A Watershed Election?
by Jonathan Singer, Sat Jan 03, 2009 at 09:35:24 AM EST
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.