Sabato's Crystal Ball

The 2008 Election in Perspective: Just What We Would Have Expected

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 15th, 2009

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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House. The book, which features several frequent Crystal Ball contributors as well as other journalists and scholars, will be published by Pearson Longman in March 2009.

–The Editors


Some readers will be very surprised by our title. The last outcome they would have expected from Election Year 2008 was the elevation of Barack Obama to the White House. And Obama’s swift rise was certainly a surprise. Yet fundamentally, the November 4th outcome was completely predictable, and in fact we predicted it right here on the Crystal Ball many months prior to the election.

Elections are often over-analyzed, and perhaps we have just committed that venial sin here on The Crystal Ball website. The welter of data and circumstance can overwhelm students of history, when the simple, straight-forward explanations are often the most compelling.

The truth is this: Any mainstream Democratic candidate was destined to win in 2008, when the age-old slogan, “It’s Time for a Change,” had powerful new meaning. The electoral conditions–the fundamentals I often call “the north stars of politics”–could not have been more clear or bright in the sky. The north stars that applied to the 2008 contest were presidential popularity, economic conditions, and war and peace.

It is undeniable that George W. Bush has been an unpopular president for longer than any of his other predecessors, at least since the dawn of the age of polling in 1936. Bush was below 50% job approval in the Gallup Poll for almost all of his second term, and for almost three years he was below 40%. In the election year of 2008, he bounced between the low 20s and the mid-30s, ending up in the mid-20s right before Election Day–an unprecedented level of unpopularity at just the wrong time. Americans were unhappy with his performance in a wide variety of areas, from the Iraq War to the economy to the inadequate response after Hurricane Katrina. Just 27% of the actual voters on November 4th approved of President Bush’s performance in office, and John McCain received 89% of their votes. Of the 71% who disapproved of Bush, Barack Obama secured 67%.

Of all the potential Republican nominees for president, none was better positioned than McCain to separate himself from Bush; after all, Bush and McCain had run against each other for the White House in 2000 and for years they were bitter enemies. That is what enabled McCain to draw 31% of the votes of those who disapproved of Bush. Any other GOP nominee likely would have lost by an even wider margin than McCain did in 2008. There is almost no imaginable way for a party to get a third consecutive term in the White House with an incumbent president as roundly disliked as Bush was in the fall.

Then there was Iraq. After President Bush’s deft handling of the post-September 11th national security restructuring and his successful war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, Americans were inclined to believe him when he insisted that the United States had to invade Iraq to rid that nation of its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Still, many had their doubts (including a young Illinois state senator named Barack Obama), and the decision to go to war was very controversial from the beginning. The post-invasion revelation that there were no WMDs to be found was devastating, as was the internal insurrection and religious in-fighting that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2005 and 2006.

Even the successful “surge” of additional U.S. troops that restored Iraqi stability by early 2008 could not erase Americans’ belief that the war had been waged unnecessarily and at enormous cost in blood (over 4,000 troops’ lives) and treasure ($600 billion by the time of the general election and sure to climb far above $1 trillion before eventual disengagement). McCain had backed Bush, and while he had criticized certain aspects of the war’s prosecution, he could not escape the blame, if only by “inheritance”, as the GOP nominee to succeed Bush. By contrast, Obama could say he opposed the war from the start, which gave him his winning edge (in the primaries) over Senator Hillary Clinton, who, like McCain, had voted to authorize the war. By Election Day, 63% of the voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, and Obama received 76% of those ballots. Just 36% approved of the war, and McCain gathered 86% of that minority.

The economy eclipsed everything else, however. Fully 63% of the voters said it was “the most important issue in the election” in the exit polls, a proportion that dwarfed every other topic. Traditionally, voters blame the party in power for bad times, and decide to take a chance on change even if they have some doubts about the change agent (the nominee of the other party). This is precisely what happened in 2008. There are many ways to measure the impact of the economy on a person’s vote, but none is better than asking whether his or her family’s financial position was getting better (24%), growing worse (42%), or staying the same (34%). McCain handily won those who said “better” (60%) and “the same” (53%), but the large plurality that sensed financial hard times voted overwhelmingly for Obama (71%).

Some analysts have tried to suggest that the election’s key event was the mid-September financial meltdown; that somehow had this never happened McCain might have been able to win or at least keep the election very close. This is poppycock. Except for a brief honeymoon period for McCain after the GOP convention, Obama consistently led the polls from early summer onwards. The evidence of severe economic slowdown was everywhere from the spring to the fall, and Americans already believed that we were in a serious recession. Actually, the average person proved more prescient than the economists, who couldn’t make up their minds about the state of the economy.

For decades pollsters have relied upon a simple question as a kind of summary statistic on politics: “Do you think things in this country are generally going in the right direction or are they seriously off on the wrong track?” As usual, the voters’ answer to this query told us in which direction the political winds were blowing. Three-quarters picked “wrong track”, and Obama was the choice of 62% of them. Just 20% said “right direction”, and McCain secured 71% of this small group of Americans. This gale force overwhelmed worries about Obama’s race or political inexperience, and it was far more critical to John McCain’s defeat than his much-discussed age of 72 or controversial choice of running-mate.

Every election is a discrete event. Most do not signal a durable change in voter alignments. A few do, and these are called realigning elections. It is impossible to know yet into which category Obama’s victory will fall. There are some positive signs for Democrats that encourage them to think of realignment, not least the activation of young voters and their dramatic movement toward the party of Obama.

And goodness knows, Congress has undergone an enormous power shift toward the Democrats after two successive elections that ended GOP rule on Capitol Hill for now, and may have put Congress out of reach for the Republicans for a while. After the GOP swept to power in 1994, ending forty consecutive years of Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans controlled a majority of the delegations in twenty-five states, and Democrats ruled the roost in nineteen. (Five states were tied, and Vermont had an Independent congressman as its sole representative.) Before the election of 2006, Republicans had expanded their House majorities to thirty states; Democrats were left with a mere sixteen. But the combination of Democratic tides in the 2006 and 2008 elections have produced thirty-three states with a majority of Democrats, and Republicans have been reduced to control of only sixteen.

As rosy as the picture seems to be for Democrats, real events and actual performance in office will determine the future. Will President Barack Obama be successful in helping to restore a vibrant economy? Can he keep his pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq while maintaining stability in that fragile nation? Can he win the fight in Afghanistan and keep the United States safe from domestic terrorist activity? How about health care, the environment, education, and a hundred other issues that will demand urgent attention from the White House and the Congress?

Campaigns are grueling, but they are actually the easy part. Governing is the ultimate test for any president, legislature, and party coalition. The voters will be watching, and they will render their next national judgment in the midterm contests of 2010.