2008: The Year of Obama?

While the specific dynamics of November’s election are not yet known, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato is wasting no time in making bold assertions. To say nothing of the fact the first African-American was elected President of the United States, he maintains 2008 was no ordinary election. 2008 was just the tip of the iceberg – a dramatic shift of political coalitions, likely ushering in an extended period of Democratic control, according to his new political anthology, “The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama won the White House.”

To be sure, when the most-quoted political scientist in the land speaks up, people listen, but has the good doctor misdiagnosed ailing Republicans’ present predicament?

Before arriving at the intricacies of Sabato’s argument, it’s worth explaining the rather amorphic notion of political “realignment,” particularly given the state of reporting on the matter. A political realignment is a dramatic and enduring shift in voters’ loyalties and fundamental perceptions of the parties in government. We have witnessed three such instances: the 1896 election with the emergence of a national campaign, the 1932 election following the nation’s greatest financial disaster to date, and the 1980 election marking the meteoric rise of social conservativism.

The political landscape for 2010 and beyond, as Sabato sees it, will create a lasting Democratic majority, due in part to three giant demographic shifts: The intense preference among younger voters for the Democratic Party is unlikely to fade, with more than 2-1 voting for Obama; accelerated minority voter participation largely benefits Democrats; and professionals – those with post-graduate degrees – have begun to self-identify as Democrats in large numbers.

But not everyone is convinced. Joshua Putnam, a political scientist from the University of Georgia, warns that many, if not most, political scientists will take issue with Sabato’s brash conclusion. He notes that while 2008, in many ways, looks like a realigning election, it’s far too premature to make such conclusions.

“The three groups he discusses were certainly a large part of the Obama coalition.  But that doesn’t necessarily entail a long-term realignment. Here’s the key distinction: Was this an Obama coalition or a Democratic coalition and to what degree do they overlap? An Obama coalition implies that once the president is off the ballot — in midterm elections or in 2016 — that some of this movement could be reversed to some extent depending on GOP candidates and their messaging.”

We can neither see the future, nor is it inevitable. Realignments depend principally on the performance of the party in government. A permanent realignment of the sorts Sabato describes is wholly contingent upon Obama’s ability to accomplish the agenda he outlined in the campaign.

The Obama campaign was the greatest candidate-centered campaign for president in American history. It wasn’t “powered by Hope,” it was powered by his enormous ego and drive for success. Had Obama’s peculiar cult of personality established a Democratic coalition, Congressional Democrats would have earned greater majorities in both Houses, yet they didn’t. Moreover, we’re still at relative parity in terms of partisanship and see essentially a party stalemate in Congress.

It is unfortunate that esteemed political scientists join commenters and journalists in their natural tendency to portray singular elections as an indication of a monumental shift in the electorate. Obama’s campaign did not create a permanent coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives – it manufactured a melodramatic reaction to an unpopular president. 2008 was more a referendum on George Bush than a repudiation of Republicans in general.

President Obama, like one-term President Jimmy Carter, will soon learn the power of sharp disapproval of incumbent government in 2012, at which point I expect Sabato will be revisiting this comically premature argument.

Cross-posted at Skepticians.com.