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November 11, 2008

The American Election and the Obama "landslide": William D. Rubinstein asks, landslide - what landslide?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth - analyses the results of the US election, and finds talk of an Obama landslide overblown.

To the last, I had a sneaking feeling that John McCain would just manage to win the recent Presidential election: he had been ahead in most polls until mid-September, and his experience and patriotic views, plus whatever hostility there was to a black President, would result in a win in the end.

This did not happen, but it is also important not to exaggerate either the scale of Barack Obama's win or what this is likely to mean for the United States.

After Obama's victory, several British media sources referred to Obama's "landslide" win. But his election was nothing of the sort. It was a clearcut win, but nothing spectacular or epoch-making. In fact, it did not even begin to match some Presidential wins of the recent past.

On now virtually complete statistics, Obama received 52.7 per cent of the popular vote (66.6 million) compared with 46 per cent for McCain (58.2 million), and 1.1 per cent (1.5 million) for minor candidates.

Obama's margin of victory does not begin to compare with others in modern times: Lyndon Johnson (in 1964 against Barry Goldwater), Richard Nixon (in 1972 against George McGovern), and Ronald Reagan (in 1984 against Walter Mondale) each received about 60 per cent of the total Presidential vote, far higher than Obama's share. Obama's percentage was lower than that received by George H.W. Bush (54 per cent) in 1988 when he defeated Michael Dukakis; Bush proved to be an unpopular and unsuccessful one-term President and was defeated for reelection in 1992.

Nor were the 2008 results uniform across the United States. Obama ran up huge majorities in California, New York, Illinois (his home state), Massachusetts, and other liberal bastions, but lost most of the south and the west. Unnoticed by most commentators, he decisively lost Louisiana to McCain, although the Hurricane Katrina debacle was widely seen as a nail in the Republicans' coffin. McCain lost very narrowly in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia, and by only slightly more in states like Wisconsin. A change in two million or so votes in these states, less than two per cent of those cast, would have given McCain the White House. Had the great storm over the apocalyptic catastrophe about to overtake the World Economy not blown up in mid-September, McCain would quite probably have won: to reiterate, he was ahead at that point.

Rather remarkably, too, voter turnout did not massively increase, either as the result of the charismatic Obama luring youth and ethnic minorities into the ballot box, or for any other reason. About 126 million people voted for President on November 4. In 2004, when the uncharismatic George W. Bush and John Kerry faced off, about 121.4 million people voted. Given America's population increase in four years, turnout in 2008 was quite possibly below that in 2004.

Nor did the election reflect any basic social or demographic changes in America's population mix, as has been widely suggested. The percentage of Afro-Americans in the total population of the United States is the same today as ten, thirty, or sixty years ago: about 11 per cent. More might well have voted for a black candidate than in the past, but 90 per cent of American blacks always vote Democratic. There are more Hispanics and Asians than before, but most American Hispanics are stable Spanish-speaking Caucasians from Mexico, whose grandchildren will be indistinguishable from the rest of the white population, while most Asians are upwardly mobile Chinese, Indians, and Japanese who were as likely to vote for McCain.

A visible portion of the "youth vote" campaigned for Obama, but at what election in modern times has there not been a highly visible left-liberal contingent of young activists? On the contrary, McCain's vote held up as well as it did because there are relatively more "family value" white Protestants and Catholics than more marginal groups, and stable Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists from "Main Street" are a lot more likely to have large families and transmit their values intergenerationally than are hippies from San Francisco or the faculty of Columbia University.

What gave Obama his win was that the white working class in industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania believed that Obama was much more likely to save their jobs than was McCain - it is as simple as that.

This is not to say that McCain ran an admirable campaign. He did not: indeed, his campaign was certainly one of the most inept I can recall. It had no theme, and no constructive plans to alleviate the financial crisis. What he should have promised, self-evidently, was a massive income tax cut for everyone: say, an immediate five per cent cut in all levels of income tax. He should have made this the theme of his campaign. He would have won. The choice of Sarah Palin was probably, on balance, a mistake, although it probably made little difference to the outcome.

In the meantime, Obama's supporters are likely to be very disappointed by him. He is likely to be much more cautious, even conservative, than most of them would like. Contrary to what right-wing bloggers allege, he is not a flaming radical at all, let alone the secret agent of Osama (Obam?) Bin Laden. He is an inexperienced politician who is likely to find himself out of his depth very quickly. The Republican party arguably has more reasons for hope than it might now credit.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Israel, the Jews, and the West: The Fall and Rise of Antisemitism, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).


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At last! A well-balanced article written about the Obama victory.

I disagree with the last paragraph though. Obama is big on empty slogans and I can see him being tied to radical Socialist measures to stop his popularity collapsing. It does not help that his term will navigate some very choppy waters.

Good new for the Republicans, as by 2012 the Democrats will find themselves more hated than the GOP now, as the folly of the Bush years start to manifest themselves.

Posted by: Rob at November 17, 2008 06:37 PM
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