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The 2008 Election

  • In 2008, Barack Obama became America's first black president
  • Some political scientists believe the 2008 election was a "realignment" election, fundamentally shifting the political map in the Democrats' favor

On 4 November 2008, Americans witnessed a piece of history: Barack Obama was elected president. 143 years after the abolition of slavery and 44 years after Congress passed the first in a series of bills aimed at protecting African-Americans' right to vote, the United States elected a black president.

But for political junkies, the election was historic for an additional reason: the electoral map was re-drawn. In 2008, the country was not so predictably divided into blue (Democrat) states huddled in the northeast and far west and red (Republican) states stretching across the South and Midwest. Instead, several reliably red states went Democrat. Indiana and Virginia, which had not voted Democratic since 1964, both cast majorities for Obama. Democratic presidential candidates last took North Carolina in 1976 and Colorado in 1992, but these states also voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Political analysts immediately disagreed on what it all represented. Some argued that it really meant little. The country was still a "center-right" nation, they contended; the recent financial crisis triggered a temporary shift in voting patterns, but the public was still moderately conservative. But others argued that the Obama victory—and the redrawn map—represented a historic electoral realignment, a dramatic and portentous shift in the electorate and the status of the two major parties.

Political historians argue that these critical or realigning elections tend to occur every 30 or 40 years. The pattern began in 1800 when the election of Thomas Jefferson marked a shift in power from the Federalists to the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party. In 1828, Andrew Jackson's election signaled the emergence of a new coalitionn of voters quickly labeled the Democratic Party. In 1860, a new Republican Party, focused on controlling the growth of slavery, elected it first president, Abraham Lincoln. And in 1896, the character and composition of the Democrats and Republicans underwent a transformation, and the two parties assumed the identities that would define them for the next 35 years.

In the twentieth century, the pattern continued with the election of Franklin Roosevelt by a new combination of voters. Union members, immigrants, minority and low-income voters, non-Protestants, Southerners, urbanites, and intellectuals formed a "New Deal Coalition" to elect Roosevelt president four times—and they continued to vote Democrat for another 40 years. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan forged the alliance of social conservatives and economic libertarians that gave Republicans the White House for 20 of the next 28 years.

Realignment is thus a recurring feature of American political history. Periodically, candidates, historical events, and underlying economic and social trends combine to reorganize the character and composition of the major political parties. But was Barack Obama's election one of these watershed events? Did it signal a dramatic shift in the relative strength of the parties? Did it bring together a new and enduring coalition of voters? Or was it just a temporary shift in voter preferences caused by the extraordinary economic events of the months preceding the election?

It would be hard to dismiss the impact of the economic turmoil that rocked the nation during 2008. As Election Day approached, voters watched the stock market fall, oil prices rise, and banking giants collapse. Unprecedented numbers of Americans lost their homes or saw their retirement funds go up in smoke. And the Republicans, as the party in power, received the bulk of the blame for the economic crisis. But a close look at the numbers suggests that more came to the surface in 2008 than temporary economic discontent.

Indeed, some of the statistical surprises do represent recent changes. Asian Americans, who have split their vote in recent elections, voted Obama 62-35%. College-educated voters, who typically vote Republican, also favored Obama, 53-48%.5 In fact, Obama was the first Democratic candidate to ever win this group. But other statistical trends have been evident for some time. For example, after contributing to a Republican surge in the 1980s, younger voters have been drifting toward the Democrats since 1990. And Latino voters, the fastest growing bloc in the electorate, have also been moving into the Democratic camp over the course of the last decade.

But what do these numbers mean? Many analysts link them to changes in America's economic and social character—most importantly, the emergence of "post-industrial" cities and suburbs. Over the last quarter century, a number of regions have built economies based on the production of services and information rather than goods. This has dramatically restructured the American workforce. For example, professionals that use to make up 7% of the workforce now constitute 17%.6 These college-educated professionals are trending Democratic, and they are transforming the political character of certain regions. For example, in North Carolina, traditionally a Republican state, Charlotte has become a financial center, and the area surrounding Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill has become a "research triangle" filled with professionals and thus Democratic voters.

But why are these college-educated voters trending Democrat? Most analysts argue that they have been alienated by the Republican positions on social and "lifestyle" issues. The professionals that fill these metropolises—or "ideopolises," as two analysts have labeled them—are culturally liberal.7 They are less religious and more racially and sexually tolerant than the mainstream of the Republican Party. They have faith in science, and they believe that Republican policymakers have not deferred to scientific leadership on issues surrounding the environment and medical ethics.

The professionals populating the ideopolises of America's changing economy represent an important new element within the Democratic coalition. But while culturally liberal, many of them are also somewhat conservative economically. That is, while sharing the Democratic Party's position on many social issues, such as gay and lesbian rights and abortion, they are suspicious of the Democrats' traditional economic policies. As "economic libertarians" they oppose excessive government regulation of business; they are more confident in the abilities of an unfettered economy to improve the lives of most Americans.

Thus, while the Democratic base has expanded, the party's growth does not necessarily signify a shift in popular attitudes toward certain Democratic positions. In fact, somewhat ironically, the party is forging a coalition somewhat similar to the Republican coalition that proved increasingly problematic for that party during the 1990s. Ronald Reagan was able convince social conservatives and economic libertarians that he could address both of their concerns. He could return prayer to the classroom, build a Supreme Court hostile to abortion, and at the same time reduce government's role in the economy. By the end of his term, social conservatives were disappointed with his performance. And the growing rift between those social conservatives and the more culturally moderate economic libertarians weakened the party.

In other words, the "Obama Coalition" may be a fragile one. On the one hand, it seems to be built on more than just the recent economic crisis. The changing structure of America's workforce, the shifting character of many of its cities, and the evolving values held by the majority of the population have all combined to produce this political realignment. Furthermore, the character of these changes would suggest that this realignment could hold for some time unless the Republican Party alters its stances on certain issues. But before the Democrats get too complacent in their anticipation of a new era of party domination, they should pay close attention to the political and ideological traits of its various constituencies, they should recall the struggles of the Republican Party to hold its coalition together, and they should remember that as recently as 2003, some conservative leaders predicted "decades of dominance" for the Republican Party.8

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