning points" and potential "game-changers" like McCain's pick of Sarah Palin for vice president, or either party's convention, this election was never a nail-biter, Abramowitz said, noting that he and Sabato had said as much in a Crystal Ball column in June 2008, "The Myth of the Toss-Up Election."
Undergirded by strong fundamentals combined with favorable demographics, Obama's biggest win was his party's nomination, rather than the general election, when any competent Democratic candidate would have won, Abramowitz said.
Hillary Clinton would also have won the election with a slightly different coalition of support, he said. "Campaigns do matter at the margins, but they generally don't shift things too far away from where we think they're going to be based on these fundamentals."
Was this a realigning election that will produce an enduring Democratic majority, or is that even possible in an age when people don't care as much about party?
In America's "party-and-a-half" system, the party in power is the only full party, Sabato said, suggesting that Democrats will need to screw up to open the door for a Republican resurgence.
Facing the demographic trends that favored Obama, Republicans may need to move toward the center, especially on social issues, Sabato said, adding that the Conservative Party in England has moved to the center and for the first time in a decade has good prospects in an upcoming election.
But before the Tories moved to the center, they moved further to the right and lost support for most of a decade, noted an audience member from England. There's a good chance that Republican Party, based in the South, will similarly grow more conservative before it moderates its positions, Abramowitz said.
He said some Republicans maintain that, "'What we need to do to correct the problems with Republican Party is get back to our roots, get back to our conservative philosophy,' and I think that's totally the wrong way to go."
It doesn't take long for the American public to sour on a new party in power, Cook noted. The last times that Democrats won resounding presidential victories — in 1964, 1976 and 1992 — Republicans regained the Congress or the presidency within a few years.
In Virginia, the populous Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., tend to be more liberal than the rest of the state. Obama was the first Democrat to win the Old Dominion since Johnson, buoyed by Northern Virginia voters. But in other recent Northern Virginia elections for county, state and federal seats, there have been a number of Democratic victories by only a small margin, Cook said, implying that the ascendancy of Democrats in Virginia may not be as firm or significant as some suggest.
"This is an evolving picture that we're looking at," Cook said. "2008, as impressive as it was for the Democrats, it's still a snapshot of a particular point in time."