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What If Obama Isn't A Game Changer?

By Thomas Edsall

While Barack Obama remains the solid favorite on November 4, it remains unclear whether he will, as many of his supporters suggest, transform American politics, fundamentally altering the balance of power between the Democratic and Republican Parties and the composition of their respective coalitions.

All preliminary signs suggest that Obama is likely to substantially increase Democratic voter turnout, especially among young and African-American voters. But, if a large boost in voter participation is viewed as transformative, then George W. Bush qualifies: He added a striking 11,584,600 votes to win in 2004 with 62,040,610, compared to 50,456,002 in 2000. (John Kerry, in turn, received 8,028,547 more votes than Al Gore).

Douglas Rivers, a Stanford political scientist and founder of the polling firm Polimetrix, argued that Obama's support, as reflected in match-ups against John McCain, represents a continuing trend of Democratic presidential nominees doing better among well-educated elites than among those roughly described as working class, with family incomes below $60,000 and no college.

"[F]or now at least, Obama's support isn't really any different than Kerry's," Rivers said, referring to the demographic make up of Obama voters.

Since the 2004 election, Rivers found that while the demographics remain the same, the percentage of voters describing themselves as Democrats has increased by 4 percentage points, while Republican identification has fallen by 5 points - effectively wiping out almost all the GOP's gains during the period of conservative ascendancy, 1972-2004.

University of California-San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson argued that these trends are primarily attributable to George W. Bush.

"Changes in presidential approval have the most decisive effect on the party balance; there is a substantial net movement away from the president's party among respondents who switch from approval to disapproval, and a substantial net movement toward the president's party among respondents who switch from disapproval to approval."

The consequences were worse for George W. Bush than for any of his three predecessors, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, "with aggregate consequences clearly detrimental to the Republican Party," Jacobson contended, "because only a handful of respondents moved from disapproval to approval of Bush's performance between either pair of elections, far fewer than grew disillusioned from one election to the next."

Rivers had his own take on this process:

"It's highly speculative what's behind the post-2004 party ID shift and whether it will continue after Bush departs. A component is clearly dissatisfaction with Iraq, the economy, and Bush generally -- and eventually Republicans will recover from this.

"More interesting is whether the Rove strategy of playing to the base will have long-run negative consequences. Opposing gay rights had some short-run benefits for Republicans in 2004, but I don't think it's a long-run winning issue, and there just aren't a lot of votes left for Republicans to win from fundamentalists. It seems to me that Republicans have painted themselves into a corner on these issues. The population that supports them intensely is shrinking over time (in fact, much faster that anyone thought was possible a few years ago--the majority position on gay rights is now somewhere between civil unions and marriage), and that's not a good place for a party to be."

Darren Davis, a prize-winning Notre Dame political scientist with a specialization in "stereotype threat, the measurement of racial attitudes, perceptions of citizenship, political tolerance, and the social-psychology of African American political attitudes and behavior" voiced similar caution on the question of Obama's power to transform American politics.

"I think it is too soon to tell if Obama's "emerging" coalition has lasting power," Davis said, "Also, we are still early in the presidential campaign and we have not seen Obama's emerging coalition put to a test. So, I am somewhat reluctant to carve out a coalition for Obama. It is just too soon."

Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer warned that if Obama wins, "it will be heralded by many as a 'realignment'....Such claims will be way too hasty. Obama has to deliver once in office. If he does not, the GOP will be back in full force by 2010 and certainly by 2012."

Columbia political scientist Robert Erikson suggested "we should be wary of declaring a new alignment of the electorate since previous declarations have been made and been proven illusionary," noting that at the outset of George McGovern's 1972 bid "there supposedly was a new politics energized by a youth vote....The gains among the young were slim, short-lived, and of course not nearly sufficient for McGovern to win the presidency."

Erikson pointed out, however, "that said, polls suggest a shifting landscape in 2008. The major elements of Obama's coalition are the college educated (especially those with post-graduate education), the young, and African-Americans. All were elements of the Democratic coalition already, but these groups have tilted further Democratic in terms of numbers and energy." In addition, Erikson observed, "Obama has surprising strength (for a Democrat) in western states,

Including, of all places, Alaska. Potentially he could mobilize African-Americans in the South sufficiently to capture some states normally lost to the Democrats in presidential races. At the same time, he is weaker than the usual Democratic candidate in culturally conservative but Democratic states like West Virginia and Kentucky."

Perhaps most optimistic among political scientists interviewed about Obama's potential to forge a realignment is University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. There are four elements needed for a major political shift, Sabato argues:

"(1) A crisis of confidence that causes Americans to reconsider their voting patterns; (2) new voters brought into the electorate that change the composition of the voting public; (3) a successful Presidency that confirms the gamble voters take in the first election breaking with past practice; and (4) successor Presidencies from the new coalition that continue and build upon the successes of the breakthrough President."

At the moment, Sabato said, "we clearly have the crisis in confidence, generated by an unpopular war, a tanking economy, and a deeply unpopular incumbent President. Obama is also helping to change the composition of the electorate, drawing young people to the polls in record numbers, pumping up the African-American vote, and proving to have appeal to independents and even some Republicans who have made a decision to break with their own voting histories. The early signs are positive for Obama."

For Obama to succeed in establishing a durably victorious Democratic coalition, not only does he have to win the presidency by a solid margin, according to Sabato, but he must "then go on to tackle the challenges facing the country successfully." While Democrats appear very likely to improve their congressional majorities, "the sticking point, as usual, may be the Senate. Will Democrats grab enough seats so that, along with a few moderate Republicans, [Obama] can get to 60 votes for his programs? That one could go either way."

All of the analysts interviewed suggest that Obama enthusiasts such as John Kerry are making a leap of faith when they say things like:

Every now and then, history gives us big moments in politics--moments that offer a transformation, not just a transition. And when these moments come along, the old order always resists....Today we face another transformative moment. Americans are hungry for a directness and freshness that speaks to the public fatigue with politics as usual....[Obama] is truly transformative.

Thomas B. Edsall is the political editor of the Huffington Post.

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