Thursday, November 13, 2008

Which Obama effects are durable?

Lots of people are talking about whether Obama's election is a sign of fundamental political realignment of the electoral map. I am generally skeptical of the biggest claims, given the strong structural forces boosting any opposition candidate in 2008. To the extent that there was a realignment, however, it seems mostly to be based on Democratic gains among educated voters, young voters, and African American voters.

Here is a Greg Mankiw post on the youth vote, and here is NBC's First Read on the college-educated vote:

The Graduate(s): Number crunchers have already unpacked the college split for this election cycle to show Obama's gains among grads. (In 2004, 42% of voters nationwide were college graduates, and they split equally for John Kerry and George W. Bush. This time, that number was boosted to 44%, and the vote broke 53%-45% in the Democrat's favor.) But consider this: In 2008, college-educated voters outnumbered non-college grads at the polls in eleven states (CO, VA, NH, PA, NJ, CT, MD, NY, MA, VT, and DC). Barack Obama won all of them -- by an average of more than 24 percentage points. In states that McCain won, on average, 42% of voters were college grads. In states that Obama won, on average, 47% had a college diploma.

The key question, it seems to me, is which of these effects are particular to Obama and which will carry over to other elections. Most of the commentary I've seen assumes that Obama's success among African Americans is due to his own race (and therefore particular to him), whereas the gains among educated and young voters are more durable. I'm not so sure about any of those assumptions: I wonder whether we are underestimating the symbolic power of the Democrats now being forever the party that first nominated non-white President, no matter the race of their future candidates. (Think of the enduring effects of the Dodgers' and Red Sox' involvement in the fall of baseball's color line.) Contrarily, I wonder whether we have underestimated Obama's special appeal to educated and young voters: this administration will feature a President, VP, and two spouses who have all worked in higher education, and the basketball-playing Obama seems even younger than he is.

I have no idea which of these effects will persist in future elections, but I do think the current conversation would be improved by peeking under our assumptions about all three factors.


Jeremy Y. said...

I've not spent much time looking at voting patterns from 2008 (curses on you, nearly-due conference paper!), but Nate Silver did an interesting analysis on voting patterns and the college-educated during the Democratic primaries. The takeaway from his piece seems to be that it's those with some college are the crucial swing group.

I'll see if I can dig up some good statistics on education and voting patterns later today.

Michael said...

Good point about all the higher ed experience on the ticket.

As an overeducated faculty brat whose first and strongest feeling about Obama was a powerful sense that we're subculturally similar, I feel qualified to say that he enjoys an unusual personal connection to the educated.

One effect of Obama's eggheadedness that I haven't heard much about was, I think, a Rovian ability to use language as a dogwhistle to the secular academic left.