Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Little Electoral History

This post will diverge a little from the standard themes of this blog, but I guess we can say Civis supports always viewing things in light of history, and taking a clear sight of the real.

The election on Tuesday had a historic turnout. I think they're saying it was the highest since 1960 -- and given that 1960 was the year of notorious fraud, where Kennedy-Johnson beat Nixon through impossibly high turnouts in Daley's Chicago and Johnson's Texas, 1908 seems to stand as the last time this high a percentage of the electorate turned out to vote. That is interesting, but what does it signify?

Far more important for questions of mandate and "landslides" is what percentage of the vote Obama actually got. The Wall Street Journal has a nice chart on popular and electoral votes for every election since 1900.

Popular Vote
In the popular vote, Obama got 51.6% -- despite 96% of the black vote, overwhelming urban and college support, and lots of new voters. That puts him even or behind (ready for this?) TR I and II, Taft, Harding-Coolidge-Hoover (Hoover!)-FDR, Eisenhower I and II, Johnson, Nixon II, Reagan II, and H.W. Bush. It has been said that Obama got the highest percentage of the popular vote since 1988 -- but the last four elections have had strong third parties: Perot got 19% of the popular vote in '92 and 8% in '96; Nader got 3% in the ultra-close 2000. All we really see is that Obama beat Bush '04.

In fact, looking back, other than 2004, for every election in which the winner got a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Obama 2008, there was a much stronger explanation than Obama has. In 1912, TR ran against the incumbent Taft, splitting the Republican vote. In 1916, Wilson barely won reelection in light of the Great War in Europe. In '48 there were four candidates: not only Truman and Dewey, but also Strom Thurmond sweeping the South and Henry Wallace, whom Truman had fired for being too soft on Communism, picking off about 2.5% on account of his popularity in the Northeast -- and still the papers said Truman had lost. Kennedy lost the popular vote and cheated to win the electoral college. Nixon won in 1968 because George Wallace took the South and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. I won't even begin with comparisons to Carter's 50.1% victory. And in 1980 Reagan won 50.8% of the popular vote and a 489-vote landslide in the electoral college despite John Anderson, whom Reagan had defeated in the Republican primaries, getting 6.6% as a moderate-Republican Independent.

In short, historically Obama's 51.6% running against an unpopular incumbent party with no significant third party is one of the weakest popular-vote victories on record -- with the one exception of Bush in 2004. What he won is not a landslide but a very close election. The high turnout is nothing in his favor; it suggests that people are more concerned than ever, yet very divided. Combined with his low score in the popular vote, the high turnout means not that Obama has a strong mandate, but that he will rule a very divided nation. Indeed, low turnout would be a much stronger sign that people felt confident about what was coming.

Electoral Vote
This is all the more important in the electoral vote. I should write a whole post on the importance of the Electoral College, but in sum, the Electoral College recognizes that there is no such thing as a single coast-to-coast national culture; the United States is a union of many different cultures, and the federal government must bring together, not just one or two, but all of the parts. To reject the Electoral College and let someone get elected president just by running up strong majorities in a couple coastal cities would create an even more divided country.

Obama won 349 electoral votes, a comfortable margin of victory (he only needed 270), but again, far from a landslide. 349 is more than George W. Bush got in either election. But it is less than any election through Reagan-Bush I-Clinton. It is less than Nixon II (a true landslide, against McGovern), Johnson, Eisenhower, Harding-Coolidge-Hoover-FDR, or Wilson I -- an election in which, as we saw, he got only 41.8% of the popular vote, but won because TR split the vote with Taft. Obama got more electoral votes than TR or Taft had in 1900, 1904, and 1908 -- but in 1908 there were only 487 electoral votes (there are 538 now), so that's not very impressive! In fact, his percentage of the College was comparable. Nothing historic.

Again, the electoral victories Obama exceeded were only Truman's (against Thurmond in the South), Kennedy's (a close race), Nixon I (against Wallace in the South), Carter (Carter!), and George W. Bush. Obama did not break 350 electoral votes. In the 28 elections since 1900, fully half broke 400, and three ('36, '72, and '84) broke 500. If we exclude those early elections, with a much smaller College, Obama's victory puts him at the 32nd percentile for Electoral College wins (the best measure of cross-the-country support). Since 1900, he is at about the 40th percentile for the popular vote, despite no significant third party.

And, to put it into perspective, the first George Bush did far better in the electoral and popular vote than Obama, but got thwapped in 1992, while Truman, whom history has judged very well, and Kennedy, whom Obama claims to emulate, both got less than 50% of the popular vote.

Where does this get us? The historic turnout in 2008 only indicates that people care about the election. But Obama's low margin of victory shows that the people of the United States are deeply divided, as they were in 2000 and 2004. Obama has not a mandate, but a very tenuous hold on a very fractured nation.

Let us hope that he does not abuse his power. And, as cultural and political conservatives, let us pray that reform in the Church helps the balance of the culture to tip our direction in the next decade.