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.
On statewide ballot initiatives, voters supported gay marriage bans in Arizona, Florida and California. In Florida, Amendment 2 needed to clear the 60% threshold the state sets for amending the constitution, and the measure garnered 62% support. McCain lost Florida, 51% to 49%.
Even on what is presumed to be safe liberal territory—the environment—the electorate did not tilt leftward. As reported on the Wall Street Journal web site, “Among five major energy and environmental ballot initiatives from California to Missouri, all but one were voted down.” The one that passed, Proposition C in Missouri, encountered no serious opposition.
The ideological composition of the electorate, in fact, was almost identical to 2004. Liberals went from 21% in 2004 to 22%, and moderates were 45% four years ago versus 44%. Democrats enjoyed a small uptick in voters who label themselves Democrats, from 37% to 39%. So while Democrats added some new adherents, most of their new seven-point margin in party ID owes to an exodus from the GOP.
Right-leaning Bush voters swung to Obama
Two key right-leaning constituencies deserted Republicans: “Security Moms” and Catholics. Though the media has made the “gender gap” a household term, the more apt classification was a “marriage gap.” Single women were heavily Democrat, and married women leaned Republican. “Security Moms” became the label for married mothers attracted to the hawkishness of the GOP.
Almost 30% of the women who voted in this election were married with kids, and Obama won them 51%-47%. The same exit poll question was not asked four years ago, but most estimates are that Bush won that group handily in 2004. The demographic has become a key part of the GOP coalition. Highly respected Republican strategist Michael Meyers, president of TargetPoint Consulting, consulted the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and the Republican National Committee and he was among the pioneers of micro-targeting and crafting strategies to reach groups such as Security Moms. He says bluntly, “We cannot win without winning married moms. Period.”
McCain also lost ground among religious voters, but not in the manner predicted. Confounding expectations from this spring, McCain performed just as well with white evangelical Christians as Bush did in 2004. Catholic voters, however, shifted in large numbers for Obama. Bush won the historically Democratic constituency 52%-47% four years ago. He did this by winning weekly church-going Catholics by a robust 56%-43%, while essentially splitting Catholics who attend church less often or not at all. McCain, on the other hand, roughly split weekly church-going Catholics with Obama, and trailed badly among less devout Catholics, 58-40%.
Falling from Bush’s 44% of the Latino vote to 31% clearly hurt McCain’s figures in the Catholic vote. But that drop alone could not account for much more than half of the loss he experienced overall among Catholics. The bulk of the remaining Catholic voters that switched from Bush in 2004 to Obama this year likely came from cultural conservatives, including so-called values voters and Reagan Democrats.
In perhaps his most honest moment of the campaign, Barack Obama in June told the New York Times, “I am like a Rorschach test.” Unlike most politicians who seek to define themselves sharply, Obama proudly defined himself as whatever different voters wanted him to be. Accomplishing this feat in a heated election was a tall order, but in governing, it becomes nearly impossible. In policy battles, there are winners and losers because lines are drawn, and sides must be taken.
For Obama to maintain the coalition that elected him, he needs to come down on the right side of that line more often than most in his party would like.