That Senator Barack Obama’s election as America’s 44th president is of historic significance does not need to be repeated. Whatever the future may hold, November 4, 2008 now takes its place with April 28, 1994, as a date that stirs the soul.
Though not a landslide, Obama’s 53 per cent to 46 per cent defeat of Senator John McCain was the most lopsided win by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964. Until Tuesday, no Democrat, even in victory, had garnered more than 50 per cent of the vote since Jimmy Carter pulled past Gerald Ford in the first post-Watergate election. Bill Clinton never obtained a majority.
Another striking aspect of Obama’s triumph is that it was achieved despite white voters, representing three quarters of the total turnout, voting for his opponent by 55 per cent to 43 per cent, according to the exit polls posted on CNN’s website.
It is impossible to say how many of those who voted against Obama did so because of his race. Only 9 per cent of voters told the exit pollsters race was an important factor in their decision and they broke 53 per cent to 46 per cent for the Democrat. It should also be noted that that Obama won a larger share of white votes than the 41 per cent achieved by the previous Democratic candidate, John Kerry, against George Bush in 2004.
But in some areas, Obama’s race clearly pushed votes to McCain. The New York Times has an interactive map on its website with every county in every state colour-coded according to how voters shifted their allegiance between 2004 and 2008. The bluer the county, the stronger the swing to the Democrats, the redder, to the Republicans.
Overall, America is a sea of blue thus rendered, reflecting a significant shift to the Democrats. There is, however, an extraordinary red stain that runs east from Oklahoma, through Clinton’s Arkansas and up along the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and West Virginia. As the blogger Andrew Sullivan observed, the voters responsible for this swing were unlikely to be the kind worried by Obama’s promised tax hike on incomes over $250 000.
If race worked against Obama in these areas, it was also a major factor in his victory nationwide. The share of African-American voters in the overall turnout hit 13 per cent, up from 11 per cent four years ago, and they were unified as never before, going for Obama by a margin of 95 per cent to 4 cent. The split in 2004 was 88 per cent for Kerry, 11 per cent for Bush.
The black vote was decisive in the many of the state by state contests for electoral votes which Obama won handily 349-163. In Ohio, which gave Bush his second term in 2004, Obama won just 2 per cent more of the white vote than Kerry managed, but his share of the black vote was 97 per cent compared with Kerry’s 84 per cent, and black voters represent a larger slice of the total turnout. Result: Obama won this key battleground state by 51 per cent to 47 per cent, reversing Republican margin on 2004.
Pivotal Florida and its 27 electoral votes went narrowly to Obama even though he did not improve on Kerry’s share of the white vote (42 per cent). But again, black turnout was proportionately higher and much more lopsided in its preference (96 per cent for Obama versus 86 per cent for Kerry). Also important here was the Latino vote which switched sides entirely, the Republican sympathies of anti-Castro Cubans notwithstanding.
The lesson for the Republicans is that you can’t hope to win the presidency in an increasingly diverse America without reaching out across racial and ethnic lines. Money and organization also help. The more voters you can contact personally the better. 26 per cent said they were contacted by the Obama campaign, 18 per cent by McCain and the chances were better than 6 in 10 that they voted for the side that contacted them. Energising young and new voters is also a good idea. Obama won 69 per cent of first time voters and 66 per cent of voters under 30.