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Cheer Up, Democrats!

Even if the primary stretches on, a long-term tectonic shift in the electorate means the party is in great shape for November.

It’s all over but the shouting. Even though the Democratic Convention is still four months away and the presidential election is more than six months off, Barack Obama might as well admit that John McCain will beat him so squarely that he might as well start working on his concession speech. At least that’s what you’d assume if you’ve been reading the latest musings of the Washington commentariat, which have only amplified in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s victory in Pennsylvania. In the past month, articles proclaiming that Obama’s campaign is doomed have been proliferating on websites and editorial pages. And it’s not just GOP frontmen like George Will and Robert Novak who are making the argument that Obama’s candidacy is seriously, perhaps fatally, flawed. Recently, some prominent progressives including TNR’s John Judis have joined the chorus of Obama general-election skeptics.   

According to the new conventional wisdom, Barack Obama has been badly damaged by Hillary Clinton’s continuing attacks and by his own personal baggage and mistakes, ranging from his relationship with his controversial former minister, Jeremiah Wright, to his highly publicized comments about bitter small town voters who cling to their guns and religion. And while Obama has been trying to respond to a barrage of media criticism and Clinton attack ads, John McCain has been able to shift into general election mode--joining in the attacks on Obama, while shoring up his moderate image to prepare for November.

There’s no question that the past few weeks have been rough on Obama. The Clinton campaign has hit him with everything including the kitchen sink in an effort to throw his campaign off stride and yes, he has made some mistakes. Some of this was inevitable, of course. As a relative newcomer to the national political scene, Obama was bound to face increased media scrutiny once he became the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But all of the hand-wringing on the part of liberal pundits ignores one key fact: Obama has come through this series of controversies relatively unscathed. His favorable ratings have come down to earth, but they’re still higher than Hillary Clinton’s and, according to some recent polls, John McCain’s. And he’s still leading Clinton among Democratic voters and running even or slightly ahead of McCain in most recent surveys of general election voters.

As Jonathan Cohn recently pointed out, the fact that Obama is running even or slightly ahead of McCain in the polls after enduring weeks of relentless pounding from Hillary Clinton is itself rather remarkable and speaks to the underlying realities of the 2008 election. And once the Democratic nomination is settled and the party unites behind its nominee, those realities should become readily apparent, even to the Washington pundits.

According to every known leading indicator, 2008 should be a very good year for Democratic candidates at all levels. There are many factors that point to an across-the-board Democratic victory in November, including the extraordinary unpopularity of President Bush, the deteriorating condition of the economy, the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, and the fact that Americans prefer the Democratic position to the Republican position on almost every major national issue. However, the most important Democratic advantage, and one that has received relatively little attention in the media, is the fact that for the past six years the Democratic electoral base has been expanding while the Republican electoral base has been shrinking.

Since 2002, according to annual data compiled by the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans identifying with or leaning toward the Democratic Party has increased by about seven percentage points while the percentage identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party has decreased by about six percentage points. Fifty-two percent of Americans now identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party while only 39 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.

A surge in Democratic enrollment across the country has pushed the party far beyond its competitor in many of the key battleground states: There are now about 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania, for example. And even in states without party registration, such as Ohio and Virginia, the fact that turnout in the Democratic primary dwarfed turnout in the Republican primary suggests that a similar movement has been taking place. As a result of these gains in Democratic identification, the 2008 election could see a number of formerly red states, such as Virginia, move into the purple column, and several formerly purple states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, move into the blue column.

The fact that Democratic identifiers now decisively outnumber Republican identifiers means that in order to win, Democrats only have to unite and turn out their own base. If Obama wins the national popular vote by even a single percentage point, it’s worth remembering, he’ll almost certainly win the electoral vote as well. In order for John McCain to win, on the other hand, Republicans not only have to unite and turn out their own base, which they have been fairly successful at doing in recent elections, but they also have to win a large majority of the small bloc of true independents and make significant inroads among Democratic identifiers, which they have not been very successful at doing recently.

Political commentators often assume that Democratic voters are inevitably less motivated and united than Republican voters--that they either won’t turn out or, if they do turn out, they will defect in large numbers to an appealing Republican candidate like John McCain. Leaving aside the question of just how appealing John McCain will be in November after undergoing several months of withering attacks from an extremely well-funded Democratic campaign, this image of Democratic voters is badly outdated.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was very difficult for Democratic presidential candidates to hold their party’s diverse electoral coalition together. That was because Democrats were ideologically divided and Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan found it relatively easy to pick off conservative Democratic voters when they were running against liberal Democratic candidates like George McGovern and Walter Mondale. Since the 1970s, however, the American electorate has undergone an ideological realignment with conservative voters strongly loyal to the Republican Party and liberal voters reliably pulling the lever for the Democratic Party.

Today, there are very few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans left either in the leadership or the electorate of the parties. The result is that national elections are fought between two ideologically cohesive parties. In this type of electorate, the party that does a better job of uniting and turning out its supporters usually wins. In 2002 and 2004, that was the Republicans, but by 2006 it was the Democrats who had the advantage. Their advantage has continued to grow in the past two years.

A big part of the reason for the growing Democratic edge in party identification is the fact that Democrats now enjoy a large advantage among voters under the age of 30, as well as among African American and Hispanic voters. All three of these groups have been turning out in record numbers in the Democratic primaries, and there is no reason to believe that they will not also turn out in large numbers in November. Based on the early indicators of voter interest, the 2008 presidential election could very well witness the highest turnout of eligible voters in the postwar era, and that can only be good news for Democrats. With a unified Democratic Party, a clear message of change, and a strong grass-roots effort at mobilizing the Democratic base, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be taking office as the head of a unified Democratic government. And John McCain will still be a member of the minority party in the United States Senate.    

Alan I. Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University.

By Alan I. Abramowitz