11/11/2008 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Obama Won

One week ago today Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States by taking advantage of the economic issues facing the country and outperforming John Kerry's 2004 vote share with key demographic groups. Forget all the nonsense that has been written about this being a revolutionary, web-based, text messaging, new generation campaign. Those things were certainly helpful, but their import has been exaggerated. Rather, the Obama team won this election the old fashioned way: they defined themselves and their opponent, they made few mistakes and they got out their vote.
Seven days gives us a bit of perspective on some of the often misguided and extreme ideas that have been bandied about in the last week. The following are some observations on these first impressions:

  • The Obama win was neither as big as some Democrats and members of the media have made it out to be nor as small as some of the GOP faithful would like to think. The problem is that the last two elections were fairly close, so Obama's win seems like a landslide...when in reality it was not. It was however, decisive. History is helpful here. Obama's popular vote percentage is approximately 52.6% as of today. This represents the first time a Democrat has reached the 50% mark since Carter in 1976 (50%), and the highest for a Democrat since Johnson in 1964 (61%). While it is a point and a half more than George W. Bush received in 2004, it is below George H. W. Bush in 1988 (53%) and far below Reagan in 1984 (59%) and Nixon in 1968 (61%). Reagan, Nixon and Johnson were blowouts; this was not.
    • The electoral vote victory was not a blowout either. Assuming Obama wins NE's 2nd Congressional district, he will finish with 365 electoral votes. This is far better than Bush received in 2004 (286) but below Clinton in 1996 (379) and far below Bush in 1988 (426), Reagan in 1984 (525), Reagan in 1980 (489), Nixon in 1972 (520) and Johnson in 1964 (486). Again, it was a strong electoral win for Obama but not a crushing defeat for the GOP.
  • The Obama campaign team was neither as brilliant as the news analysis articles have made them out to be nor was the McCain campaign team as inept as some stories have portrayed them. During the coming weeks, months and years, thousands of pages will be written about this election. It almost goes without saying that virtually every post-mortem will speak glowingly of the Obama effort (sometimes deservedly so) and disparagingly of the McCain campaign (ditto). However, winning campaigns always look like they were smarter than losing campaigns, whether it's true or not. Team McCain had several shining moments including the stretch in late August and early September when several ads (including the much discussed "Celebrity" ad) ran and had Obama playing defense. We are certain that these spots threw the Obama campaign off stride. However, the financial meltdown came and the 2008 electoral environment hugely favored the Democrats. Obama took advantage of that environment and ran a good, virtually mistake-free campaign (and make no mistake: this is rare). They should have won and they did.
Here is our take on what happened last Tuesday and how the results should be interpreted. This is based on an analysis of both the actual results and the exit polls.

First, let's look at the actual results. Obama won by flipping nine Bush 2004 states in three different regions of the country. He flipped three in the West (Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico), three in the Midwest/rust-belt (Iowa, Indiana and Ohio) and three in the mid-Atlantic/Southeast (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida). Demographic changes are part of the reason. All of these states have gotten younger, more urban and more diverse in the last ten years. Of course to flip those states the Obama campaign had to flip counties first. Some notable ones include Wake County (Raleigh) in NC (57% Obama), Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties in CO, Pinellas County in FL (54% Obama) and Loudoun County in VA. And of course Obama also expanded on Kerry's margins in hundreds of other key counties across the country.

Having said that, McCain still won 22 states and lost 5 others (totaling 86 electoral votes) by four points or less: Indiana (-1), Ohio (-4), Virginia (-4), North Carolina (-1) and Florida (-2). Of the states he won, 18 were by 8 points or more.

Second, let's take a quick look at turnout. According to Curtis Gans at American University, turnout was approximately 127 million - way below what was predicted. Perhaps the biggest underreported story of this election is that the reason turnout was essentially flat (up approximately 1-2 points from 2004) is that some of the evangelicals/GOP base stayed home and there was a corresponding increase in the black/youth vote. Some key data points to focus on are that self-described evangelical turnout was down three points. Conversely, the African American vote was up two points and 18-29 year olds were up approximately one point. This is, of course, imprecise because not all evangelicals vote Republican and not all blacks and youth vote Democratic, but if one goes down three points and the other two groups go up three points, the net is a six point change. It is not a coincidence that Obama won by about six points.

Third, let's take a look at the exit polls. We take the exit polls with a grain of salt but it is the best we have for understanding how segments of the electorate voted (and why). While it is true that McCain underperformed Bush among a number of different subgroups it is more instructive to focus on the groups where Obama over-performed John Kerry's numbers. The following stand out:

  • Men (+5)
  • Women (+5, and Obama beat McCain by 13 points)
  • Blacks (+5)
  • Latinos (+14, and Obama beat McCain by 36 points)
  • Asians (+6)
  • Whites (+2)
  • All income groups (+5 to +8)
  • Independents (+3)
  • Conservatives (+5, this represented a 20% defection of conservatives to the Democratic candidate compared to 15% in 2004)
  • All religious groups (+4 to +8)
  • Married and unmarried voters (+5)

The fact is that the Obama victory was pervasive and cut across almost all demographic subgroups. However, there are some prominent groups that warrant examination. A glance at the below chart comparing the 2004 results by race with those same results from 2008 shows how the Obama victory was a balance of winning more white voters than John Kerry and doing substantially better with African Americans and Hispanics.

exit poll race.png

Given the demographic trends in the country, the GOP is unlikely to win any future Presidential elections if it is losing 95% of the black vote and 67% of the Hispanic vote

It is also worth noting that Obama did something unique in this election by winning men. There has been a structural gender gap in place since the early 1980's, when men gravitated to the GOP primarily because of Reagan and never left (until now, at least temporarily). Women tend to find the GOP less appealing - driven largely by GOP positions on education, health care and the environment - and tend to have more allegiance to the Democrats. People always talk about the gender gap in terms of women preferring Democrats, but it is really more about men and the GOP. Note that in 2004 John Kerry beat Bush among women by three points but it was the Bush win among men (nine points) that was stunning. In essence, Obama flipped men in this election, winning them by one point; that, combined with his overwhelming lead with women, helped him secure the Presidency.

exit poll gender.png
The following is our assessment of the 2008 campaign with an eye to why Obama won:
  1. It was simply the right time. This election took place during a financial meltdown and one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction ("wrong track" at 85%, the President's approval at 27%) in modern history. For McCain, this was not the right time to be running for the third term of the incumbent party.
  2. Obama had a singular, consistent theme from day one and he ran on it for two years: "Change." He was in the right place at the right time. One of those times in history when the person and the idea are in alignment with the attitudes of the country. Obama was about change - and what that meant was never ambiguous. It was the opposite of George W. Bush and the Republicans. It was clear and simple...and that is how you win elections.
  3. By contrast, John McCain never settled on an agenda-setting national theme or message. Go ahead, ask yourself what McCain stood for. Sure, during the last week it was for cutting taxes and in opposition to a socialist governing philosophy (this was the only period over the final two months that the McCain campaign exhibited air-tight message discipline). But before that they ran through a dozen campaign themes. In fact, at times it seemed that the candidate himself evolved during the campaign. There was McCain the fighter, the "surge" McCain, McCain the reformer, McCain the maverick, McCain the earmark guy. Yes, by virtue of the position they were in (i.e. the hostile environment and running behind in the polls) they had to try some different things to break through, but that is not an excuse for failing to settle on a campaign narrative in April and sticking to it. There was never a consistent theme and they paid the price for it.
  4. The ultimate irony is that Obama defined McCain rather than the other way around. We all thought it was the Republican who would define Obama. But the Obama campaign defined McCain as "erratic" and "confused" at various points during the campaign. Of course, McCain contributed to this impression by suspending his campaign during the financial crisis/bailout negotiations and seeking to cancel the debate (and then failing to negotiate a deal and attending the debate). Once the word "erratic" entered the public lexicon the media latched on to it. Whether it was Obama focus group research that unearthed it or not is moot: the Obama campaign discovered that the impression of McCain as "erratic" stuck and that was all they needed.
  5. Without Hillary Clinton, there probably would not be a President Obama. The primary battle with Hillary Clinton helped Obama in three specific ways: it vetted (and probably took of the table) the biggest political skeleton in his closet, it gave him a chance to blunder and learn from it and, finally, it made him and his campaign better.
    1. Jeremiah Wright. It was hugely helpful for Obama that the Wright tape was released in the spring of last year. It was a big political issue and his numbers went down. His denouncement of Wright and his major speech on race was a defining moment in the primary campaign. It also, to some extent, took the issue off the table for Republicans in the fall because to raise the issue - without the newsworthiness - may have seemed racist (or desperate). Certainly one can argue whether McCain could have engaged on the issue given the state of the economy, but the best thing for Obama was when it happened. It took the surprise out of it and inoculated him against its future use.
    2. Bitter-gate. Obama's comments in early April 2007 at a San Francisco fundraiser were a major tactical error and halted much of his momentum at that point. Again, the campaign team was able to right the ship and the candidate learned from the mistake. From that point forward his performance on the campaign trail was nearly flawless.
    3. Preparation. The primary battle with Clinton honed the Obama message and campaign apparatus and emboldened the Obama team to stick to their campaign strategy. The fight with Clinton did not weaken them, it made them stronger.
  6. Palin did not make a difference one way or another. The Palin pick was purely tactical and not based on any specific strategy. Sometimes a good tactic can have a short-term benefit but little long term effect. Such was the Palin choice. She energized the base and became a fundraising generator but the choice diffused the McCain argument that Obama was unprepared for the Presidency. Our sense is that Palin was a net positive because of her impact on GOP fundraising and its volunteer apparatus. For those who say that she took away the experience argument - and we agree-- we are doubtful that this election would have turned on "experience." Otherwise, the Newsweek and Time magazine covers this week would have Hillary Clinton's picture on them.

  7. Obama won the middle. Elections are about 50.1%; it is about putting together a minimum winning coalition. Obama's coalition was clear: win almost all the black vote and two-thirds of Hispanics, win young voters 2 to 1 and hold down your losses with white voters to less than 15 points (it was -12 points, but far better than Kerry in 2004, who lost white voters by 17 points). They put enough pieces of their coalition together to get to 50.1%...and then some.

  8. McCain had three shots to change the trajectory of this election and he failed in two out of the three. Presidential candidates who are behind in the polls really have only a few chances to get a game-changer: the selection of the running-mate, the convention speech and the debates. The selection of Sarah Palin gave McCain a short-term bump and a temporary lead. While her interview performances caused a drop in her favorability, it was the financial crisis that drove down the McCain vote in mid-September. McCain's speech at the convention was neither memorable nor persuasive. Finally, as we have said before, Obama flat out won the debates on both style and content. Obama's debate performances (especially in the first debate) allowed him to cross the acceptability threshold for many voters.

  9. Obama won the big moments. Perhaps the biggest moment of all was the financial bailout debate. The financial crisis created a Presidential moment for the candidates and Obama appeared sober, thoughtful and smart. His behavior during this period seemed presidential. On the other hand, McCain's suspension of his campaign, his dash to Washington and his failure to get Congressional action was a major campaign blunder and, more importantly, cemented the notion that McCain was "erratic."

  10. Obama had a lot more money and used it. The decision by the Obama team to go outside of the public-financing system may have been a no-brainer but it was also the single most important one the campaign made. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, through October 15th John McCain raised $360 million (including $84 million in federal funds) and spent $239 million while Barack Obama raised a staggering $639 million and spent $537 million. President-elect Obama raised and spent 75% more money than Senator McCain.

    Financial data on the political parties for the entire election cycle is available. The Democrat Party raised $749 million and spent $669 million, while the Republican Party raised $720 million and spent $619 million. While it is unknown precisely how much of that money was spent assisting the presidential candidates, it is clear that Obama and the Democrats possessed a tremendous financial edge and, given the minimal political fallout, Obama's decision to forego public financing was prescient.

    This forced McCain to put money and personnel into previously solid GOP states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. In October, Obama was up on the air with 3,500 rating points a week (according to an Obama campaign official). This means the average voter saw an Obama ad approximately 35 times a week (and that doesn't include what the DNC was doing). The GOP was able to come close to that spend level in the campaign's last two weeks but was still probably outspent 2 to 1 in key states. Obama was running 2,000 points a week in Montana and, although they narrowly lost the state, it forced McCain to spend resources in a state where he shouldn't have needed to.

  11. McCain's defense of the economy was the beginning of the end. We said it back then: the campaign turned on a single turn of phrase. When McCain said that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" it told voters that he was out of touch. Obama pounced and McCain's vote share dropped.

  12. McCain's support of the bailout was the end of the end. This is not an indictment of the policy decision, but rather the political effect. When McCain announced his support for the bailout it robbed him of any chance to differentiate himself from Obama.

  13. The battlefield favored Obama overwhelmingly. However, if the issue landscape had been foreign policy and terrorism instead of the economy, McCain could have won. The economy was overwhelmingly the most important issue to voters but if this election had been fought on different terrain the results might have been different. Among those worried about terrorism McCain was almost even, losing by only 2 points.

exit poll terrorism2.png