Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Are you so confident we'll elect a Democrat?

Electoral map based on today's polls showing a near Electoral College tie from Fivethirtyeight. Poblano updates these maps daily.

A friend sends a question. She says I write here as if I

take it for granted that McCain will be easy to beat, mostly because the people of the country are so anti-Bush (and therefore should vote Democratic). I just heard a man on the radio saying that, as we have seen in recent Presidential elections, the popular vote doesn't matter and that McCain is ahead in terms of Electoral College votes. ... Also why [do you] feel confident in general that people will not vote for McCain. He's a "hero," after all, as everyone (quoted on the radio) agrees.

Okay, here goes:

I don't think McCain will be easy to beat. For one thing, the press likes him. He pals around with them and they are suckers for that kind of informal access to perceived power.

McCain has something of a reputation as a man of integrity -- currently completely unjustified. Democrats need to get across that this guy was tortured himself, claimed to be carrying legislation to prohibit torture, and then voted against a ban on waterboarding. He has demonstrated that he wants the Presidency more than he wants his honor. Democrats need to communicate that -- and they also need to communicate that their candidate stands for a different sort of United States.

Torture is not the only subject on which McCain has been pandering of late to the extreme rightwingers in the Republican Party. He's back peddled on just about everything that made him different from any other Republican thug. He's even been bending the rules to evade the limits created by one of his big "accomplishments": the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulations.

Just yesterday, retiring Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, long a McCain friend, allowed as how McCain's shifting positions puzzled him.

"We know from past campaigns that presidential candidates will say many things," Hagel said of some of McCain's recent rhetoric, namely his policy on talking to Iran. "But once they have the responsibility to govern the country and lead the world, that difference between what they said and what responsibilities they have to fulfill are vastly different. I'm very upset with John with some of the things he's been saying.

At this point, McCain comes across as either unconscious or downright sleazy. Having seen the primary, I think that Obama can effectively present himself as at least as attractive a moral figure as McCain, neutralizing the advantage of McCain's past heroism in a war that most citizens don't want to be reminded of.

The real hurdle seems to be what you raised about the Electoral College. To win the Presidency, a candidate needs to win, not the popular vote (as Al Gore did in 2000), but a majority (270 plus) of electors of which each state has as many as it has Representatives and Senators. That's why we get the red and blue state maps like the one above.

For the last several elections, those maps have looked very similar. Democrats win the big coastal, and the northern industrial states. Republicans win the historic South and much of the interior west. They compete over a tiny number of states whose population has characteristics of both blocs, mostly Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. If you didn't live in one of these "battleground" states, you didn't see much of the campaign.

What's interesting about this year's race is that Senator Obama is trying to put together a different Democratic coalition to change the outcome. Part of what that means is that he'll be competing in more states -- but also it means that he thinks he can win the election based on the votes of slightly different people than those who have been the Democratic target voters since 1992. He believes he can expand the electorate, bring in more young people, construct a majority that is more largely made up of people of color and less dependent on older whites. I've been saying for a long time that California's experience points toward such a winning coalition. Professional analysts of the primaries find themselves asking the same question about the Electoral College that my friend has asked me -- and trying to understand new configurations. For example,

Could it be that Obama's coalition (young voters, professionals, crossover men, the educated, the economically stable middle class voters, African American voters) gives him enough of a cushion? Maybe Democrats won't need as many working class whites to win the election; correspondingly, the polarized primary has pushed them away from their nominee in general. What accounts for the disparity between the astonishingly high numbers of Democrats in states like Kentucky and West Virginia who say they'd vote for McCain -- and Obama's national lead in the polls?

What is his coalition? And how does it translate into the 50 constituent parts of what a national lead actually is? Might Obama's strength in the popular vote be a reflection of Democratic energy in large states and Republican sloth in large states -- rather than a reflection of the coalition he needs to win the general election? States are more internally diverse than regions of states are. In other words -- are the demographics of Obama's coalition so skewed (in terms of previous coalitions) that his national lead will greatly overstate his relative strength in the electoral college? Or is Obama's new coalition so robust as to absorb some of the bleeding of white, working class men in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and still end up winning? Tentative points to support the latter theory can be found in Obama's primary victory in Iowa, where turnout far exceeded the expectations of everyone, in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Colorado, where Obama won handily but especially among Obama's core demographic groups, and in the way the campaign has been able to organize 75,000 rallies on a May Sunday in Oregon.

Marc Ambinder,
The Atlantic

This is where the country's profound distress about the endless lost war, the crashing economy, and the clueless George W. Bush comes in. If ever there were a year to try to push into a future in which a new coalition offers the Democrats a majority with different constituent parts, this is it. If Obama can create a winning map in his new way -- and he has shown amazing capacity in the primaries to mobilize unexpected strength -- he'll be advancing a demographic change that might otherwise take another 15 years or so to show its power. We're witnessing a fascinating moment.

Of course, if Obama is elected, he'll still be a politician and a Democrat -- that is, as good
a President, and only as good, as an aroused people make him. Lots of work to do.

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