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Republicans are consoling themselves by telling anyone who will listen that we still live in a “center-right country.” They’re right. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’ve lost the center.
According to exit polls, Barack Obama won moderates by a whopping 21 points on Tuesday, 60-39 percent. That more than doubled John Kerry’s 9-point margin over George W. Bush among moderates in 2004.
The ideological composition of the electorate was remarkably unchanged from 2004. The percentage of self-identified conservatives and moderates — the center-right — held steady. Conservatives were 34 percent of voters and moderates 44 percent, with liberals the smallest slice of the electorate at 22 percent. John McCain underperformed Bush by 6 points among conservatives, but getting trounced in the country’s great middle doomed him.
Republicans once could, as Horace Greeley did in the 19th century, dismiss Democratic areas as “the haunts of debauchery and vice.” The great Jeane Kirkpatrick updated the taunt in 1984 with her put-down of “San Francisco Democrats.” Well, the San Francisco Democrats have moved out into the suburbs, fired up the grill and settled down into the patio furniture.
Obama won the Democratic turf of the inner suburbs and expanded his reach out into the Republican exurbs. In Northern Virginia, he won not just Fairfax County, as Kerry had, but the further outlying counties of Prince William and Loudon. In Pennsylvania, Obama got killed in the steel towns, but more than made up for it in the once-Republican suburbs outside Philadelphia. According to the Washington Post, Obama improved over Kerry’s showing in the suburbs of Indiana and North Carolina by 20 points.
The percentage of the electorate represented by young and African-American voters increased only slightly. But Obama increased Kerry’s margin by 7 points among African-Americans and 12 points among voters under age 30, as well as running 13 points better among Latinos and 3 points better among post-graduates. This is Obama’s base.
He augmented it by doing a little better than Kerry among groups Democrats have had trouble reaching. He ran 4 points better among white men, 2 points better among white women and 3 points better among white evangelicals.
It’s possible to make too much of this. In national elections, the winner usually picks up among all groups — Bush did it in 2004. But there’s no doubt that Obama, like a good chess player, dominated the middle of the board. He did it by beating McCain by 9 points among the 63 percent of voters saying the economy was the most important issue for them.
Touting his tax cut for “95 percent of working people,” Obama captured the middle class, broadly defined. He beat McCain 55 percent to 43 percent among voters making $30,000-$50,000 a year. He lost by 1 point among voters making $50,000-$75,000. And he won voters making $75,000-$100,000 by 3 points. Kerry, in contrast, won voters making $30,000-$50,000 by a point and got wiped out in the other brackets.
All of this gave Obama a victory that reached into every region in the country. He took away two of the fastest-growing former red states in Colorado and Virginia. He left Republicans with a coalition that is older, whiter and more rural. The Appalachian region — including parts of Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — looked like a path for McCain to squeak to an electoral majority, but it’s not an area on which a party can stake its future.
Of course, Obama had a wind at his back, if not necessarily a “righteous wind.” He ran as the candidate of change in the midst of a financial hurricane for which the incumbent party was blamed. As Otto von Bismarck said, “Political genius consists of hearing the distant hoofbeat of the horse of history and then leaping to catch the passing horseman by the coattails.”
Obama got a firm grasp on the coattails. As for Republicans, it’ll be small comfort to live in a center-right country until they can reach the center again.
© 2008 by King Features Syndicate