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It's The Economy Stupid, Kinda

It didn’t take long for the GOP to settle on a narrative once the numbers started heading south last night: John McCain was running even or slightly ahead of Obama until the economy cratered in September. If not for the financial crisis, McCain would have stood a pretty good chance of winning.

There are a couple problems with this explanation. For one thing, mid-to-late September also coincided with the peak in energy and enthusiasm surrounding Sarah Palin. It’s hard to imagine McCain sustaining his lead as Palin became a drag on the ticket (which she quickly did), and as the fundamentals of the race—which strongly favored Democrats—gradually reasserted themselves. For another thing: So what? The economy is hardly an illegitimate issue, some arbitrary external event that has no business deciding an election. A big chunk of what you ‘re doing when you vote for president is choosing a manager of the economy.

Having said that, there’s no denying that the economic crisis strongly affected the size of Obama’s victory. Over the last several decades, the country has seen two swing groups move in opposite directions: Working-class whites exiting the Democratic Party, and more affluent, educated voters leaving the GOP. For either side, the key to winning a presidential election has been to hold onto its own swing voters while consolidating gains among the other guy’s. Thanks to the economy, Barack Obama more than accomplished that last night.

Think of 2000 as a baseline—the year the parties were in rough parity on the presidential level. Four years later, George W. Bush roughly held his own among college graduates (the group leaving the GOP), but nudged up three points among working-class voters (the group migrating toward the GOP). Obama accomplished something similar last night, except more pronounced.* Relative to 2000, he more than held his own among working-class voters (+6 among high school grads, +10 among those with “some college”). And he improved his take of educated voters even more sharply (+8 among college grads, +10 among post-graduates).

Of course, the latter was no surprise. We’ve known ever since the primaries that college grads were Obama’s base, along with African-Americans (another group he improved on significantly relative to 2000). Far less clear heading into the general was whether he’d capture enough of white working-class voters to carry states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

What’s so interesting about last night’s isn’t the answer to this question—which is obviously “yes.” It’s how cleanly we can identify the economy as the driving force. The publicly available exit polls now break down data on income and education by racial group. Among all whites without college degrees (40 percent of the electorate), Obama lost by a whopping 18 points. But among whites making $50,000 per year or less (a quarter of the electorate), he lost by a mere 4 points.

Which is to say, the big divide last night wasn’t between working-class whites (i.e., whites without college degrees) and educated whites. It was between working-class whites who are relatively well off, and working-class whites who aren’t. The aforementioned numbers imply that Obama struggled hugely among working-class whites making more than $50,000 per year, but did well among those making less than that. The upshot was that, despite losing the white working-class by wide margins nationally, Obama came reasonably close in the economically depressed states of the industrial Midwest (down only 8 in Ohio and Indiana, actually up 6 in Michigan). Hence the electoral college landslide.

A couple more quick demographic points:

Despite all the early and-wringing about Latino defections, Obama did far better among this group than John Kerry (66 percent versus 53). There were similar, if slightly more modest, gains among Jews (77 for Obama versus 74 for Kerry) and white evangelicals (25 versus 21).

The GOP nastiness in the homestretch (Wright, et al) appeared to have some effect, as McCain won voters who decided in the last three days by five points. But Obama won the Election-Day deciders by a similar margin. Which is to say, at the very end, it appears McCain behaved more like the incumbent than Obama (not surprising given the association with Bush), despite Team McCain’s argument that it would be the opposite thanks to Obama’s lavish spending.

Finally, on the question of race, Obama won 51 percent of people who said it wasn’t a factor, 54 percent who said it was a minor factor, 52 who said it was an important factor, and 59 who said it was the most important factor. Though the first group was by far the biggest (80 percent of the electorate), the numbers suggest that, to the extent race was a factor, it tended to help rather than hurt Obama. Or, put differently, of the people for whom race mattered, more wanted to see a black man become president than didn’t.

*This is based on exit poll numbers from early this morning. It’s possible that they’ll change a bit over time.

--Noam Scheiber