Based on the election results, can we all agree on a few things?
Can we agree that George Bush and Dick Cheney did not know all along where Osama Bin Laden is hiding? Can we agree that there were no other “October surprises” either? Also, can we agree that the Administration obviously did not undermine the rights and institutions required for free elections? Left media outlets like the Nation have run many stories over the past few years, some by distinguished scholars, claiming that the Bush Administration has subverted the Constitution, undermined free speech, and even imposed a creeping totalitarianism on America. Can we agree that such narratives about Republican political machinations, dirty tricks, and authoritarianism are paranoid fantasies that aren’t really useful for understanding American politics?
Can we agree that Americans are not as bigoted as race theorists say they are? We have been primed for years to expect African-American candidates to underperform on election day compared to their white counterparts and to what white voters tell pollsters. But every four years, a crew of political scientists also test models that forecast presidential elections. You can read about some of them here. Most of these models assume that the economy is the decisive influence on voters. This year, almost all the models predicted that the Democrat would win by a few points. Some generated that prediction even before the modelers knew that Barack Obama would be the nominee, and none of them assume voting is shaped by racial considerations. These models might seem simplistic, but they turned out to be fairly accurate. Can we agree that this tells us something important and inspiring about white Americans’ attitudes about race?
Can we agree that it’s silly to speculate about a full-blown crisis of the Republican party? In 1999, the Christian Democratic party in Germany got caught up in a scandal over party financing and secret funds. Hyper-ventilating pundits suggested the party would disappear. Three years later, it came back to tie its Social Democratic rival and three years after that it was back in office. There’s no more grounds for hyperventilating now. In a year when the Democratic candidate had all the wind at his back that history plausibly had to offer — the economy, the media, the unusual charisma so many perceived in him, a clumsy GOP campaign — Obama won a smaller share of the vote than George H.W. Bush did in 1988 and a full 6 percentage points less than Ronald Reagan did in his true landslide four years before that. Obama won Florida, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia by slender margins. If they flip back to voting Republican in more normal presidential elections, the GOP candidate will already be back to nearly 250 Electoral College votes.
While we’re at it, can we agree there are scant grounds for talking about a sweeping realignment of the American electorate? Exit polls and survey research done over the next year are sure to find some shifts in how different groups voted. But from we know so far, the results on November 4th mostly represented changes within familiar patterns of voting.
Finally, can we agree that we just dodged a bullet on voter registration and voting fraud? When Bush won Florida in 2000 by fewer votes than there were confused voters and ambiguous ballots, many Democrats began to doubt the integrity of American elections. They also called for improvements in voting procedures. Bush could have greeted those calls as threats to the legitimacy of his election. Instead, Republicans and Democrats agreed on the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Thankfully, all the decisive states in 2008 were won by large enough margins that no-one will attribute the outcome to possible voter registration fraud perpetrated by groups like ACORN. But that might not be the case next time. Can we agree we should solve this problem with effective protections against voter registration and voter fraud before a scandal tangles up a future election?
– Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.