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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%.