One of the most insightful pieces of post-election analysis I’ve seen appears alongside Marjorie Connelly’s article, “Dissecting the Changing Electorate” in today’s NYT.
The data appear in a 40-cell matrix with seven broad demographic categories (age, race, etc.) on the vertical axis and the constituent slices of that category horizontally (18-29, black, etc.). Each cell of the matrix shows the portion of the population the cell characterizes (i.e. 53% are women), and the margin of victory among those voters (Obama won women by 13%).
What jumps out most obviously is the sheer number of cells–27–won by Obama. And of McCain’s 13, five were never thought to be in play for Obama (church goers, evangelicals, white protestants, conservatives, Republicans). It would be tempting to conclude that the breadth of Obama’s suppport points to a significant political re-alignment. And it yetmay.
But of the 40 cells, I found one to be easily the most interesting. It’s in the only vertical category that is actually psychographic rather than demgraphic: “are you better/worse off than when Bush took office?” Among those who said they were worse off, and Obama won by a whopping 43% margin, larger than in any group except Jews, Democrats, liberals and blacks. To put it in further perspective, Obama did exactly as well with people who felt they were sliding financially as he did with gays and lesbians. Accepted wisdom is that the financial meltdown sealed the deal for Obama; these results would not contradict such a conclusion.
But the real power of the financial backslider cohort was its sheer size: 42% responded that they were worse off, more than identified as Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. The only bigger cohort were those who identified as “moderate.”
Crunching the two percentages together–size of cohort and margin of victory–reveals that in sheer voter margins, backsliders delivered a huge cushion to Obama: almost 9.5 million votes. The only cohort from which he got a bigger margin was–you guessed it–Democrats, who delivered him a 41- million vote margin.
This says two things. First, the 2008 Presidential contest was distinctively a “people with problems” election, which I started arguing in early July when neither anyone else nor I had clue what lurked around the corner on Wall Street.
Second, the most predictive determinant of voting a this time around does not yield a permanent coalition, at least one hopes it doesn’t. And we can be quite sure that if 42% answer the same question the same way 8 years from now, there will be no need arguing about whether Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton is too old for the top job.
No, this was a transformational election in a hundered ways, but not in terms of durable shifts among voters. The coalition Obama built relied most critically on people who thought he was the guy to get them out of a financial mess, and the Democrats are likely to keep these voters only if he proves up to the rather intimidating task.