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The 2008 election

- January 12, 2009

John asked us to comment on some articles in The Forum on the 2008 election.

Before commenting I’ll give my very quick summary of what happened.

My quick take on 2008

With the economy plunging into recession, 2008 was a bad year to be a Republican. The Democrats ended up gaining about 5 percentage points of the vote, compared to their 2004 performance, both in presidential and in congressional elections. Obama did about as well as predicted for a challenger in a poor economy. (See here for lots more discussion of this point.) I think it’s probably true that Obama lost some net votes from being an ethnic minority and gained some votes from having a much better funded campaign, and McCain probably lost a little bit by his choice of vice-presidential candidate.

But the economy was #1. Even before the bank and stock market meltdown, large majorities of survey respondents were saying that economic issues were most important to them, and the economy wasn’t looking good.

The articles under discussion

Given my perspective as stated above (also see here for more discussion of the presidential election and here for my discussion of the U.S. House races), what do I say about the articles in the Forum?

First off, I think their emphasis is misplaced. All of the topics discussed are important, ranging from race to interest groups to primaries to foreign policy to forecasting to the courts–but not much was said about economic voting. Partly this must be because the point is so obvious: nobody disputes that 2008 was a Democratic year, and it makes sense to move on to the subtleties.

Nonetheless, I think a reader of this issue might come out with an unbalanced view of what mattered in the election. This is not really meant as a criticism of the particular articles–for example, Klinkner and Schaller make an interesting point in connecting the Democrats’ strength among ethnic minorities to past policy choice of the two parties. Their article goes a step beyond the usual point that Democrats do well among public employees and Republicans do well among those who have to pay higher taxes. With a different lineup of candidates (say, Clinton vs. Romney instead of Obama vs. McCain), the demographic and geographic breakdown of votes might have been different, even if the ultimate popular vote totals were roughly the same. (As Caeser and DiSalvo point out in their article, Obama’s victory margin was neither a landslide nor a squeaker, historically speaking.)

I think Campbell does a good job at summarizing the factors that helped Obama (and the Democrats in Congress) do so well. In his companion article, Walker has the interesting idea of comparing forecasts using different economic indicators. Walker does a good job at illustrating the pitfalls of mechanistic models that plug in economic statistics without relation to the political context. Political scientists such as Rosenstone, Campbell, and Erkison and Wlezien have made this point repeatedly over the years.

I will conclude by saying that I appreciate how these articles tend to focus on what we can learn from the numbers. As McDonald points out, some simple numbers on turnout trends, when carefully tallied, have changed the whole way that we think about political participation in our mass democracy.