A Vote Decided by Big Turnout And Big Discontent With GOP

By Alec MacGillis and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In building his sweeping electoral majority yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama capitalized on a tidal wave of disenchantment with President Bush, deep worry about the economy, and seismic demographic shifts away from the Republican Party among young people, Hispanics and college-educated voters.

As expected, the election appeared to produce record turnout, with long lines outside polling stations in many states, on top of record-breaking early voting, in which roughly a third of eligible voters cast their ballots before Election Day. In North Carolina alone, turnout increased from 54 percent to 61 percent of the electorate -- about 800,000 voters. But exit polls suggested that Obama was able to win with a less dramatic surge in young voters and African Americans than many had expected.

Instead, he constructed a much further-reaching coalition, based above all on a rejection of the Republican brand of the last eight years and a desire for change. Thirty-two percent of voters in last night's preliminary exit poll results described themselves as Republicans, compared with 40 percent who identified themselves as Democrats. Four years ago, the numbers for the two parties were equal.

The shift away from the Republicans did not appear to signify an ideological shift toward the left. The proportion of voters describing themselves as liberal, moderate and conservative stayed roughly the same compared with four years ago. The number of those who said they thought the government should be more active was only slightly higher than in 2004; nonetheless, more than 40 percent still thought government was doing too much.

But if the electorate showed some of the usual fissures over how to move forward in a difficult time, it was in widespread agreement over what it did not want: a continuation of Republican Party rule in the White House. That was a judgment Sen. John McCain was unable to escape, despite repeated attempts to separate himself from Bush. Among independents, Obama scored a six-point advantage. And nearly one in five voters who voted for Bush in 2004 said they went for Obama, double the proportion of John F. Kerry's voters in 2004 who voted yesterday for McCain.

Although ideological identification appeared stable, there were significant shifts in the demographic undercurrents. Two-thirds of the Hispanic vote went to Obama, compared with 53 percent for Kerry in the last presidential race -- despite many worries among Democrats that Obama would not be able to win over Hispanic voters who had favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primary season.

The Hispanic margin represents a particular blow to the Bush coalition -- Bush and his advisers had taken pride in building up their share of the Hispanic vote to 44 percent in 2004. But Hispanics have since been moving away from Republicans amid the often-harsh debate over immigration reform.

Of the three-quarters of the electorate who were white, the early exit polls showed that about 43 percent voted for Obama, roughly in line with the white vote for Kerry in 2004, Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1996.

But Obama nearly tied with McCain among white voters who had some college education, a group Bush won in 2004 by 11 points. This suggested acceleration of a trend that has been underway for at least a decade, as more and more college-educated white suburban professionals have been moving toward the Democrats. This improved showing by Obama was particularly relevant in Virginia and Colorado, the only two of the 10 states in the country with the highest rates of college education that Kerry lost.

Obama's strong performance with college-educated whites helped explain how he was able to build a lead despite faring relatively poorly among white voters without a college education. He lost this group by 18 points -- a small improvement over Kerry's performance. But the group's share of the electorate dropped by four points and he was able to hold his losses with the group to a manageable level. Some of the credit may belong to union voters in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Democrats had worried about his prospects. Union members voted for Obama at the same rate as they had for Kerry, about 60 percent.

As expected, Obama won nearly the entire African American vote, about 95 percent, compared with the 88 percent share that Kerry won. With turnout up overall, the surge in black turnout resulted in only a two-point increase in the black proportion of the electorate, from 11 percent to 13 percent. Overall, only about one in 10 voters said race was an important factor in deciding whom to pick -- and a majority of them voted for Obama.

McCain's diminished performance among minority voters underscored the challenge for Republicans in a country that is expected to lose its white majority by 2042. Exit polls also indicated a widening generation gap. Although the share of younger voters did not surge over 2004's figure, the rate of voters younger than 30 who voted for the Democrats increased to 66 percent, a 12-point increase. But among voters older than 65, McCain improved slightly on Bush's performance.

As a debate was breaking out yesterday among McCain advisers over Gov. Sarah Palin's role in the campaign's struggles, exit polls suggested that McCain's running mate had not helped in a broad swath of the electorate. About 60 percent of voters questioned by exit pollsters said they thought Palin was not qualified to be vice president. She did not appear to have helped McCain with women -- a portion of the electorate Obama won by 13 percentage points overall while losing white women by 7 points. Both were improvements over Kerry's numbers.

Palin may have helped, however, in maintaining the Republican hold on white evangelical Christian voters. Despite attempts to cut into this base, Obama managed to improve on Kerry's performance with this group by only four points. Despite worries among Democrats about Obama's chances with Jewish voters, he won more than three-quarters of them, a slight improvement over Kerry. He also improved slightly with white Catholic voters -- although McCain held a narrow majority, which would represent the first time that white Catholics did not side with the winner since exit polling began in 1972.

The discontent in the electorate was palpable. About a quarter of voters said they approved of Bush's job performance, half as many as did when he ran for reelection four years ago. Of the 72 percent who disapproved, two-thirds voted for Obama. Only a fifth of voters thought the country was on the right track, compared with roughly half in 2004.

McCain spent much of the campaign trying to disassociate himself from Bush, proclaiming in his final debate with Obama: "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." But when exit pollsters asked voters whether they thought McCain would continue Bush's policies or take the country in a new direction, half of them said McCain would continue on Bush's path. And of those voters, nine in 10 voted for Obama.

Obama led by nine points among the nearly two-thirds of voters who said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Half of voters said the economy was in "poor" shape, the worst of four options they were given, which was triple the rate four years ago, and Obama appeared to have won two-thirds of them. More than 40 percent of voters said their finances were worse off than four years ago, compared with a quarter who said that in 2004. Seven in 10 of them voted for Obama.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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