Joel Mowbray

The most underreported story of the election is that conservative voters provided the margin of victory for Barack Obama—a finding that has dramatic implications for both Democrats and Republicans.

Normally winning with impressive margins in the popular vote and Electoral College would translate into a governing mandate.  Obama’s victory was not an ideological one, however.  The electorate is almost exactly as center-right as it was in 2004.  The Bush 2004 voters who pushed Obama over the top rejected Bush and the GOP, but not conservative principles.

“Change” in parties, not beliefs

Voters backed the candidate who ran on change, but they haven’t much changed their views of the public sector.  On the fundamental question about the role government should play in society, voters shifted only slightly from four years ago.  In 2004, a 49%-46% plurality of exit poll respondents said the government should not “do more to solve problems.”  In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown on Wall Street that the media blamed on free markets run amok, barely a slim majority of voters, 51%, thought the government should do more. 

Though the lion’s share of Obama’s voters wanted more activist government, over one-fifth of his supporters said that the government is already “doing too much.”  This smaller group—largely consisting of the conservatives and conservative-leaning independents who had voted for Bush in 2004—cannot be forgotten as Obama and his advisors weigh their options for everything from financial industry regulations to an automaker bailout.

Defying conventional wisdom, Obama’s vaunted ground game only boosted liberal and youth turnout by one percent each of the total electorate.  A detailed examination of exit polling suggests that the Democrat’s victory primarily was keyed by two key factors: 1) many conservatives who used to consider themselves Republicans no longer do, and 2) almost one-fifth of Bush 2004 voters chose Obama, with the biggest defectors being conservative-leaning independents: “Security Moms” and Catholics.

Conservatives abandoned the GOP

Despite the harsh criticism most prominent conservatives level at him, Obama picked up one-third more conservative voters than John Kerry, at 20%.  Self-identified conservatives in exit polling comprised 34% of voters in both 2004 and 2008, yet the number who called themselves Republican dropped from 37% to 32%.  In an evenly split nation, the GOP losing 14% of its base overwhelmed almost everything else.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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