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Update: The Obama landslide that wasn’t

Four years ago, when President Bush was barely reelected, claims were made by Republicans that he had received a huge mandate to keep doing what he was doing and do even more of it. Bush even felt emboldened to take on the politically risky project of partially privatizing Social Security, saying that he had run on it, and had won, and Congress should get the message. Didn’t work.

I wrote a story just after the election pointing out that Bush’s margin, both in the popular and electoral vote, had been the smallest of any president winning reelection since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Nine sitting presidents have won a fresh term since then (counting FDR three times) and all by landslides compared to Bush’s narrow 2004 victory. My little historical perspectivizer ran on the front page of the Strib (where I worked back then) and received more than the usual amount of denunciation and allegations of liberal bias. It was a small example of the well-known disrespect that the Bush crowd showed to inconvenient truths.

As one who believes in the value of historical perspective, it is now my duty to perform the same analysis for Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday. It was a solid win, both in popular vote (52.42-46.28 or a 6.14 percentage point margin) and electoral vote 190 EV margin, (assuming North Carolina, where Obama clings to a tiny lead, is finally awarded to him and Missouri to McCain). That certainly dwarfs either of Bush’s elections. But it was way far from a landslide by historical standards.

Specifically, I charted out the previous 27 presidential election results, going back to 1900. Whether measured by the popular vote or the electoral vote, Obama’s margins were larger than nine of the 27 (including the two Bush elections), smaller than 18. It is only by limiting the analysis to the anomalous previous two cycles that Obama’s margins look large.

The Minnesota non-massacre
I also said in my Election Day post that the Minnesota results could be used as a window into the size of the blue tide, and they were.

Obama carried Minnesota by 10 percentage points (to be precise, the secretary of state’s website has it 54.06 to 43.83). Minnesota stayed blue in presidential races, which maintains the longest blue winning streak of any state (nine straight). But Obama’s victory was expected, and the margin was frankly to the low side of the expected range (plenty of late polls had him ahead by bigger margins, and he was supposed to benefit from a superior get-out-the-vote operation).

As usual, the Democratic presidential nominee did better in Minnesota than nationally. But the gap (in other words, Obama’s Minnesota margin was four percentage points higher than his national margin) was very small by the standards of recent cycles. Here are the comparative margins by which the Dem pres nominee’s Minnesota victory margin exceeded the national popular vote for the last six cycles:

• 2004: 6.0

• 2000: 1.9

• 1996: 7.6

• 1992: 6.0

• 1988: 14.8

• 1984: 18.4 (And trust me, if I went back further, the trend would be the same.)

DFL operatives told me early on Election Day that they believed if Obama won the state by 11 points, he would drag Al Franken across the finish line. Looks like they were right. Obama fell slightly short of 11 and Franken trails by a ridiculously close 477 votes heading into a recount.

Likewise, the Dems failed to snag either of the two big pickup opportunities in congressional races (the 3rd and 6th districts). Vin Weber confessed at the Humphrey Institute Wednesday morning that Republicans believed Bachmann was a goner, but she ended up winning by a small but not teensy 46-43 percent. So Minnesota’s delegation to the U.S. House remains where it started, five Democrats and three Repubs. And, pending the recount, Democrats face six more years of wishing they had come up with someone to beat Norm Coleman.

In races for the state House of Representatives, the DFL failed to make the net five pickups they needed (they got two) to hold a veto-proof majority, which leaves Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a very weak position heading into the last two years of his term, but not the virtual irrelevancy with which he was threatened.

Republicans can’t point to any progress they made politically, nor any recovery from their fairly disastrous 2006, but considering the number of bullets they appear to have dodged, they are feeling pretty good heading into 2010, when everything except a U.S. Senate seat will be on the ballot.

P.S.: How to hype.
As I was writing this post Wednesday evening, I was recording the nightly broadcast of the “Lehrer Newshour,” the most substantive news show on television and one that I admire greatly. But when I went to watch the recording, I heard something that made add this postscript:

In her narration of the Obama-on-the-day-after story, the esteemed Judy Woodruff described Obama as having won by “the biggest margin for any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson.” I don’t know why someone would say that, other than to hype the story, because it is both misleading and wrong.

Misleading: LBJ won in 1964 by 23.6 percentages points. Obama won by 6.14. The gap of 44 years between those elections sounds long and covers 10 elections, but only three Democratic victories, by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. So comparing Obama’s much smaller margin to LBJ’s makes it sound like Obama’s margin has surpassed a great many margins in the meantime. Actually, four of the Republicans who won in the interim had bigger margins (Nixon in 1972, 23.2 percent; Reagan in 1980, 9.7, Reagan in 1984, 18.2; and Bush in 1988, 7.8 percentage points).

Wrong: But actually, Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996 by 8.5 percentage points, significantly higher than Obama’s 6.1 percent margin. So, sorry Ms. Woodruff, but in the 10 elections between LBJ and Obama, five were won by bigger margins than Obama’s margin of Tuesday.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by brian flanagan on 11/06/2008 - 02:47 pm.

    I would like to see a breakdown of the margins for previous African American Presidents….oh wait. There hasn’t been any.

    You’re right. It wasn’t really that big of margin.

    Say hi to Rush Limbaugh for me, Eric. Way to further the right-wing wingnut talking points.

  2. Submitted by John E Iacono on 11/06/2008 - 04:39 pm.

    I beg to differ, Brian.

    This is one of EB’s best in a while.

    We all get our own opinions, but we don’t get our own facts — and EB lays them out clearly here.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/06/2008 - 05:05 pm.

    What I think the results show is the continuing polarization of American politics.
    Most people are voting a party line, not specific candidates. That’s why Bachmann retained her seat.
    If this is correct, Obama won, not by convincing Republicans to vote for him, but by expanding his electorate among black and other young and minority voters who previously had a low turnout (the same way that Jesse won his election, BTW).
    Obama’s biggest challenge for the next four years will be to overcome this polarization and become (unlike Bush) the President of more than 52% of the electorate.

  4. Submitted by Tom Poe on 11/06/2008 - 10:27 pm.

    Eric can report back when the final totals for disenfranchised voters is completed. In the meantime, lets give credit to the Democrats who successfully installed the country’s first black man to the presidency. This will give the Party of Corporate Welfare some breathing room to meet and discuss why their leaders decided to rape and pillage America over the last eight years.

  5. Submitted by brian flanagan on 11/07/2008 - 10:03 am.

    Tom Poe RULES!

  6. Submitted by Ali Witt on 11/17/2008 - 06:01 pm.

    I think it’s very beneficial and important that history was used in this article. It highlights that Minnesota is a blue state but maybe not “as blue” as it has been in the past.
    Now, I feel as if the mention of the African American and young vote has a bad connotation to some, or is that incorrect? If this is the case, shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that more young people are feeling energized to vote as well as a minority?

  7. Submitted by Kyle Madland on 11/18/2008 - 01:00 am.

    You could say that Obama won by 6.3 percentage points.

    You could also say that Obama won by 8,565,973 votes.

    Now, one of those sentences makes that election sound like it had a large gap than the other. It’s all in the way you want to word it.

    Eight and a half million people is a lot of people, perhaps even nearing “landslide” territory.

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