What to look for on Election Day

November 4, 2008

Lance Selfa and Alan Maass suggest a few things to focus on today to see where Election 2008 is headed.

THERE'S NOT much doubt about who will win the presidential election. Among more than 150 polls conducted nationally over the past month, Barack Obama was the leader in every single one.

Obama's lead was around 7 percent, according to the trend average maintained at pollster.com. But more than a few surveys--in particular, those that estimate a larger-than-expected turnout based on the enthusiasm of Obama supporters--had the Democrat up by more than 10 percent.

The margin is even more lopsided in the Electoral College vote, despite the fact that this 18th century institution, created to defend the power of the Southern slaveocracy, favors smaller, more rural and overwhelmingly white states. Obama needs 270 Electoral College votes to win the White House. George Bush won (or, we should say, "won") 271 in 2000 and 286 in 2004. Obama, by contrast, is almost certain to break 300, and there are even scenarios where he comes near 400.

So Election Night holds little suspense as far as the winner is concerned. But how the vote breaks down--who turned out, what groups support the Democrats and by what margins, which Republican incumbents get booted out of Congress--will tell an important story.

A polling place before Election Day gets underway

Here are a few things to look for during the day and as the results roll in on Election Night.

Who got out the vote?

THE MODERN record for voter turnout in a presidential election was 61.9 percent in 1968. This year's vote will come close, if not beat that mark. In some hotly contested "battleground" states, officials expect a turnout of 80 percent or more.

This is a sign of the intense interest in an election that will mark a sea change in American politics--the repudiation of not only eight years of George W. Bush, but an even longer era of conservative dominance over the two-party system.

During the early primaries, discontent with the Bush administration's failed war in Iraq drove support for the Democrats. Now, with Wall Street lurching into the worst crisis since the Great Depression, it's the economy. There is virtually no political issue on which the Republicans can claim to have the advantage.

You'll see signs of a heavy turnout long before the polls close--the usual TV footage of long lines outside polling places.

But another indicator won't be visible on Election Day--the huge numbers of people who voted early in the 31 states that permit it. According to an ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll released the day before the election, 27 percent of those who responded said they had already cast their ballots.

Here, Obama seems to have a huge advantage. Early voters in the ABC poll favored Obama by a 59-40 percent margin.

One factor driving the early vote is a huge number of first-time voters. According to the Obama campaign, among early-voting Democrats in Nevada, 43 percent were casting a ballot for the first time, or had voted only sporadically in the past.

That's an unheard-of percentage, but it's similar and even surpassed in other states. In North Carolina, for instance, among 869,000 people who registered to vote this year, more than half had already cast an early ballot. Around 50 percent is typical for turnout of newly registered voters--and Election Day is still to come!

The key here is the enthusiasm behind the Obama campaign, which is visible not only at the huge rallies, but in a vast campaign machine made possible by the huge sums that Obama raised and the large numbers of people who volunteered to work on the campaign. According to one poll several weeks ago, in Ohio, an incredible 37 percent of households said that they had been personally contacted by the Obama campaign--and that was with the election still weeks away.

This is important to note. The Obama campaign isn't a political movement like the ones readers of this Web site are used to participating in. It's directed from the top, with the main purpose of winning enough votes on Election Day to get its man into office.

But for those participating in the campaign--who volunteered their time, marshaled their arguments and worked to change minds--it will have felt like a movement. Those supporters will expect Obama to represent a real change once he takes office. The clash between their hopes and the realities of a Democrat in the White House is sure to push numbers of these people to get involved in a different kind of movement.

Trouble at the polls?

IF THE turnout is as heavy as predicted, keep an eye out for another image--of angry voters unjustly turned away from the polls.

In the razor-close election of 2000, voter suppression in Florida was the margin of victory for George W. Bush--tens of thousands of African Americans were purged from the voter rolls prior to the election, police intimidated people on Election Day itself, and right-wingers blocked a recount that would have given Al Gore a victory in Florida, and thus the White House.

There's almost no way the election could be as close this time, and thus no way for the Republicans to steal it. But expectations of an Obama landslide could be confounded by voter suppression that's built into system.

For one thing, the U.S.--which claims to be the "world's greatest democracy"--leaves its national elections in the hands of a ramshackle system of underfunded county-level election authorities. The entire process is primitive and prone to errors and fraud.

The bias against working people and especially minorities is obvious. In Ohio in 2004, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell made sure that Republican-leaning areas had more than enough voting machines to accommodate Bush supporters. Meanwhile, inner-city areas in Cleveland and near college campuses had to make do with fewer and older machines.

Watch the cable news today, and you're far more likely to see black and brown faces in the lines that stretch out the door of polling places.

The leading indicators

IF THE election is going to turn into a Democratic Party landslide, we're likely to know pretty early. Keep an eye on returns (which become available as early as 6 p.m. EST) from these four states: Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Indiana hasn't voted for a Democrat in presidential elections since 1964. But pollster.com's analysis of state-level polls suggests the state is a toss-up this year.

Kentucky, another "red" state that was one of the first Southern/border states to move into the Republican column in the 1950s, is a long shot to go to Obama. But its voters may be on the verge of tossing Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell out of office.

If Indiana goes to Obama and McConnell loses his re-election bid, these would be early indications of a landslide that will sweep Republicans out at all levels. Even if the GOP prevails in these states, it will be important to see by how much. If the vote is close, it would still be an omen of a long night for Republicans.

In addition to the presidential race, congressional elections are set for a big swing to the Democrats. More than three dozen Republican incumbents announced their retirement rather than face the prospect of losing on Election Day. The Democrats will build on their majority in the House, and in the Senate, they could break the 60-seat barrier--leaving Republicans without even the minority needed to carry out filibusters on party-line votes.

Returns from Virginia will start coming in at 7 p.m. (EST). The noteworthy point here will be whether McCain gets any last-minute support that shakes the certainty of an Obama victory.

For more than a month, most polling agencies have put Virginia solidly in Obama's column. It and Colorado have been, in Electoral College terms, the Obama campaign's key strategic gains.

If, as most polls suggest, Obama wins Virginia and Colorado, McCain has to win a "blue" state--one that recently voted for Democrats--while holding onto both Ohio and Florida, which both went narrowly for Bush in 2004. This explains the McCain campaign's obsession with Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes), compared to a combined 22 electoral votes available in Virginia and Colorado.

Virginia's and Colorado's likely shift into the Democratic column is part of a general trend running against the Republicans, but it's worth noting one detail--both states' growing Latino population is changing their political balance. Obama and the Democrats will do much better among Latinos than John Kerry did in 2004--a direct result of the Republican party's turn to anti-immigrant scapegoating in the face of the mass movement of immigrants that erupted in 2006.

At 8 p.m. (EST), it will be time to look at Pennsylvania. McCain's last-minute focus on the state may have picked up a couple of points, but Obama is still the odds-on favorite.

McCain is counting on a strong turnout in the conservative central part of the state and a close finish in the formerly Republican, now increasingly Democratic, suburbs of Philadelphia. If these suburbs go to Obama at rates of 55 percent or above, then McCain is toast.

How likely is this scenario? Polling expert Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com thinks there is a greater probability of Obama winning McCain's home state of Arizona than of McCain winning Pennsylvania.

If McCain loses Pennsylvania, the election is basically over, and celebrations of the end of the Republican era can begin.

Confederate states for Obama

DURING THE Civil War, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, defending slavery and the South's capital of Richmond from the Union Army.

One hundred and forty-three years after Lee surrendered, a Black man stands on the verge of being elected president. And if Barack Obama wins, Virginia--particularly Northern Virginia--will be a key to his victory.

In fact, Obama chose to stage his election-eve rally in the Northern Virginia town of Manassas, site of the first battle of the Civil War.

Symbolism aside, the fact that Obama is likely to win Virginia and has a fair shot in other Southern states like North Carolina, Florida and even Georgia is another piece of evidence that the Republican era, based largely on a "Southern strategy" of appealing to the backlash against the civil rights period, is over.

"This is the last election Republicans can win on old formulas," the journalist and former Carter administration official Hodding Carter III told the Charlotte Observer. Carter said this year's election marks the emergence of long-term trends that have given the South "a different complexion."

The main reason for this is the massive demographic changes that have made these states more multiracial and shifted their economic bases away from agriculture, tourism and the military, and toward education, health care, banking and high-tech industries--in short, less traditionally "Southern" (if that word is taken to mean "parochial" and "conservative"). As a Brookings Institution study explained:

Virginia and Florida have eligible voter populations that are rapidly changing. White working-class voters are declining sharply while white college graduates are growing, and minorities, especially Hispanics and Asians, are growing even faster. These changes are having their largest effects in these states' major metropolitan areas, particularly Miami and rapidly-growing Orlando and Tampa in Florida's I-4 Corridor, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia.

While these are long-term changes that will echo beyond 2008, the current economic crisis has hit these areas hard. Florida and Virginia are epicenters of the housing bust, and North Carolina, as a banking center, is catching blowback from the financial meltdown. That's another problem for the Republicans.

How did white workers vote?

THROUGHOUT ELECTION 2008--from the Democratic primaries through November 4--no group of voters has attracted more attention from the media than the "white working class."

In the primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, this group was said to be the base of Clinton's support. Their supposed reluctance to vote for Obama--despite his demonstrated strong showing among white Democratic voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia and Indiana--was supposed to be his Achilles heel against McCain.

Acting on this conventional wisdom, McCain staked the last three weeks of his campaign on trying to win Pennsylvania and Ohio away from Obama by championing "Joe the Plumber," the archetypical worker who, he said, would lose out under Obama's tax plan.

In reality, "Joe the Plumber" wasn't a licensed plumber, and his tale of woe revolved around the claim that his taxes would increase if he were able to buy out his boss and take over a small company. In other words, McCain should have been campaigning for "Joe the Small Businessman" instead.

In reality, the commentators' "white working class" label has always been as shaky a construct as "Joe the Plumber" was in reality.

Most pollster definitions of the white working class are education-based: white voters without a college education. That says nothing about the kind of jobs people do, the differences between men and women, nor the influence of unionization on political ideas.

These narrow confines do define a segment of the electorate, but it is a dwindling one. A Brookings Institution study of 10 "purple" states ("swing" states that could go to either Democrats or Republicans on Election Night) showed that the percentage of the electorate made up of the stereotypical white worker declined anywhere from 1 percent to 6 percent between 2000 and 2006.

This is still a significant voting bloc. But a politics based on whipping up resentment among various "Joes"--as the McCain-Palin campaign descended to--ran into trouble this year.

There are two sources. First, the U.S. working class is more multiracial than ever. So even talking about workers as being middle-aged white males is increasingly anachronistic.

Second, there's resistance from the putative "Joes" themselves. According to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, Obama may win as much as 44 percent of the white vote, higher than the historic average of 39 percent white support for Democrats since 1964.

The explanation for this among commentators is that the economic crisis has made white voters focus on something other than race. As Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, put it: "The most important color is green."

But under the pundits' noses, something bigger may be happening. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich astutely pointed out:

Once Hillary Clinton whipped Obama in the Rust Belt, it's been a bloviation staple (echoing the Clinton camp's line) that a Black guy is doomed among Reagan Democrats, Joe Sixpacks, rednecks, Joe the Plumbers or whichever condescending term you want to choose. (Clinton at one low point settled on "hard-working Americans, white Americans.") Michigan in particular was repeatedly said to be slipping out of the Democrats' reach because of incorrigible racism--until McCain abandoned it as hopeless this month in the face of a double-digit Obama lead...

The dirty little secret of such divisive politicians has always been that their rage toward the Others is exceeded only by their cynical conviction that Real Americans are a benighted bunch of easily manipulated bigots. This seems to be the election year when voters in most of our myriad Americas are figuring that out.

What about the referendums?

WITH ITS favored party, the Republicans, likely to take a drubbing, the right wing has a few ballot measures on hot-button issues to concentrate on.

The most closely watched will be Proposition 8 in California, which would ban same-sex marriage only a few months after it was legalized by a California Supreme Court decision and state offices started distributing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Both the decision and early polls showing widespread opposition to Prop 8 are signs of a shift on a question that was central to the Republicans' victories in the 2004 election. But with a month to go before the election, right-wing organizations led by the Mormon Church poured money into the pro-ban campaign. The latest polls showed a statistical tie, with about 10 percent of people undecided.

One cause for optimism is that the Democrats are expecting a huge surge to the polls in California--Obama's looming victory could suppress turnout among Republicans likely to support the ban. But it will be very close.

We've seen this before, with the right going into elections with momentum behind their referendums--and the primary reason is that Democrats won't make a stand on these questions.

Nationally, Barack Obama has said he opposes Prop 8, but he and the Democratic Party tried to divert attention from the issue to keep it "off the table" in the presidential race. As a result, the voices in favor of Prop 8 are louder than those opposing it--even though public opinion surveys suggest it should be the other way around.

Thus, the right can get their way even when its arguments are discredited.

What's the turnout in Grant Park?

OBAMA IS planning a huge victory celebration in Chicago's downtown lakefront park.

The campaign issued tickets over the Internet to an official fenced-in area in Grant Park that will hold around 75,000 people--the tickets were gone inside of 45 minutes. City officials figure at least as many people will congregate outside; Mayor Richard Daley guessed the total would be around 1 million.

That's a huge number, but Obama's campaign has been drawing stadium-sized crowds throughout the year--a sign, obviously, of the huge enthusiasm his campaign has generated.

To start with, this is a product of the general sea change in American politics. The discrediting of the Bush administration and the right-wing agenda has many millions of people thirsting for change, and this has translated into huge enthusiasm for the Democrats in general.

The mainstream media viewed the long battle over the Democratic presidential nomination as a weakness, with the eventual winner emerging bloodied. But by the same token, the primaries produced a surge in Democratic voter registration and record-breaking turnouts in one state after another.

Obama has also been able to tap this enthusiasm better than any other Democrat. Amid all the talk about whether white voters will support Obama, one of the most underreported aspects of this election is one the media take for granted--Obama's support among African Americans.

Obama's candidacy is obviously a huge point of pride, as is evident in Black communities across the country. After a long period of setbacks--whether measured by the attacks on affirmative action, or the ongoing economic misery disproportionately inflicted on African Americans--Obama is a source of inspiration who has renewed a keen interest in politics.

Grant Park will see a moving display of that hope and politicization tonight.

What goes for African Americans is true more widely, however. Obama will be the first Black president of a country founded on slavery and built up through the systematic use of racism. His victory alone is a sign of an immense social change--something unimaginable a generation ago.

Coming after the cynicism and demoralization bred by years of the political dominance of the Republicans, Obama's win will have the effect of giving millions of people confidence that something different is possible--and that what we do matters.

That sentiment is at the heart of all the great struggles of the past that went far beyond the ballot box.

But the other lesson of the movements of the past is that no politician or political party can be trusted to bring change on their own. That requires organization and struggle from below--to put pressure on whoever is sitting in the White House.

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