This morning, after having absorbed the substantial victory of Barack Obama, I noticed a couple of interesting items in the data. Barack Obama certainly won this race, but he won it with just a little more votes than George Bush won in his re-election bid, and the turnout models came up short.
In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by winning 62.04 million votes. In 2008, Obama won 62.443 million, a gain of only 400,000. In 2004, Kerry garnered 59.028 million votes; John McCain only got 55.386 million. That means this election saw 3.24 million fewer votes than four years ago. Far from being more energized, the nation appeared to be more apathetic.
Using these numbers, we can see that Barack Obama succeeded in turning out his base much more effectively than McCain did his. How do we know that it’s a base turnout rather than a tsunami of opinion to Democrats? For one thing, Dems didn’t pick up a boatload of new seats in the House, and they may underperform expectations yet in the Senate. They did gain some strength with independents, but only gaining between 11-20 seats in the House tells us that they found votes in districts they already control, more than finding converts.
There’s nothing wrong with that; George Bush won two elections doing the same thing. He only gained 3 million votes over John Kerry’s 2004 performance. It does reflect a certain brittleness about Obama’s support that may not be evident in the flush of his Electoral College victory. That doesn’t mean he can’t broaden his appeal after winning office, but it does mean that he primarily won among friendlies and not through appeals to bipartisanship.
John McCain and the GOP didn’t get their turnout in this race. They lost almost seven million voters from 2004, a rather stunning number. We’ll be chewing on this for a while, but that’s more than 10% of the Bush vote that got lost in this election. Did they stay home, or did significant numbers of them defect to Obama? I’m guessing the former. The GOP demoralized their base by acting like Democrats for too many years, and the winds of “change” proved too dispiriting this time around.
Is it his fault? I don’t think it’s his fault as much as the historical trend. Republicans faced two strong headwinds in this race: history and their own fecklessness as a party. History tells us that the White House almost always changes party after two terms with one, and Bush is a particularly disliked incumbent. The Republican Party lost its soul when it launched its K Street Project, and the spendfest of 2001-6 only made that more clear.
If the GOP wants to win 60 million votes in future national elections, it has to stand for something other than being Democrat Lite. The Republican Party needs clarity, purpose, and most importantly, an end to the hypocrisy of talking smaller government while porking up their districts. When given only a choice between real Democrats and fake Democrats, Americans will choose the former, which we found out in 2006.
Update: I wrote “latter” when I meant “former”; I don’t think that defections account for Obama’s victory.