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5 Myths About an Election of Mythic Proportions

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By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, November 16, 2008

The 2008 presidential election ended less than two weeks ago, but the mythmaking machine has already begun to churn. President-elect Barack Obama transformed the face of the electorate! The Republican Party will be a miserable minority in Congress for the next century! Cats and dogs are now living together! Below we explode the five biggest myths that have already sprung up around the election that was.

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1. The Republican Party suffered a death blow.

There's no question that losing six Senate seats and 24 House seats (not to mention the White House) wasn't a step forward for the Grand Old Party. But there are two good reasons to believe that Republicans will be back on their feet sooner than many people expect.

First, much of the Republicans' permanent political class has concluded that electing Sen. John McCain as president would have amounted to applying a Band-Aid to a gaping wound. Given the state of the party -- bereft of a signature new idea and without many fresh faces -- plenty of Republican operatives have come to subscribe to what I'd call the Ra's al Ghul theory of rebuilding: Ghul, a villain in the movie "Batman Begins," advocates destroying the city of Gotham to rebuild it from the ground up. "It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die," he says -- a sentiment echoed by many Republicans these days, who argue that hitting rock bottom was the only way to allow new faces and ideas to emerge.

Second, historical electoral patterns suggest that Republicans could pick up a passel of Senate and House seats in 2010 -- the first midterm election under President Obama. Every president (save one) since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 has lost seats in the House in his first midterm election. The exception? George W. Bush in 2002, when Republicans picked up six House seats and two Senate seats -- a historic anomaly widely credited to the world-changing events of Sept. 11, 2001.

2. A wave of black voters and young people was the key to Obama's victory.

Afraid not. Heading into Election Day, cable news, newspapers and blogs were dominated by excited chatter about record levels of enthusiasm for Obama among two critical groups: African Americans and young voters (aged 18-29). It made sense: Black voters were energized to cast a historic vote for the first African American nominee of either major party; young people -- following a false start with former Vermont governor Howard Dean in 2004 -- had bought into Obama in a major way during the primary season, and they finally seemed on the cusp of realizing their much-promised potential as a powerhouse voting bloc.

Or not. Exit polling suggests that there was no statistically significant increase in voting among either group. Black voters made up 11 percent of the electorate in 2004 and 13 percent in 2008, while young voters comprised 17 percent of all voters in 2004 and 18 percent four years later.

The surge in young and African American voters is not entirely the stuff of myth, however. Although their percentages as a portion of the electorate didn't increase measurably, Obama did seven points better among black voters than Sen. John F. Kerry did in 2004 and scored a 13-point improvement over Kerry's total among young voters.

3. Now that they control the White House and Congress, Democrats will usher in a new progressive era.

Not likely. At first glance, the numbers do look encouraging for proponents of a new New Deal era in government: Obama claimed at least 364 electoral votes and more than 52.5 percent of the overall popular vote, while Democrats now control at least 57 seats in the Senate and 255 in the House.

But look more closely, and you see a heavy influx of moderate to conservative members in the incoming freshman Democratic class, particularly in the House. Of the 24 Republican-held districts that Democrats won in 2008, Kerry carried just three in 2004. Democratic victories on Nov. 4 included Alabama's 2nd district (where Kerry took 33 percent of the vote) and Idaho's at-large seat (where Kerry won just 30 percent). In fact, according to tabulations by National Journal's Richard E. Cohen, 81 House Democrats in the 111th Congress will represent districts that Bush carried in 2004.


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