Campaign Comment: Looking Back and Ahead

Sorting out the complex U.S. presidential election can be tough. Accordingly, AmCham Denmark offers its members Campaign Comment, a continuing series of articles taking a look at the 2008 race as it unfolds.

 President-elect Barack Obama seems to be building a White House team that is diverse and tough, according to many news reports, one of which described the team as “no shrinking violet.” Obama may be signaling that he will not be pushed around by Congress or by anyone else. Still, he is reaching out to previous adversaries, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, who could otherwise be troublesome in Congress.

But let’s take a step back. Obama, in his interview with “60 Minutes” that aired a few days ago, half-jokingly said it had not completely sunken in yet that he will be president.

He’s not alone. Obama’s election didn’t come as a complete surprise, of course –preference polls had him ahead of McCain or running close in many key states. Still, the scope and precedent-shattering nature of the election results give pause, particularly for those of us who have followed American politics for some time.

The outcome could simply be the natural result of an election cycle toxic to Republicans, as many have said. Obviously, if a Republican president is in power when there is an economic crisis, Democrats are going to gain, and vice versa. But there could be more going on. Obama’s victory could signal that America has left an electoral era it entered 40 years ago.

A New Electoral Era?

In 1968, many Americans felt that the social fabric of their country was unraveling – the Vietnam War and protests about it were compounded by various social movements. The Democratic Party, then in power, was deeply split. So Americans turned right in 1968, giving Republican Richard Nixon and southern segregationist George Wallace a combined 57 percent of the vote.

Nixon won with a so-called southern strategy, which focused on drawing electoral votes from the South. It was unusual for a Republican, because historically the South had voted for Democrats. But as the Democratic Party changed its social agenda, southerners migrated to the GOP. What’s happened since then? A lot, and it has mostly favored Republican presidential candidates.

No candidate has been elected president since then without strong support in the South. And that’s included every winning candidate of the Republicans – who have taken seven of the 11 elections since 1968. In fact, the only Democrats elected since 1968 have been southerners – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – who were elected in unusual circumstances: Carter was just narrowly picked even though he ran in the wake of the enormous Watergate scandals of the Republicans; and arguably much of the credit for Clinton’s victory in 1992 goes to the split on the right between George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

That pattern changed a couple of weeks ago. Dramatically.

McCain took most of the South but lost. And the South itself is splitting: Obama took Virginia and North Carolina, an outcome that seemed very unlikely just a short time ago. A Democrat last took Virginia in 1964; North Carolina in 1976. And it took a southerner to do it both times.

A look at the counties won by each candidate shows a changed political landscape. Check out: http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/explorer.html

Look at the blue Democratic crescents extending from Maine to Minnesota, and from the East Coast inland across the south all the way to the Mississippi River. There are also Obama sweeps straight down the West Coast curving up into New Mexico and Colorado. Republican red covers wide areas, mostly rural. Whatever your politics, such a map, and the fact that McCain led most significantly among those older than 65, indicate that Republicans have a lot of work to do to win over voters in the future. The East and West Coast crescents are not unusual for Democrats – the extent of their reaches is very unusual.

Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back now, the GOP has not scored a decisive electoral vote victory since 1988 – so it seems that the changes that surfaced this year have been underway for some time. And I haven’t even mentioned race yet, which only amplifies the dramatic nature of Obama’s win.

Who’s Next?

Still, the unfolding economic crisis, deepening federal deficit, uncertain international scene and other challenges may change the political landscape yet again during the next four years. Republicans are already battling for control of their party. A Rasmussen poll this month found that more than 60 percent of Republicans favor Sarah Palin as their nominee in 2012; Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee also showed some support.

Okay, now that I’ve emphasized how historic precedents were shattered on November 4, let me turn the tables and point out one precedent that may still matter: Since 1952, there have been 15 U.S. presidential elections. Republicans have run either Richard Nixon or a Bush for president or vice president 11 of those 15 times, winning every time but twice, and both of those losses were in very unusual circumstances.

During those same 56 years, there have been just four Republican tickets without Nixon or a Bush on it, including this year. Republicans lost all four times. That point is not lost on former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. If the political landscape shifts just a tiny fraction of what it did in the past four years, we could be hearing much more about the next Bush.

Future prospects aside, Democrats and Republicans alike, including McCain and President George W. Bush, have described Obama’s victory as a testament to the economically embattled, but still vibrant, dynamic and perpetually surprising American way. Where else in the world is an Obama likely? That ultimately may be the takeaway about the 2008 election.


Scott Berman is AmCham Denmark's journalist. Scott started following American politics and the presidency in 1976, before he was old enough to vote. He canvassed instead. Scott has worked with Democratic and Republican colleagues in public relations and trade association work in Washington, D.C. He now writes for a range of publications and businesses. www.sjbwriting.com

Reprinting is not allowed without a prior written agreement with AmCham Denmark.

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