Monday, November 10, 2008

how obama won

Very nice piece by Michael Sokolove in the NY Times Week in Review on how Obama won over voters in Levittown PA, a lower middle class (and nearly all-white) suburb that voted for Clinton overwhelmingly last Spring. The general theme is that voters' economic anxiety overcame their incipient racism and encouraged them to vote for the Democrat in the fall. As examples Sokolove cited voters statements, apparently in exit interviews, that McCain would be a clone of Bush; that he would favor rich over poor taxpayers; and so forth. The story thus fit in the dominant trend of election coverage, which portrays a "transformational" election in both racial and economic terms.

Nice try: except that if Sokolove actually lived in Pa., he would know that each of the voter statements above--McCain is a Bush clone, Obama would provide a larger middle class tax cut--were essentially verbatim quotations from television advertisements run by the Obama campaign and its surrogates in the weeks preceding the election. The shift in Levittown and similar locations, in other words, had relatively little to do with changed consciousness and a whole lot to do with Obama's outspending McCain by 3:1 and 4:1 in swing states during the closing phases of the campaign. Writing in this week's New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quotes an Obama operative in another state to the effect that "we kick[ed] the shit out of them" in almost all major states in this manner.

None of this is of course against the law, and Obama's advantage in fundraising resulted from the greater enthusiasm for his candidacy as well as the perception that he could and would win. Republicans have been only too happy to benefit from the same dynamic in the past. My point is that an election won largely by superior resources and organization--a difference directly attributable to Obama's unanticipated breach of a promise to abide by traditional spending limitations--is being more or less intentionally transformed into a broad ideological shift that there is simply no empirical evidence for. Claims of increased voter turnout are similarly false: as John Harwood notes in the N.Y. Times, Obama won Ohio with about the same vote that Kerry lost because of reduced turnout, mainly on the Republican side. This rewriting of history may or may not be a good thing, and it is once again no different from (and perhaps less offensive than) similar Republican efforts in the past. But it is always dangerous to base policies on a lie, and the suggestion that this election was a victory for anything but traditional politics is essentially that.


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