Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Demographic Novel

After the 2004 election, there was a lot of talk about how Bush won 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in America and how the Republican's fecundity spelled doom for the Democrat's chances in national elections. After last night's election, there's a lot of talk about how the Republican's lost a lot of the youth vote and the college-educated vote and how this spells doom for the Republicans. While I'm fascinated by demographic trends, I try not to put too much stock into them. Pundits mine the demographic data after every election to explain why the winning candidate won the election, then extrapolate it into the future, forgetting how fickle the American electorate tends to be.

Now that I've railed against this practice, I'm going to engage in it. Returning to the exit poll results, the 66% of the 18-29 year old vote that Obama captured is the highest percentage any candidate has captured in any age bracket over the past eight elections. Since I'm just north of the 18-29 age bracket, I find the difference between my age bracket, who supported Obama 53% of the time, and the 18-29 bracket really interesting. I can think of a few probable reasons for the youth's embrace of Obama. They were probably excited by the "newness" of Obama and the Obama campaign also probably did a good job at reaching out to the youth vote. George W. Bush's unpopularity probably gave Obama a big boost in their eyes since for most of the people in the 18-29 group, the only presidential administration of their adult lives has been Bush's. The thing that I think really separates the under 30s from the 30+s is Ronald Reagan. I doubt that very many people under the age of 30 remember much of anything about the Reagan years. The youngest voters in this year's election would have been born after Reagan left office and the oldest under 30 voters would have been just turning 10 when Reagan rode off into the sunset. The Republican party can continue to hold up Reagan as one of their standard bearers, (though I question whether this is true anymore), but it's unlikely to inspire anyone who was born after 1980.

While demographics are hardly destiny, that doesn't mean that Obama's victory isn't indicative of any sociopolitical change. I think it's important to remember that it was only 40 years ago that George Wallace ran for President as a third-party candidate on a segregationist platform and won 13.5 % of the popular vote (8.6% of the electoral college with 5 states: AR, LA, AL, MS, and GA). Wallace won 31% of North Carolina's popular vote in 1968; 40 years later, Obama won 49.67% of the popular vote, and may have won the state, though at the moment, it's still too close to call.

We should probably spend a little less time trying to figure out if America is a center-right country or a center-left country or whether or not the Republicans can appeal to voters outside of rural areas and the states of the old Confederacy. These kinds of questions assume that all voters are ideologically consistent within their chosen (or given) political caste when in fact most are anything but. The changes in America's politics are driven by the changes in American society. When politics get too far ahead of or behind society, political realignments happen. The changes that have happened in American society that made it possible to elect a black man as president have been bubbling up for a long time and yesterday, American politics finally caught up.


MDS said...

Well said. I was also struck by how it was really the country as a whole becoming more Democratic this year, and not really any one demographic group. Yes, you can look at the exit polls and say Obama was aided by black turnout and young voters, but for the most part it was just that the Democrats kept all their votes from last time (minus some gays and lesbians), the Republicans lost a few votes from last time, and most people who voted this time but not last time voted Democrat. The voters the Republicans lost covered a wide spectrum of the electorate and you can't really pinpoint one group that is going Democratic. And even if you could, you can't say for sure that that group will stay Democratic.

dhodge said...

Very true. Obama in '08 and Carter in '76 are the only Democrats to win a majority of the popular vote in the past 40 years, so the only thing we really know for sure is that the Democrats can win a majority if the current president is despised by more than 70% of the electorate and/or was forced to resign in disgrace.