Three Election Myths

One result of the 2008 election is the mistaken belief that it represented an electoral debacle for the Republican Party.  A true look at the demographic results do not reveal the electoral holocaust many believe and portray the results to be- specifically talking head pundits like Paul Begala and Area 51 refugee, James Carville.  Looking forward, there are three falacies that need be confronted as this could and should dictate Republican policies that would result in gains for the Republicans in 2010 and 2012.

Fallacy #1: Young voters make a difference:  We seem to hear this prediction every election cycle.  It is true that younger voters probably propelled Obama to his party’s nomination (plus the disenfranchisement of Democrats in Michigan and Florida).  However, translating those numbers from a state primary election months prior to a general election is difficult.  And in the general election, the 18-24 age group did not make up a big enough voting block to make an appreciable difference in the outcome in any state.  Despite the uptick in first time voters, their support for Obama was not significantly greater than their support for Kerry in 2004.  First time voters, overall, tend to vote Democratic anyway and there is a good reason.  Simply, Democrats do a much better job at recruiting and organizing college students.  Added to this is the fact that most public colleges and universities tend towards the liberal side and the obvious advantage is realized. However, in no state did this block of voters exceed 20% of the total.  Despite increased turnout within this group, their voting behavior tended to follow the overall state trends.  For example, first time voters in a deep blue state like Connecticut voted overwhelmingly for Obama while those in deep red states like Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly for McCain.  And although their enthusiasm for McCain may not have been as great as their enthusiasm for Bush in 2004, the drop off was not that great to make a huge difference.  Essentially, the increased overall turnout across all age groups diluted the youth vote yet again to insignificance.  Because turnout is not particularly great in midterm elections nor when an incumbent runs for President, they take on even less significance in 2010 and 2012.

Fallacy #2: You need the Hispanic vote to win:  The importance of this myth to policy decisions, especially immigration policy and education, is obvious.  It is certainly true that the Hispanic/Latino population is the largest growing demographic in the U.S.  However, this fact should not be confused with the need to pander to Hispanics in the hopes of securing their votes.

In 2008, six states- Indiana, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina- flipped from red to blue in the general election.  Yet in only three of these states- Colorado, Nevada and Florida- did the Hispanic populations of these states exceed the national average.  In these states, had McCain at least matched Bush’s performance from 2004 among Hispanics, there would have been no difference in the outcome other than in Florida.  He still would have lost the popular and electoral vote even with Florida.

In fact, in Colorado where Obama won fairly easily, McCain improved appreciably over Bush’s performance with Hispanics in 2004.  But in Colorado, this increase in Hispanic support for the Republican made no difference.  As for Florida, although Obama won, the margin of victory was definitely no landslide, so a slight shift in any demographic would have made a difference.  Admittedly, had Hispanics in Florida demonstrated the same support for McCain that they extended to Bush in 2004, the Republicans would have successfully defended Florida, but not by much (less than 100,000 votes).

In states with large Hispanic populations where outcomes were expected, the Hispanic vote made little difference at all.  For example, in New Mexico, had McCain garnered 80% of the Hispanic vote, he would have lost regardless.  Likewise, in Hispanic rich Texas, Obama would have to capture 90% of the Hispanic vote for him to win that state by less than 1,000 votes (definite recount territory). 

Hence, the only time Hispanics can influence an outcome in any state is (1) the overall vote has to be very close, (2) the Hispanic population in the state has to exceed the national average, and (3) the Hispanic vote for any candidate has to be appreciable.  To see how these criteria actually play out, Florida is the one example of all three criteria being met.  In another state that was even closer- Indiana- two of three criteria are met, but the Hispanic population is negligible in that state.  Even if every Hispanic in Indiana voted for either Obama or McCain, the outcome would have been a razor thin Obama victory.

Fallacy #3: Evangelicals cost McCain the election:  First, I never personally viewed this group as the great monolithic voting block the liberal media portrays them to be.  In a way, the same dynamics explained above play out with this group with one difference- there are more evangelicals as a percentage of the population than there are Hispanics.  In a very real sense, this fallacy tends to fuel the Republican Party’s identification with this group that rightfully borders on pandering.

To see where perhaps the problem comes in, look at the analogy of the Catholic vote.  The conventional wisdom is that secure the Catholic vote, the candidate needs to adopt a pro-life stance.  In fact, according to a Pew study, most Catholics are pro-life.  However, the same study found that the majority of Catholics, despite having the conservative pro-life stance, have the liberal beliefs of gun control, being against capital punishment, in favor of immigration reform and amnesty, and being for socialized medicine.  This is not asserting that Protestant evangelicals share these same ideals.  However, a candidate pigeon-holing positions on a single issue in a sorry attempt to secure the votes of a block of voters is misguided and denies the complex reality of the situation.

Looking at the evangelical vote in 2008, about 27% of the electorate describe themselves as such.  In states where the evangelical population exceeded the national average, Republicans won them all except Indiana and North Carolina.  Because Indiana was decided by about 3,000 votes, a shift among any block of voters could have shifted the election one way or another so it is difficult to discern whether evangelicals cost McCain Indiana in 2008.  In North Carolina, the differenec was 14,000 votes and here, perhaps, the loss of support among evangelicals potentially cost McCain the state.  However, statistics regarding black evangelicals versus white evangelicals are hard to come by indicating that perhaps it was the increased black turnout that actually flipped this state.  All other things being equal, their increased turnout created a dynamic that narrowed the margin of Republican victory so that a shift in any demographic would have flipped the state.  Even in evangelical rich Florida, the drop off in support for McCain from Bush was not significant enough to change the actual outcome, but would have made it closer only.  Like the Hispanic vote, the evangelical vote becomes important provided all three of the criteria listed above are met.

Obviously, the greater you do among any demographic category, the better your showing.  But you cannot be everything to everyone all the time.  Conversely, targeting one group to the exclusion of others is also not a path to victory.  Obama won nationally by about 10 million votes, or a 56-43% margin (a 13-point victory).  Running a regression analysis, if McCain had matched Bush’s numbers with Hispanics and/or evangelicals, he still would have lost by an 11-point margin.  However, there are two demographic categories that, if McCain had matched Bush’s 2004 numbers, would have brought the margin of Obama victory to 4 points- well within the 5-point margin of creating a virtual dead heat.  And, both are not necessarily exclusive of one another.

They are the conservative vote and votes among those earning $100,000 or more.  In fact, those in the higher income brackets tend to be conservative overall.  Of course, there are rich liberals just as there are conservatives living in poverty.  But the fact is that if McCain had espoused a more consistently principled conservative economic message (or did a better job explaining it), the 2008 election would have been much, much closer.  Then, perhaps, these other demographic groups would have taken on greater significance.

Moving forward, then, what today is derisively called the “Party of No” needs to move beyond the perception of mere obstructionism and enhance their economic message.  In a very real sense, Obama’s insistence that energy, health care reform, and education are intricately related to economic recovery and prosperity, is true.  The task now for the Republicans is to prove that their path to this conclusion is better and less costly to everyone individually and to everyone as a nation.