Obama’s historic election

barack-obama-hopeThe election of Saguaro’s Barack Obama as 44th, and first African-American president marks itself as a truly historic election.  It makes me immensely proud to be an American.

Some notes on the election:

1) voter turnout:  preliminary turnout projections put the numbers between 134 million (Curtis Gans, American U.) and 136.6 million Americans (Michael McDonald, GMU).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. [Some 30 million voted early and some 105 million were believed to have voted on election day.] This would translate into a voter turnout rate of somewhere around 64%, possibly exceeding the all time rate in 1960, or just below this rate.  [Curtis Gans notes on a Metro Connection interview that turnout was very high among Democrats, but actually lower in 2008 among Republicans; Gans notes that some states actually had lower turnout.  Gans notes that one shouldn't compare votes cast to number of registered voters since once can manipulate turnout rates depending on how recently they cleaned the voter lists for people who moved or died.]  (You can see from below chart that after declining until 1996, it has shot up in the last 12 years).  [David King, of the Kennedy School believes that voter turnout, without counting the absentee ballots was 64.9%, matching the 1960 rates and could rise higher.)  One can see this as half-full or half-empty;  it is disconcerting that even in an election with such important consequences for the future of the nation, and with such compelling personalities (Obama and Palin), and with unprecedented sums spent on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, still over a 1/3 of all eligible Americans did not vote.  But nonetheless, it is a remarkable turnaround in the last 12 years.  Curtis Gans thinks that the trends of civic disengagement from voting are generally occurring and although he hopes Obama brings in a new era of civic engagement, he thinks we shouldn’t infer too much from a couple of close elections in 2000-2008.

presidential-turnout-rates

(Source: Michael McDonald, GMU)

2) youth vote:  Part of the story in the resurgence is youth voting.  We witnessed  huge increases in primary voting among younger voters 18-29 year olds (in many cases doubling or tripling number of youth votes 4-8 years ago in the primaries).  We have written  about what might be the beginning of a 9-11 Generation among youth, preliminary reports from CIRCLE were that youth 18-29 did not make up an increased percentage of voters in the 2008 general election [since all age groups were increasing their voter turnout, the youth’s share stayed constant at about 17%).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. But it appears that the youth are continuing to turn out at increasing rates (from 37% in 1996 to 41% in 2000 to 48% in 2004 to 49-54% in 2008). [CIRCLE is still projecting the youth turnout from the 2008 election; we'll fill this in when they come in with a definite number, but it could be the second highest youth turnout ever since 1972 when it was 54.5%.]  David King at the Kennedy School says the data indicates it was the highest turnout for 18 year-olds since 1972. Whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation;  voting rates for youth are still significantly below voting rates for seniors, for example.  And young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama.  [See the NYT's story "Youth Turnout up by 2 Million from 2004"]

3) mobilizing new people into the political process:  2008 was an unprecedented year in terms of the numbers of volunteers and donors to the Obama campaign, and an exquisite combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch” in his campaign (with tens of thousands of door-to-door canvassers coupled with a highly sophisticated use of e-mail, texting, use of cellphone, and websites).  [We've written about that earlier here and here. ] But with the massive increases in the number of registered Americans, preliminary reports were that first-time voters were not noticeably higher than they were in 2004 as a percentage of the voters (even though their absolute numbers increased, since the total number of voters increased).  In the process of his campaign, he spurred 50,000 local events, 1.5 million volunteers on the web, 8,000 web-based affinity groups, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million to his campaign. It didn’t hut that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped worked for the Obama campaign. [My colleague David Lazer talks about in “Obama’s Machine” [Forbes], how Obama might unleash this network in the future to his advantage.]

4) What will new Obama administration look like?  What will be their priorities?

In some regards, it is too soon to tell.  But there have been some inklings of important strands announced by Barack on the stump, above and beyond his obvious focus on energy independence, ending the war in Iraq and trying to make the economy work again.

- Focus on sacrifice: Alexandra Marks article in Christian Science Monitor discussed this theme which Obama also returned to in his speech last night from Chicago.

Obama in his victory speech: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”

- Role of the citizen:  Mentioning Obama’s focus, Michael Sandel noted “…[A] new politics of the common good can’t be only about government and markets. “It must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”  (From Thomas Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, NYT, 11/5/08)

From Obama’s victory speech: “[The campaign victory] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth….[A]bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

- Focus on service:  from Barack’s mention of a bold plan for AmeriCorps expansion as a campaign promise, to his appearing in the ServiceSummit with John McCain and Richard Stengel of TIME, to his invocation of service in his victory speech.  [As Michael Sandel noted, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.” (Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, 11/5/08)]

- Slate magazine’s John Dickerson also had an interesting post on  6 ways that Obama could show he is a new type of leader

And E.J. Dionne (who was a fellow member of Saguaro with Barack) wrote an op-ed today “A New Era for America” talking about how he expects that in the same way as Barack completely recast the campaign process, he will recast politics.

Yes, it is time to hope again….Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician….Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation…. Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest that he intends to do just that.

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One response to “Obama’s historic election

  1. Nice recap of a number of key points coming out of the historic election. Just referenced this over on my blog.

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