How Historic a Victory?

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

by Larry M. Bartels
Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton University Press, 325 pp., $29.95

Red, Blue, and Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics

edited by Ruy Teixeira
Brookings Institution Press, 274 pp., $42.95; $19.95 (paper)

What was the scope of Barack Obama’s victory? His 365 electoral votes (the number so far—Missouri remains too close to call) represent a formidable tally, more than double John McCain’s 162. True, Obama’s electoral-vote total as of this writing is smaller than Bill Clinton’s in either 1992 (370) or 1996 (379). But it is worth remembering that because of Ross Perot’s third-party candidacies in those years, Clinton did not receive 50 percent of the popular vote in either race—he won 43 percent in 1992 and precisely 49.24 percent four years later, whereas Obama took about 52.6 percent, beating McCain by 6.5 percent. Jimmy Carter won just 297 electoral votes in 1976 and defeated Gerald Ford by only 1.7 million votes out of 80 million cast.1

When measuring victory by some combination of electoral and popular votes, then, one must go back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to Barry Goldwater’s 52, to find a more impressive Democratic win. Obama turned nine states blue that were red in 2004: three in the Rocky Mountain West (Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada), three in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa), and three in the South (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida), totaling 112 electoral votes. Turnout was the highest in at least forty years, meaning that voter participation is back to pre-Vietnam and Watergate levels. Some experts revised initial turnout estimates slightly downward over the course of the days after the election but still reckoned that at least 126 million people voted, roughly two million more than in 2004, representing around 61 percent of all age-eligible voters.

The main reason turnout wasn’t even higher appears to have been that participation declined from 2004 levels in several red states (Utah, South Dakota, West Virginia), suggesting less enthusiasm there for the McCain-Palin ticket than for Bush-Cheney. In blue states and CNN’s seven designated battleground states, of which Obama won at least four pending the final count in Missouri, turnout was generally higher than in 2004,2 suggesting that there was great enthusiasm for the Obama-Biden ticket and that the vaunted Obama get-out-the-vote operation, which should stand as a template for every subsequent Democratic presidential campaign, lived up to expectations.

Think of it this way. Obama’s win was strong enough that he didn’t even need California (55 electoral votes) and New York (31). He could have spotted McCain those 86 navy-blue electoral votes, which he was never in danger of losing, and still finished with 279. It was, to use a nontechnical term on which political scientists and laypersons could surely agree, a wipeout.

But was it, to use a technical term about which political scientists are more persnickety, a realignment? Does Obama’s win herald a new period of dominance for one political party and its values as William McKinley’s did in 1896 or Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932—or, some would add, though opinions still differ on it, Ronald Reagan’s in 1980? I recently happened across a…

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