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History by Numbers

- January 13, 2009

How does the 2008 presidential and congressional elections compare to previous elections? Before we start throwing around terms like, “unprecedented” and “historic,” James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo ask us to take a step back and compare the 2008 presidential and congressional elections with previous elections by looking at the numbers. What do they find? (1) The 2008 presidential election was not unusual by any historical standard. (2) The 2008 congressional election falls in the upper range of congressional victories in a presidential year.

According to Ceaser and DiSalvo, by looking at the numbers, the 2008 election was not unusual because Obama won the presidency with a share of the popular vote that ranks fourteenth, or at the median; his margin of victory ranks nineteenth, or slightly below the median, and his electoral vote percentage was seventeenth among twenty-nine elections. The process of painting by numbers can produce a concise drawing, however, the drawings usually lacks any richness or complexity.

When I was a graduate student, on the first day of class, one of my professors lifted a book to show to the class…to the surprise of the students, it wasn’t a book by V.O. Key, E.E. Schattschneider, or David Truman, but instead it was a book of paintings by Pablo Picasso during his Cubist period. Why Cubism? He wanted to emphasize that any historical examination should try to capture, not just one narrow perspective, but try to piece together multiple perspectives to better capture reality.

Therefore, while understanding the 2008 Democratic victory by the numbers provides one (and important) perspective of presidential and congressional elections, I’m looking forward to reading Ceaser’s cubist rendering of the 2008 presidential elections in his forthcoming book (with Busch and Pitney) Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.