[W]hile Obama’s victory was impressive, given that we may have had the largest turnout (as a percentage) in nearly 100 years, I was surprised that Obama did not win more soundly. If you put aside the popular vote, 17 presidential elections have seen larger electoral college victories than Obama since 1912 (by my count) and only 7 have had smaller electoral victories. Included among the larger victories (at least, for now) are Clinton in 1992 and Reagan in 1980 — both unseating incumbent presidents. His popular vote percentage victory is also smaller than Clinton, most recently, in 1996.
Second, Obama’s “coattails” were shorter than anticipated, but the strength of the Democrats was undeniable among key groups. If you look at preliminary exit polling, I would argue there are five crucial factors for both the House and the presidency in this election:
1. The youth vote: It was marginally more important this year; and 18-29 year olds are solidly Democratic. This is a major branding problem for the Republican Party. I think millenials, in general, have a lot of conservative tendencies. They believe in the private sector. They aren’t cynical. They believe in the family, community, service, and social responsibility; but I think that Republicans are losing them based largely on outreach and perceived problems with tolerance and diversity.
2. Minority votes: There are scary trends in this election. Obama won 96% of the African-American vote (the Dems weren’t far behind) and more than two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, concentrated largely among younger Hispanic voters. Perception matters, and I think it’s important for the Republicans to make an effort to talk to these groups. I fundamentally believe our ideas about free markets, individual liberty, etc. could be enormously appealing to these folks, but we aren’t seeking to engage these broad communities as much as we should.
3. The economy: Of the 42% of exit poll respondents who listed their economic condition as “worse” in recent years, the Dems won 70% in House races. The Republicans won those who responded as “same” or “better”. We have to tackle the financial crisis and come up with a compelling (and true) narrative for the events.
4. Punishment: The nation was tired of President Bush. It would have been almost impossible for the incumbent party to win, in my opinion, in the midst of a financial crisis and two wars. The generic Democrat was polling 9% of the generic Republican before the election. Obama won by a smaller margin.
5. The Obama/Dean machine: We’re getting beat on the ground, on campus, and in new technologies. Republicans should get as many smart 20-30 year olds in a room as possible ASAP and figure out how to mobilize people to spread Republican enthusiasm and use new technology (twitter, Facebook, text messaging, social networking, etc.) to do it. We also have to find a way to raise money and hit all 50 states.
Given the above factors, I’m surprised Republicans didn’t lose by more. I also think this is a forward-looking challenge for the party not just a result of Obama’s charisma (which is considerable). However, there is hope. Even in the midst of this crisis, our beating was moderate, and I think that the younger generation and various minority groups would be receptive to conservative arguments if we were to engage them and reclaim our optimism and confidence in our ideas (while modifying our positions on a few key issues).