5 Myths About an Election of Mythic Proportions

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.

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.

The fact that roughly a third of the Democratic House majority sits in seats with Republican underpinnings (at least at the presidential level) is almost certain to keep a liberal dream agenda from moving through Congress. The first rule of politics is survival, and if these new arrivals to Washington want to stick around, they are likely to build centrist voting records between now and 2010.

4. A Republican candidate could have won the presidency this year.

I doubt it. In the hastily penned postmortems of campaign '08, much of the blame for McCain's loss seems to have fallen at the feet of the candidate and his advisers, who (so the narrative goes) made a series of lousy strategic decisions that wound up costing the Arizona senator the White House. There's little question that some of the choices McCain and his team made -- the most obvious being the impulsive decision to suspend his campaign and try to broker a deal on the financial rescue bill, only to see his efforts blow up in his face -- did not help. But a look at this year's political atmospherics suggests that the environment was so badly poisoned that no Republican -- not Mitt Romney, not Mike Huckabee, not even the potential future GOP savior, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- could have beaten Obama on Nov. 4.

Why not? Three words (and a middle initial): President George W. Bush.

In the national exit poll, more than seven in 10 voters said that they disapproved of the job Bush was doing; not surprisingly, Obama resoundingly won that group, 67 percent to 31 percent. But here's an even more stunning fact: While 7 percent of the exit-poll sample strongly approved of the job Bush was doing, a whopping 51 percent strongly disapproved. Obama won those strong disapprovers 82 percent to 16 percent. And Bush's approval numbers looked grim for the GOP even before the September financial meltdown.

Just one in five voters in the national exit polls said that the country was "generally going in the right direction." McCain won that group 71 percent to Obama's 27 percent. But among the 75 percent of voters who said that the country was "seriously off on the wrong track," Obama had a thumping 26-point edge.

Those numbers speak to the damage that eight years of the Bush administration have done to the Republican brand. It's a burden that any candidate running for president with an "R" after his -- or her -- name would have had to drag around the country.

5. McCain made a huge mistake in picking Sarah Palin.

No subject is more likely to break up a dinner party early than the Alaska governor McCain chose as his running mate. Everyone not only has an opinion about her qualifications (or lack thereof) but also feels it necessary to share those opinions with anyone within shouting range.

Love her or loathe her, the data appear somewhere close to conclusive that Palin did little to help -- and, in fact, did some to hurt -- McCain's attempts to reach out to independents and Democrats. But just because Palin doesn't appear to have helped McCain move to the middle doesn't mean that picking her was the wrong move.

Remember where McCain found himself this past summer. He had won the Republican nomination, but the GOP base clearly felt little buy-in into his campaign. A slew of national polls reflected that energy gap, with Democrats revved up about the election and their candidate and Republicans somewhere between tepid and glum.

Enter Palin, who was embraced with a bear hug by the party's conservative base. All of a sudden, cultural conservatives were thrilled at the chance to put "one of their own" in the White House. In fact, of the 60 percent of voters who told exit pollsters that McCain's choice of Palin was a "factor" in their final decision, the Arizona senator won 56 percent to 43 percent.

For skittish conservatives looking for more evidence that McCain understood their needs and concerns, Palin did the trick. It's hard to imagine conservatives rallying to McCain -- even to the relatively limited extent that they did -- without Palin on the ticket. And without the base, McCain's loss could have been far worse.

Which myths did we miss? Let the conversation begin!


Chris Cillizza covers the White House for The Washington Post and writes "The Fix," a political blog, on washingtonpost.com.

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