A Mandate?

Jeff Alworth

Barack Obama: a) won a marginal 6-point victory but barely improved upon John Kerry's performance in a year that Republicans mostly skipped, or b) won a landslide and a mandate for progressive change?  Your answer probably depends on whether you are a partisan Republican or Democrat.  But aside from the spin that accompanies each election, we do have real numbers to look at.  They won't answer the mandate question (ruling mandates are reflected in Congress's votes, not ours), but these numbers might shed some light on where exactly Obama's victory stands in historical perspective. 

Historical Landslides
Let's look at a few historical examples.  In 1972, Richard Nixon creamed George McGovern by a popular vote of 61% - 38%, and a 520-17 electoral votes.  Now that's a landslide.  (FDR's numbers in 1936 were almost identical.)  Generally, though, a modest popular vote margin translates into a large electoral vote win.  So in 1960, Kennedy barely beat Nixon in votes, but won comforatbly in the electoral college.  Conversely, what we sometimes consider a major landslide is accomplished by a relatively close popular vote.  In 1988, the electoral college slaughter of Michael Dukakis (+315 EVs) was accomplished with only a 7-point margin at the polls (53%-46%).  Obama's victory was by about the same margin this year, but resulted in a more modest EV win.

Boosting Turnout
If Obama's electoral college margin was modest by historical standards, it's hard not to see that Obama nevertheless changed some of the fundamentals at the state level.  In 2000 and 2004, Democrats tried to win by boosting turnout in blue states.  But Republicans won the arms race, increasing turnout in red states even more.  But in 2008, Obama went for voters in all states. Overall, he increased turnout by 10.4% over Kerry. But of the 31 states that exceeded the average national gain, 22 were red states (!). If you toss his home state of Hawaii out of the mix, nine of the ten states where he gained the most ground were all formerly red. Below the jump, I'll list the top twenty.  You can see the red states in bold:

             Percent Dem Gain

                2004 - 2008
Indiana            41.1%

Hawaii             40.5%
North Carolina     39.2% 
Georgia            34.7% 
Virginia           34.2% 
Nevada             33.9% 
Montana            32.2%
South Carolina     30.3%   

Idaho              30.2% 
Delaware           27.6%   
North Dakota       27.1% 
Utah               25.1%
Nebraska           24.3%
Texas              24.3%
New Mexico         23.9%
Florida            19.3% 
Wyoming            17.1%
Alabama            16.9%

Connecticut        16.7%
Michigan           16.0%  

This is a rather remarkable shift.  While a few of these states saw their biggest gains among black turnout, others--Indiana, Virginia, the Mountain West states--saw their remarkable shifts among other groups.  What we see is that even among states where Obama lost (sometimes by large margins), he managed to flip a bunch of voters.  And if there is a regional trend, it's in the west. Six of the top twenty big gainers for Obama were in the Mountain West, and Obama didn't compete in three of these.   

What we saw a week ago was a snapshot in time.  Obama will have to deliver to keep these flipped votes blue.  But the numbers argue that Obama has received an unambiguous call to action from voters across the country, sapphire blue states to ruby red ones. 

  • Dan Sellman (unverified)

    It's not called a Mandate it's called $650Million, the most money ever spent to buy - er, 'win' the Whitehouse (Is that name whitehouse now considered racist?)

    BTW, love how BO can't afford any column space on Veterans Day to say "Thank a vet". All the pseudo-intellectual bloggers here must be busy trying to figure out how to tear down the miliary industrial complex and build bike lanes and statues of Obama.

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    Good analysis, Jeff -- thanks for the food for thought!

  • Joel H (unverified)

    Well, of course states they previously lost are the states where Democrats had the most ground to gain, and the states where they'd see the largest percentage improvement with their GOTV campaign.

    The gain is in fact remarkable, but it's not necessarily due entirely to people who were voted Republican in 2004 switching their votes. (Though that's probably a large component.) It may also be due to new Democratic turnout and decreased Republican turnout.

    According to this, Utah had the largest decrease in turnout (about 8%!) in 2008 relative to 2004. North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Indiana and Nevada were the 7 states (in that order) with the highest increase in turnout since 2004. Michigan is #10, and Hawaii is #11.

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    Dan, like most of BlueOregon's readers and editors, I'm sure, my thoughts are with our veterans. I can't speak for anyone here, but I suspect that if you were to write a thoughtful guest column honoring war veterans, it would be prioritized. Group blogs aren't like newspapers -- they don't really make editorial decisions collectively. They rely on individual contributors to write pieces on their own time. If the regular cadre of writers happens to be in an introspective mood on this important holiday, nothing appears on the site. You really shouldn't take it as signifying anything more than that.

  • genop (unverified)

    The mandate calls for taking care of our vets rather than creating more with a thinly disguised (failed) oil grab. I love how the party of big money whines when clobbered by the struggling grass roots. Bring our vets home and provide immediate assistance to those in need. We know the next administration will think long and hard before unnecessarily placing them in harms way again. Not only should we thank them but we should apologize as well. Especially those of you who elected W.

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    the Dan Sellmans are going to around making these noises for the next 8 years; we have to learn to let it slide -- and to respond with facts, not hyperbole or anger.

    for example, the money Obama raised: most of it from small donors like myself (i think i totaled $125, plus a t-shirt, primary + general). he hit the big donors, of course, but it was 1 million-plus small donors who made it possible for him to run the campaign he did. he did not buy anything: his supporters did.

    as far as keeping the flipped states, i think the real responsiblity for that is local. Dems and their allies have to continue to organize and mobilize the new voters and volunteers who got out their for Obama (and other candidates) and get them working to pass health care legislation, etc. if those same people give a day or two a month to these causes, that will be a huge, on-going campaign of support for the Obama Presidency (and jeez i love saying that: Obama Presidency). we cannot leave it to Obama, or any other "leader", to secure and build this victory. we have to do it ourselves.

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    btw, go to change.gov (thanks, Pat Ryan) and see the page both saluting vets and a statement from Pres-elect Obama, once again honoring vets and those who serve the nation.

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    Dan, it sucks to lose--trust those of us who have been rooting for the blue team; the last eight years have been rough.

    But before you solidify the idea that it was just the money, look at that list I included. None of Obama's money was spent in places like South Carolina, Idaho, Utah, Texas, Wyoming, and Alabama. Those remarkably improved numbers came from voters who were inspired by Obama.

    As for our vets, including my father, you have our thanks and appreciation--

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    1 million-plus small donors

    From the most recent info I could get it was 3.5M discrete contributors and over 10M contacts. Over at 538.com Nate's making a good argument that it was these contactws (the Ground Game) that got it over the top for our guy.

    The other fun fact is that a map by county, shows that we increased Dem margins in every state (red or blue) and the vast majority of counties except Oklahoma and Utah.


    The most concrete example of this argument is to look at voter contacts and campainging in North Carolina vs. West Virginia.


    Not going to define the word Mandate, but a broad......er....50 state strategy is just what the doctor ordered for governing.

  • Stacy6 (unverified)

    Gee, Dan, why do you hate Democracy?

    It makes a great talking point to say that Obama bought the presidency, I suppose, although if you apply any real measure of thought to it, it tends to fall apart. One of the reasons Obama won is because he inspired more ordinary people to get enthusiastically involved. Do you see anything wrong with that?

    I'm one of Obama's many small donors. I can't afford one of Gordon Smith's $500 lunches but every time the GOP launched a scurrilous attack on Obama and Democratic voters, I could come up with $10 or $15 to send Obama's way. I probably donated about $100 over the course of the race. Furthermore, I'd never donated to a political candidate before this year. Few politicians have ever made me feel like my $10 would make a difference. Obama did.

    One more question, Dan - what have you thought when the GOP has won seats by outspending the opposition? Do you complain about them "buying the election" then?

  • marv (unverified)

    GW Bush was not elected president. Twice. What has been purchased with that authority? Well, it was adding, until recently five trillion dollars in debt. Three hundred thousand veterans are in need of assistance. More than a million innocent citizens of another country are dead. Three million more displaced. What a bargain if Barack can begin to repair some of this.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    I am hoping that Jeff Merkley's first act as a senator-elect will be to kick Joe Lieberman to the curb, at least remove him as a committee chairman and strip him of all seniority. Joe Lieberman is a traitor to the party, to his colleagues,to whatever Democratic ideals he might have once had, and has lost any claim to integrity or trust. Next week the full senate caucus will vote on Lieberman's future and will notably include those new senator-elects who will join the senate Democratic caucus.

  • Scott Jorgensen (unverified)

    Pat Ryan is right to mention the 50-state strategy and its impacts on this election.

    McCain started off on defense in several states that Bush won in 2000 and 2004. In the final weeks of the campaign, there were about eight swing states. But on election night, it was over once Pennsylvania and Ohio went for Obama. McCain needed all of those swing states to win, whereas the election truly was Obama's to lose anyway.

    It also doesn't hurt that Obama ran one of the best campaigns anyone has ever run, and that his campaign came after eight years of George Bush. But unlike John Kerry, Obama promised to do the opposite of everything Bush did. Let's just hope he does.

    A mandate? Hell yes, it's a mandate.

  • DanOregon (unverified)

    Whenever I see the word "mandate" it always sends shivers down my spine. What the voters gave Obama was a chance, not a mandate. LBJ won a mandate in '64, Nixon in '72 and Reagan in '84. Things didn't turn out so well.

    Govern wisely and well. That should be enough.

  • Oceanlake (unverified)

    Whatever else this election means, it means the Democratic Party is now tasked with governing, not protesting.

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    Obama's big donors are a real issue and a real problem for him to do some of what we need him to do.

    3.4 million discrete donors @ average $100 would give us $340 million of his $650 million, plus 100,000 bigger donors. Make the average $150 and a smaller number of even bigger donors/bundlers/fundraising event organizers and we're over half of his donations, but to get to that, for every $50 donor you have to have a $250 donor to average out at $150.

    The fact of the matter is that Obama was heavily reliant on money from large corporate donors. It is bootless to ignore or deny that fact.

    <h2>Of course, if McCain had won, he would have been even more so reliant, as G.W. Bush has been. So the small donor base & organized labor will have more of a popular voice within an Obama administration. But the big donors will still get special access and have their words and ideas count more.</h2>

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