A Watershed Election?

Writing for Real Clear Politics under the headline "Democrats' Year: Less Change Than Chance," Politico reporter David Paul Kuhn downplays the achievement of Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008.

The 2008 campaign did not make history. It was made by history. Conventional coalitions and events elected Barack Obama.


The far-reaching question in politics, as we consider what 2008 will mean in the years ahead, is whether America recently witnessed one of the nation's half dozen "critical elections," with the "sharp and durable" results that signify party realignment.


Perhaps this is the dawn of a new Democratic era. If true, liberals are left with another question: why did it take two economic catastrophes to create the two Democratic coalitions of the past century?

After all, if it's fair to say September 11, 2001, was a political gift to Republicans, then September 15, 2008, was no less a gift to Democrats.


Political tectonics do not always shift with earthquakes, as in 1932. Obama's margin of victory was modest. But then, Nixon began his majority with less.

In other words, [V.O.] Key's requirement that party realignments have "sharp" contours is not absolute. Looking ahead, Obama's youth mandate and the GOP's Hispanic problem are signs that Democrats do have demographics on their side.

There is clearly an intent among some to try to downplay the meaning of last fall's elections, to suggest that the Democrats' achievement wasn't much of one at all. No matter, of course, that the Democrats have won the majority or plurality of the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, and that Barack Obama's popular vote victory was the largest in 20 years. Or that the Democrats now have more seats in the House of Representatives than the Republicans have had at any time since after the 1928 elections. Or that the Democrats have a larger majority in the U.S. Senate than the Republicans have had since after the 1920 elections. No, somehow despite all of this, the Democrats didn't have much of a victory on November 4. Go figure.

But is it actually true that watershed elections require a large majority? Not really. The most recent watershed election was in 1968, when Richard Nixon broke up the New Deal coalition -- with just 43.4 percent of the popular vote and 301 electoral votes. FDR did get 57.4 percent of the popular vote, and 472 electoral votes, during the watershed election of 1932, but that showing seems more of an aberration than a trend for such contests. In 1896, William McKinley won with 51.0 percent of the popular vote and 271 of 438 electoral votes (about the same percentage as 333 electoral votes today). In 1860, Abraham Lincoln earned just 39.8 percent of the popular vote, and 180 of 291 electoral votes (also about 333 EVs today). In 1828, Andrew Jackson won 56.0 percent of the popular vote, and 178 of 261 electoral votes (367 EVs today). And in the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson earned the support of 73 of 138 electors (285 electoral votes today).

So what does this mean? Obama earned a higher share of the popular vote than half of the winners in watershed elections, and a greater proportion of electoral college support than four of six watershed election victors.

Does this mean that Obama's victory two months ago was a watershed election? No. There have been plenty of blowout elections that were not also watershed elections. At the same time, I think it's too early to say that his victory was not a watershed election (and in fairness, Kuhn said about as much). And more importantly, it's just not the case that Obama's victory, and that of the Democrats more broadly, wasn't impressive.

Tags: Watershed Elections, White House 2008 (all tags)



Re: A Watershed Election?

Barack Obama's popular vote victory was the largest in 20 years.

Erm, that sorta depends on how it's measured.  True enough, he received more votes than anyother winner in the past 20 years, or any other winner in history as far as I know.  He also had the largest margin of victory in terms of raw votes in the past 20 years.

But he didn't win by the largest percentage margin in the past 20 years - that would be the guy who won in 1996, with an 8.5% margin of victory (Obama's was 7.2%).

The reason I oppose being fuzzy with the numbers like this is because this was the method used by Republicans in 2004 in their claim that Dubya had won "the most votes ever" to try to establish the idea that he had stronger support than he actually did.  Yes, it's true that prior to 2004, nobody had won more votes than Shrub did that year, but he won a very close election, relatively speaking.

Obama won by a very healthy margin, but it wasn't an absolute blowout by historical standards (15 of the past 25 POTUS elections had higher margins of victory than 2008).

All that said, I do think a sea change occurred, as evidenced by the way the demographics worked out, and if the GOP doesn't figure out their minority and youth voter problems pronto, they're in for a lot of hurting for years to come.

by Obamaphile 2009-01-03 10:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Clinton was an incumbent


My point is that it's a bit disingenuous to say that Obama had the largest popular vote victory in the past 20 years, when Clinton's 1996 margin of victory was bigger, percentage-wise.  No doubt Clinton's successful incumbency is what helped his numbers, and I imagine of Obama has a fairly succesful first term, he'll likely pass Clinton's 1996 vote margin percentage-wise.

It's the same silliness that was employed with Hillary Clinton's claim that she had gotten "the most votes ever" in the primaries.  Aside from using some really fuzzy math to come up with that, even if she had in fact gotten "the most votes ever" for a primary candidate, it still wouldn't be symbolic of her being the most popular primary candidate ever, it would be symbolic of her running for POTUS when there were the most people living in the U.S. in the nation's history.  Sometime in the future, someone, perhaps even a reviled GOP candidate, will win the presidency with an even larger raw vote margin than Obama got this year.  And it won't necessarily indicate that they are even more popular.

It's true that Obama won by a larger margin of raw votes than anyone else in the past 20 years, but that's largely a factor of increased population and a much larger total vote turnout.  Dubya won a larger margin of raw votes in 2004 than did Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but I wouldn't read too much into that, either.  Obama also got almost 40 times as many votes as Abe Lincoln.  Does that mean he's 40 times as popular?

And before Obama, guess which president got the most votes ever?  Bush, in 2004.

This all has to be considered in terms of percentages, not raw numbers.  Raw numbers mean zilch with a constantly growing population.

by Obamaphile 2009-01-03 04:11PM | 0 recs
Re: Clinton was an incumbent

Read what I wrote. I'm not playing games about the greatest number of votes. I'm writing about the fact that Obama received the largest majority -- the largest share of votes -- in 20 years. This is undisputed and is not splitting hairs. Bill Clinton won by a wider margin in 1996, but he did it with Ross Perot in the race drawing at least some support away from Bob Dole. In reality, only two Democrats since Andrew Jackson (FDR and LBJ) received greater shares of the popular vote -- at time period during which 10 Republicans did the same.

by Jonathan Singer 2009-01-03 06:59PM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

These formulations remind me of the one that Bushies came up with in '00, about winning the most land.

But, I have come up with an idea to measure the victory, basically, by looking at how many votes it would have taken McCain, in whichever battleground states it took to flip. Roughly, this is around a million votes and about 6 states, iirc, for '08. I would love to look into this more, as I think its a true measure of 'how much we won by' in relation to other presidential elections.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-01-03 11:27AM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

We won bigger than Carter in 1976, Clinton in 1992, or Bush in either 2000 or 2004.

We didn't win as big as Nixon in 1972, Reagan in either 1980 and 1984, Bush in 1988, or Clinton in 1996.

by Obamaphile 2009-01-03 11:43AM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

Look at majority votes. Obama got 53%. No dem has got that since linden Johnson 44 years ago. and since GOP and traditional media always views 50%+ as the real margin for mandates (Look bush, got 50.7% and it was a mandate!) I don't see it as spin to point to this election as the biggest mandate dems got in 44 years.

by YourConcernsAreNoted 2009-01-03 03:18PM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

I would say that this is the ONLY mandate Democrats have gotten since 1964.  The only Democrat to break 50% of the vote since was Jimmy Carter, who got 50.1%.  Obama is also the first Democrat to add seats in both Houses Congress while he was winning since 1964 was Obama.  

by Kent 2009-01-03 03:33PM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

That's a valid claim.  And as a percentage of the total vote, yes, Obama had the best election of any Democrat in the last 44 years.

I'm merely pointing out that he did not defeat his opponent by the same margin as did Clinton in 1996.

by Obamaphile 2009-01-03 04:14PM | 0 recs

But Mandates are what matters politically, not margins.

by YourConcernsAreNoted 2009-01-03 08:48PM | 0 recs
Very true

A mandate is when along with winning the Presidency, the new President also sweeps in a good number of new Congresspeople and Senators with him.  Obama picked up 21 House seats and eight Senate seats.  This is the best performance since 1980 when Reagan picked up 34 House seats and 12 Senate seats.  

by Kent 2009-01-03 09:30PM | 0 recs
Re: A Watershed Election?

I just read the article and much of it is bullcrap.  Obama would have likely won without the financial collapse.  Just look at the margins in most states.  He was always going to carry New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa, and likely Colorado as well.  That alone would have given him the election.  

by Kent 2009-01-03 08:45PM | 0 recs


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