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America the Polarized

To say my heart isn't fully in the wet-blanket role at this historic moment is an understatement. I spent last night with throngs of people celebrating in the streets where, 40 years ago, storefronts burned in the wake of the King assassination. And I am filled with hope for the possibilities of the next several years.

That said, I have to disagree with my friend John B. Judis--last night was not a harbinger of ideological realignment. Progressives would be wise to heed Bill Galston's warning in this week's TNR piece and proceed cautiously. Luckily, all signs are that President-elect Obama understands the political challenges he will face in trying to enact his agenda.

Why are we not in the midst of a realignment? Start with the national Democratic Party. At this point, it looks like Democrats will pick up six seats in the Senate and 19 in the House. When the 2006 elections are factored in, that makes a 12-seat pickup in the Senate and 50 in the House over the past two cycles. These are impressive figures, to be sure. But they are not so different from the eight Senate seats and 54 House seats the GOP gained in 1994--a year when the GOP looked like it was cementing a Republican realignment, but then the next three elections brought Democrat gains in the House and a Democratic president two years later. Moreover, Democrats today hold the same number of Senate seats as they did in 1992, before the GOP tsunami hit in 1994, and four fewer in the House. So while conditions for the Democrats in 2008 are obviously different from the conditions for the Republicans in 1994, the scope of Democratic victory in Congress this year does not necessarily prove a realignment.

But Congressional balance of power aside, a bigger problem for the realignment thesis is the fact that Democrats' recent success reflects declining Republican popularity rather than rising Democratic popularity. Democracy Corps's final pre-election poll of likely voters shows that warm feelings for the Democratic Party, on a scale from 0 to 100, were 51.5, or just above the midpoint of the scale. In 2004 they were 52.1--basically the same. If, as Judis argues, the Democratic realignment was stymied in 2004 by 9/11, but then back on track in 2006, wouldn’t you expect warm feelings for the Democratic Party to increase between 2004 and 2006? Instead, the big change was that warmth toward the Republican Party dropped from 53.1 to 44.2.

What is more, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (Democracy Corps's sister firm) has shown that feelings toward Democrats in 2006 among voters, while slightly warmer than feelings toward the Republicans, were significantly cooler than feelings toward the Republicans were in 1994. It is difficult to see how a party that depends on its rival’s collapse to win the reins of power can claim a mandate for an aggressive progressive agenda that it could not enact when its rival was more popular.

Obama's commanding victory is also not necessarily indicative of a broader political realignment. First of all, we must credit his magnificent campaign, which was run brilliantly--from overall strategy to field operations to fundraising. The candidate was easily the best the party has had since Clinton. But perhaps more importantly, the lopsidedness of the election was largely due to the financial crisis.

The final electoral map at listed 22 states and the District of Columbia as being "strong" Obama states. These states were almost exactly the set of states won by either Gore or Kerry. The magnitude of Obama's electoral vote margin owes to his victories in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, and Indiana. Looking at polling trends in these six states illustrates how important the financial crisis was to Obama's victory.

The stock market began its downward plunge on September 15. As of early September, showed McCain leading in four of the six swing states: Nevada, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida. Had McCain won those states, Obama would still have been elected president, but his electoral vote total would have been just 286 rather than 349. Subtract Virginia, which was essentially a toss-up in early September, and Obama's total falls to 273. What changed in these five states? Indiana and Nevada had too few polls to produce precise trend lines, but in the other three states, it is stunning how consistently the polls turned against McCain at exactly the moment the Dow dropped. (See charts for Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, and the conclusion is the same if Obama wins Missouri, though North Carolina departs from the pattern.) Colorado, where Obama held a comfortable lead even before the financial crisis, shows the gap between him and McCain growing at the same point. Obviously the appeal of Obama's economic policies compared with those of McCain made the crisis advantageous to him, but McCain did himself no favors by two stunts--the Palin pick and the suspension of his campaign--that only served to raise questions about his judgment.

My friend Noam Scheiber has two responses to this argument: The fundamentals of the race still favored Obama, and so what if the financial crisis was responsible for Obama’s victory. The fundamentals did favor Obama, but as the charts above show, McCain was well-positioned in all of these swing states except Colorado prior to the Dow’s plunge, and he began recovering in several of them once the market stabilized. The so-what point goes directly to whether this was simply an impressive, decisive victory on the part of the Obama campaign or whether it foreshadows a realignment. Voters trust Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to economic policy, but without the financial crisis, the already weak economy might not have been enough to give Obama his swing states. In that case, we would have seen our third straight “50-50 Nation” election. Barring financial crises every four years, that's no recipe for realignment.

As for Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s argument about demographic and geographic changes favoring Democrats, Tom Edsall has written far more elegantly than I could about the difficulty of holding together the upscale/downscale alliance they envision as the base of a durable Democratic majority. Cultural issues will continue to exert pressure on this delicate coalition of the economically liberal. Additionally, their analysis tends to downplay Democratic weakness on national security issues (which favored McCain over Obama after all). The electorate has resoundingly rejected neo-conservatism, but that rejection includes both the hard-power aspects embodied in preemptive strikes as well as the soft-power aspects progressives are more sympathetic toward (e.g., democracy promotion).

Since 1994, election results have been regularly accompanied by claims that one party or the other has somehow broken through the “50-50 Nation” political environment and is on the verge of a permanent majority. But what E.J. Dionne said of progressives in the mid-1990s might just as easily be applied to conservatives today: They only look dead. The Republican Party is imploding now after trying to govern as if they had a mandate for conservative rule (and after letting their power corrupt themselves). As John Heilemann's recent New York magazine profile made clear, Obama himself understands the work he has ahead of him if he is to implement an ambitious progressive agenda. We can only hope that ambitious progressives understand as well.

Scott Winship is completing his doctoral dissertation in social policy at Harvard University and is the former blogger and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.

By Scott Winship