The Thought Refuse

A Virtual Repository for the Mind

Defining The Election of President-Elect Barack Obama

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In no small terms, the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States is indeed a historic moment in the history of the United States, in terms of our nation, after electing a Caucasian male to the office of President, ushering in an African-American into the highest office.  Numerous voters and pundits have painted the 2008 Presidential election to be unique in to such elections as Ronald Reagan in 1980 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, in so much as the election cycle was infused with a transcendental candidate.

I would argue that, while the 2008 election possessed uncommon qualities not typical of most Presidential elections, it was not the candidates themselves that created the interest in the 2008 election, but the national conditions that transformed this election into one perceived as important.

Barack Obama is undoubtedly one of those rare figures who captures the imagination and attention of the electorate.  Many have attributed his oratory skills as the reason.  To be frank, his speaking skills are above average, but not on par with other “great” Presidential speakers of recent memory – Reagan and Clinton.  Where Obama does excel is his ability to display pragmatism and rationale in conveying his message which is a rare departure from the typical mold for politicians.  I am in know way attempting to disparage Obama.  He has run a magnificently effective campaign, emerging as a relative unknown to capture the Presidency of the United States.  He consistently displays “leader” type characteristics that are rarely found in the lemming pool that is Washington.

But the question I want to answer is – was it Obama himself that caused this election to be viewed as unique and of historical importance or was it the conditions on the ground, seeding voter perception, that created the atmosphere for a unique and important Presidential election?  This harkens back to the critical delineation between correlation and causation pf which muddles so many discussions.

Previously, I had detailed past Presidential elections illustrating how an incumbent faired during either an unpopular war or economic recession.  When either or both elements are issues during an election, the incumbent fairs drastically worse then when they are not present.  It can be assumed that these two components breed a negative national image, and expedite a staggering requirement within the voting populace for “change”.  Given that our political system is dominated and vastly perceived as a strictly two party system, it is not outrageous to put voting tendencies in such simplistic terms.  An incumbent party presiding over these two antagonistic events will be viewed as the cause, and the inverse party will naturally be presumed to be the fix to the problem.

Exit polls indicate that the economy dominated voter concerns. 6 in 10 voters said the economy was their primary concern while the next issue of concern was the Iraqi War, but was cited by only 1 in 10 voters.  Historically, voters have given the nod to Democrats as the best party to handle the economy, and this election held to that voter generalization.  Of those citing the economy, Obama held a 9% lead among voters.  Also consider 9 in 10 voters who wanted “change” cast their vote for Obama.  I had previously detailed the effect the economy would have on the election results, and it certainly bore fruit.  voters clearly wanted “change”.

The major issues in play in the 2008 election are not terribly unique, and are, in fact, a common occurrence in past Presidential elections.  Nor did the outcome in this election stray far from past elections when the same major issues were present.  In this respect, the 2008 election was not and is not unique.

Let’s dig deeper.  One would expect a historic election to draw voters to the polls in droves.  However, according to the numbers, this election did not see an appreciable increase in total voter turnout.  In fact, the percentile of voting eligible persons who participated in the 2008 election declined from 2004.  55.3% of the voting age population participated in 2004, while 53.1% took part in 2008.  Over the past 36 years, election turnouts has steadily hovered between 49-55%.  From an aggregate level, the 2008 election was not unique in terms of voter turnout.  There was not a country wide, demographic blind drive to the polls.  Certainly not more or less then in past elections.  The only noticeable sum increase or decrease  that’s occurred in the last two decades was from 2000-2004 when voter turnout increased by 4%, from 1992-1996 when voter turnout decreased 6%, and from 1988-1992 when it increased by 5%.

One would expect an election of historical proportions to witness a large increase in voter turnout indicative of a populace that deemed 2008 as a critical point in the political future of our government.  But the numbers seem to say that American voters didn’t care any more or less in 2008 then they did in 2004.  The only thing we can say based on these figures is that voter interest in the political process rose from 2000 to 2004, and slightly dropped off in 2008.

A common theme in the 2008 Presidential election has been the effect of the youth vote ages 19-24.  Pacer noted on his blog, The Blog at the End of the Universe, how the election became a palpable topic of discussion at his school. This is particularly pertinent considering these are persons not eligible to vote.  Naturally, one would expect the youth vote to have increased from the 2004 election, and it did.  According to CIRCLE, youth voting increased by from 2004 to 23 million under the age of 30(numbers on voters from 19-24 are currently unavailable).  This is a 4% point increase.

Obama captured 62% of the youth vote as compared to 32% for McCain.  Undoubtedly, young Americans went to the polls to let their vote be heard, and Obama clearly benefited from their increased turnout.  However, were the youth numbers and increase enough to say that 2008 was an election like any other from this particular perspective?

The very same CIRCLE article cites that 2008 was the second highest youth turnout.  1974 saw 55.4% of all under 30 voters visit the polls, and in 1992 an almost equal number, 52%, cast their vote.  Additionally, consider that the youth vote has been increasing for the last eight years, and CIRCLE questioned whether the 2004 increase was an isolated circumstance particular to that election or an overall trend.  Given the subsequent increase in 2008, it appears to be a trend possibly linked to overall demographic shifts in age, but not election specific.

These don’t seem to be especially unique factors.  They have cropped up previously in past elections.  Was the 2008 election a special one?  Certainly.  Was it a unique one this nation has never seen the likes of before?  Aside from electing an African-American, no – at least not in terms of importance.

There was one unique characteristic to this election then another previous one, and that was Obama’s revolution of the campaign.  Specifically, in his campaign embracing technology to reach potential voters and donors.  The utilization of the internet and SMS will fundamentally alter all future elections.  Any candidate who does not harness the reach of technology will automatically put himself at a disadvantage compared to an opponent who does.


Written by huxbux

November 17, 2008 at 6:53 pm

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