Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Meaning of Barack Obama's Victory

While Barack Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton is being hailed as significant because a previously unbreachable racial barrier has effectively been dissolved, of potentially greater long term significance is the fact that his triumph essentially completes the Democratic Party's transformation from being the champions of America's social and economic outsiders into that political party representing America's social, intellectual and economic elite.

If you are skeptical of this claim, please look at the map below. This map shows the tendency of each state to vote either Republican or Democrat in the 1916 presidential election. That is, the map shows how each state would have voted in that particular election had the national popular vote split exactly 50%-50%.

The map somehow seems familiar because the areas in blue stretch from the "conservative" south through the "conservative" Rocky Mountain states (with the exception of New Mexico). Meanwhile the "liberal" northeast and the north are solidly red, except for ("conservative") Ohio and two of the three "liberal" Pacific coast states are also red. It all seems familiar - until you realize that the blue states are Democratic leaning while the red states lean Republican.

In fact here is the 2004 presidential election map of Democratic and Republican leaning states:

The 2004 map is, with a few exceptions, a virtual negative image of the 1916 map. The once solidly Republican north and northeast has become solidly Democratic while the once solidly Democratic south and mountain west has become solidly Republican. But although the colors have reversed and although 88 years separate these two elections, the pattern is essentially the same.

Why does this pattern exist, what does the pattern have to do with Barack Obama and what does it tell us about the likely shape of the upcoming general election? Those states leaning Democratic in 2004, taken as a whole, represent America's economic, cultural and intellectual elite. America's eight largest urban regions (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit) are located in these blue states. The blue states contain the most important centers of finance, media, technology and the arts. Of the top 26 rated universities in America, 19 are located in these blue states. As I have shown in previous posts the core of Barack Obama's support is concentrated in large urban areas, particularly among better educated voters (with the exception of Black voters). Exit polling suggests that higher income Democratic primary voters were much more likely to support Obama than were lower income voters.

Of course, Barack Obama is not the first Democratic presidential candidate whose core support is located in these northern and Pacific coast states that form America's elite. John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 were candidates whose appeal was primarily to urban elites. However, Barack Obama's base of support appears to be far more narrow than even these two (defeated) Democratic presidential candidates. In a very real sense, the rejection of Hillary Clinton (and of Bill Clinton) means that, at the national level at least, the Democratic party has in a very real sense become the party of the elite. How ironic it is that, Barack Obama, the first Black presidential nominee of a major political party, is in a very real sense the candidate representing America's elite.

What does this mean for the upcoming campaign? It means that Obama's electoral strategy will focus on holding the core blue states and battle for those one or two swing states that may decide the election if the popular vote is evenly divided. In upcoming posts I will show how the electoral college map will look like if the election is close.

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