Election Debriefing

 Posted by  Larry Bartels

I’ve already seen lots of excellent political science post-mortems on the election. John Sides has had a particularly good series of posts at Monkey Cage attempting to debunk various myths about what happened and why. Here are a few points along the same lines, from today’s CSDP roundtable on the election.

First, as always, much of the focus of commentators in the immediate aftermath of the election has been on the quality of the two candidates’ campaigns. The New York Times made Obama’s campaign the lead, headlining their main morning-after analysis (by Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny) “Near-Flawless Run Is Credited in Victory”. On the other hand, my Princeton colleague Julian Zelizer put the focus on McCain in a Newsweek piece headlined “Worst Campaign Ever?”. (Julian may be this year’s winner of my quadrennial award for first use of the phrase “worst campaign ever”; I believe the last time there was no award was in 1976.)
Of course, it is very hard to know—or even how to know how we would know—which candidate ran a better campaign. Many decisions on both sides were significantly shaped by the fundamental contours of the election year. It seems well worth noting, however, that the result turned out very much as one would have expected based on political scientists’ early forecasts—and this despite Obama’s big fundraising advantage and the “fortuitous” timing of the financial meltdown, which focused voters’ attention even more single-mindedly on the economy than would otherwise have been the case.
There is certainly plenty of evidence in the exit polls suggesting that the election was primarily a referendum on the state of the country under President Bush. In the country as a whole and in several key swing states, half the voters thought national economic conditions were “poor,” and they went for Obama by 2-to-1 margins. A similar number strongly disapproved of Bush’s performance, and they went for Obama by even wider margins. With 90 to 95% of the votes he needed to be elected coming from people who strongly disapproved of the incumbent government, Obama didn’t have to win much support from the other half of the electorate (many of whom disapproved of Bush’s performance, but less strongly) in order to win.
Retrospective Voting in 2008 Exit Polls

National Economic Conditions Poor
(Obama Margin)
Strongly Disapprove of Bush’s Performance
(Obama Margin)
49% (66-31)
51% (82-16)
53% (66-33)
52% (82-16)
43% (66-32)
43% (86-13)
North Carolina
49% (64-35)
47% (84-15)
53% (68-30)
52% (83-16)
44% (72-27)
53% (86-13)
43% (67-33)
50% (84-15)

There has also been lots of talk about whether the election outcome marks a major shift in the standing of the parties and the nature of their supporting coalitions. The detailed presentation of election results in today’s New York Times was headlined “In a Decisive Victory, Obama Reshapes the Electoral Map.” A piece by John Judis in The New Republic is even bolder, announcing that “Obama’s Victory Marks a Radical Realignment in American Politics”. This, too, is a common theme in commentary whenever either party wins an election by more than a few percentage points—and it, too, is often much-overblown.
In a brief pre-election post I suggested looking at the continuity of state-level election returns from 2004 to 2008 as a way to gauge whether this election produced any major political shifts. The simple answer turns out to be that, by this measure, nothing very unusual happened. The following table reports the slope, intercept, and standard error of the bivariate regression of 2008 popular vote margins on 2004 vote margins in the 50 states and DC. (Omitting DC, or Hawaii, which is a notable outlier, makes no real difference to the statistical results.)
Shifts in State-Level Voting Patterns

1980-2004 (Average)
Continuity of Previous Partisan Pattern
(regression slope)
National Swing
(regression intercept)
Local Forces
(standard deviation)

In every respect, the results from 2008 look much like those from other recent presidential elections. The slope of the regression line is 1.00, which suggests that 100% of the existing partisan pattern of support from 2004 persisted in 2008. The intercept reflects a national swing of 9 points (remember, these are vote margins rather than vote shares)—only slightly larger than the average for elections since 1980. And the standard deviation of the regression (a measure of how much specific states departed in either direction from the national vote swing) was less than 6 points, again well within the normal range for recent elections.
For purposes of comparison, the table also shows the corresponding regression results from 1932, a genuine realigning election. In that year, one-third of the previous partisan pattern disappeared, the national swing in the popular vote margin was 29 points, and the standard deviation was 16 points—all vastly larger numbers than in 2008 or any other recent election. If 1932 was a realigning election, 2008 was one-third of a realignment—but then, most elections are.

About this site

The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, http://www.princeton.edu/~csdp/. To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

  — Larry M. Bartels, Director

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