Free-Floating Hostility

Friday, January 02, 2009

In Which I Make One Weak Blog Post Answer for a Widely Held but Benighted Argument

I've covered a football team during a bye week, so I sympathize with political writers and websites trying to maintain traffic during what is basically a dead period. On Real Clear Politics today, someone named David Paul Kuhn takes his turn at what amounts to the political off-week story, the discussion of Obama's mandate. Kuhn argues that November's win was not a realignment, but rather a function of conventional coalitions coalescing around a slightly unusual candidate. He argues that interpreting Obama's win as a Democratic realignment is triumphalist nonsense. The election was swung by the economic crisis, not by the nation (especially the white working class) waking up last fall and realizing they were suddenly Democrats now. This is a reasonable thesis, following by a long and unintelligible argument hell bent on obscuring whatever good points he does have.

I also totally understand the desire to get ahead of macro trends, but Kuhn's conception of "realignment" is simply tiresome. He dredges up the trope that Obama can't connect with working class whites (Is it April 2008 again, do I have time to get my money out of stocks?) and therefore cannot win build a durable Democratic majority. The problem with this point is not that it's wrong, but that it's silly.

Obama's goal was to win the election, and to do so, he defeated what stood for the Democratic establishment. Also, the notion that winning the election because of the financial crisis is somehow not a real victory is truly ridiculous. There are real differences between the Democrats and Republicans on fiscal policy, and lots of voters opted for the former. That's a win. It's not partly a win or a minor victory. It's an election. They have consequences.

Kuhn apparently wrote a book about white voters. So it's not surprising he puts them at the center of his analysis. According to exit polls, Obama won 41% of the white vote. That's the best total for a Democrat since Carter in 1976. Citing Gallup, Kuhn says that before Lehman Brothers failed on September 15, Obama was polling around 33 percent among white voters, "Mondale Territory." Mondale may be synonymous with loser, but the electorate is a lot less white than in 1984. And it's key to note that except for the 10 days after the Republican Convention -- McCain's bounce days -- Obama led in the tracking polls from May through November.

In the end 41 percent of Whites, Blacks turning out in record numbers, and Hispanics who the Republicans alienated with anti-immigration policy, were enough to build a comfortable victory margin. It may not have been a landslide, but the result made the East Coast papers on the Wednesday after Election Day. Kuhn is not describing the continued power of the white electorate, but rather its weakening influence. Further, Obama's appeal to young voters and the GOP's own actions obviate the need for him to pander to white working class voters. He has proven he can win without them, even if Generic Democrat can't. But Generic Democrat won't be running in 2012. And in 2016 white working class voters will be an even smaller share of the electorate. If Obama can deliver on things like health care and governmental competence, Generic Democrat may have a pretty good record to run on.

Kuhn furthermore peddles a chronology that isn't necessarily matched by contemporary accounts. He points to the failure of Lehman Brothers as the day the election turned. This is conventional wisdom, and it probably does contain a kernel of truth. But I went back to, which was my source for polling news. By Sept. 15's poll update Nate Silver suggests that McCain has already topped out and the race had turned back toward Obama. Given that we're talking tracking polls, that would mean September 12 was when the race began to turn. A few things happened on September 11, 2008:

  • The Republican Convention and McCain's very good speech were less fresh in people's minds
  • There were the commemorations of the attacks, which meant George W. Bush was in the news a lot.
  • The candidates appeared together at a forum at Columbia (up top!) to discuss public service. During the debates that followed every time voters viewed McCain and Obama together, Obama came out the winner, and perhaps that started here.
  • The Charlie Gibson interview with Sarah Palin hit the airwaves, showing that while she could inspire a room using a teleprompter she could not engage with issues when forced off scripts.
Now, I'll give Kuhn that fivethirtyeight switched its projected winner back to Obama on Sept. 18, which fits his narrative. By that time, the tracking polls included only post-Lehman polling. But he can't prove that Sept. 15 didn't amplify and accelerate the already existing trend.

Kuhn isn't the only one peddling this sort of nonsense out there. He's just the person I happened on today.

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