Posted on November 10, 2008 in Washington Watch

The significance of Barack Obama’s victory cannot be overstated. Besides the obvious historic fact of being the first African American elected to the US presidency, there are several other metrics that help define the importance of his win.

Since 1980, when the so-called “Reagan Revolution” swept conservative Republicans into power, it has been said that Democrats were in retreat. In the 28 years that followed Reagan’s win, only one Democrat (Bill Clinton) was elected president, and many believe that his initial victory was largely due to the presence on the ballot of third party candidate Ross Perot on the ballot. (Perot garnered 19% of the vote.)

After George W Bush won reelection in 2004, some Republicans – most notably, Karl Rove – crowed that there was a realignment underway in American politics that would result in long-term Republican control.

That was 2004.

Four years later, Rove’s “realignment vision” has been shattered by a combination of factors.

1) Issues. The failures of the Bush Administration were, first and foremost, the reasons behind the Republicans’ undoing. The combination of their disastrous performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the unraveling of their Middle East misadventures took a dramatic toll. The economic downtown that led to a Wall Street meltdown was the coup de gras.

2) Bush himself. Despite their hubris, Bush and his Administration were never hugely popular. Although his favorable ratings jumped to near high 90% levels after September 11, 2001, by the summer of 2002 they were back to their normal resting place in the low 40s. He got other “bounces” in ratings, notably with the start of the Iraq war, but each bounce was smaller than its predecessor and the decline that followed would also bring him to successively lower levels. During the last year, Bush’s ratings were never higher than the low 30% range, and are now in the low 20s – one of the lowest recorded for a sitting president.

3) Loss of confidence in institutions. All of these failures combined to create questions about the efficacy of our most basic institutions, and a correspondingly deep desire for change.

4) Barack Obama and the politics of hope. From his initial entry into presidential politics, voters sensed something unique about Obama. He inspired hope and mobilized unprecedented numbers of supporters, creating a wave, heretofore, unseen in American politics. And, despite efforts to sully his image, he weathered many storms without descending into rancor. In addition to the power of his persona, Obama’s overall effort was enhanced by a disciplined and extraordinarily effective campaign apparatus.

5) New technology, a key to success. While others had used internet technology with some success (McCain as a fundraising tool in 2000, and Howard Dean for fundraising and organizing in 2004), Obama’s use of the internet has transformed the way politics will be done in the future. Still-incomplete reports show over $650 million raised from 3.2 million donors, with the majority of the money coming via the internet. There were millions of individuals working from their homes as virtual phone bankers, calling lists generated by the Obama website, resulting in personal contact with tens of millions of voters. Additionally, millions of cell-phone users were networked by the campaign to turn out the vote. Throughout the campaign, often at critical stages, YouTube videos, an innovation in this election, virally spread Obama’s speeches and ads to tens of millions country-wide. And finally, while in previous elections the right wing had dominated the media environment, using outlets like FOX News with its 2.3 million viewers, nineteen million listeners to right-wing talk radio, and, in 2004, the 9 million who logged in daily to the Drudge Report – in 2008 liberal venues leveled the playing field.

6) New demographics. A final factor to account for the Obama victory that dismantled the “Rove realignment” are dramatic changes in the demographics among registered voters. This year, largely due to efforts of the Obama campaign, millions of new African American, Latino and other minority groups, and young voters were registered and mobilized to vote. In many states, these new voters tipped the balance in favor of the Democrats.

With all of this, what happened?

1) Obama won a greater percentage of the overall vote than any victorious Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

2) Given that this was the largest percentage turnout of registered voters since 1964, Obama won more votes than any previous candidate for U.S. President (nearly 4 million more than voted for George W. Bush in 2004).

3) This is the first time since 1992 that the party of the sitting President will comfortably control both houses of Congress.

4) While some Congressional seats are still to be decided, it is clear that Democrats will have greatly increased their hold in both the Senate and the House, representing the first time since 1980 that any party has increased its numbers in two consecutive elections.

5) Obama won Virginia, which is the first time a Democrat has won that state since the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights bill, which resulted in a white backlash against Democrats. Obama also won North Carolina and Florida, and was competitive in Georgia, where no Democrat from outside the South has done well since 1964.

All in all, a victory so sweeping that pundits are now speaking about a permanent Democratic realignment – a prediction of which Democrats should remain wary, lest hubris bring about their undoing.

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