November 5, 2008

Inside Obama’s Sweeping Victory

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Barack Obama captured the White House on the strength of a substantial electoral shift toward the Democratic Party and by winning a number of key groups in the middle of the electorate. Overall, 39% of voters were Democrats while 32% were Republicans — a dramatic shift from 2004 when the electorate was evenly divided. The Democratic advantage in Election Day party identification was significantly larger than in either of Bill Clinton’s victories.

While moderates have favored the Democratic candidate in each of the past five elections, Barack Obama gained the support of more voters in the ideological “middle” than did either John Kerry or Al Gore before him. He won at least half the votes of independents (52% vs. 49% for Kerry), suburban voters (50% vs. 47% for Kerry), Catholics (54% vs. 47% for Kerry), and other key swing groups in the electorate.

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Without a doubt, the overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Obama’s victory, according to an analysis of National Election Pool exit polls that were provided by National Public Radio. Obama drew two-thirds (66%) of the vote among those younger than age 30. This age group was Kerry’s strongest four years ago, but he drew a much narrower 54% majority.

Obama’s expanded support did not extend to all age groups, however. In particular, McCain won the support of voters age 65 and older by a 53%-to-45% margin, slightly larger than Bush’s 52%-to-47% margin four years ago. Notably, Al Gore narrowly won this age group in 2000 (50% vs. 47% for Bush).

Obama won a huge majority among those with low or moderate annual incomes (60% of those making less than $50,000 a year). Yet he also made striking gains among the most affluent voters: more than half (52%) of those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more favored Obama while 46% supported McCain. Four years ago, Kerry won just 35% of these high-income voters.

Obama struggled to win Hispanic votes during Democratic primaries in California and other states, but on Tuesday he drew two-thirds (66%) of the Hispanic vote, a 13-point improvement over Kerry in 2004. He also gained seven points among African American voters (95% vs. 88% for Kerry), and managed to slightly improve on Kerry’s share of the white vote (43% vs. 41% for Kerry).

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Yet the exit poll revealed a sizable gap in support for Obama between whites in the South and those living in other parts of the country. Just 31% of southern whites voted for Obama, while he garnered the support of about half of white voters living in other regions.

Economy Was Dominant Issue

As expected, the economy dominated the voters’ agenda this year: More than six-in-ten (63%) voters, including comparable majorities of Obama supporters (65%) and McCain backers (60%), cited the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Economic issues and personal financial concerns consistently cut in Obama’s favor. Among those who said they are very worried about economic conditions — half the electorate — 59% voted for Obama; those who expressed less concern about the economy favored McCain. One-in-three voters said they are very worried about being able to afford the health care services they need, and these voters backed Obama by a 65%-to-32% margin.

The tax issue was the centerpiece of McCain’s closing argument: He argued that Obama would raise taxes and redistribute the wealth. But most voters actually thought both candidates would raise their taxes: 71% said Obama would do so, while 61% said McCain would do so.

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Despite Obama’s strong personal appeal, his supporters overwhelmingly say they favored him based on his issue positions (68%), not his leadership and personal qualities (30%). By contrast, McCain’s supporters were divided, with 49% saying his leadership and personal qualities mattered most to them, rather than his positions on the issues (48%).

Two issues worked to McCain’s advantage. Despite recent declines in the price of gas, most voters (68%) said they favored offshore drilling where it is currently not allowed. McCain won by a large margin among voters who support offshore drilling (59% to 39% for Obama). Yet his margin came from those who strongly favor drilling; Obama won among voters who only somewhat favor drilling in currently protected areas, as well as among the minority of voters who oppose this proposal.

Voters who rated terrorism as the top national issue — just 9% of the electorate — favored McCain by greater than six-to-one (86% to 13%). But terrorism has faded in importance since 2004. In addition, Obama ran nearly even with McCain among the 70% of voters who said they are worried about another terrorist attack on the United States; 48% of these voters favored Obama, while 50% backed McCain.

Overall, more voters said they felt Obama has the right judgment to make a good president (57%) than said the same about John McCain (49%). A 57%-majority also said Obama is in touch with people like them, while just 39% said this about McCain. Even his experience did not provide McCain a great advantage: while 59% said McCain has the right experience to be president, 51% said the same about Obama.

Moreover, McCain did not entirely escape the shadow of George W. Bush. Fully 71% of voters said they disapprove of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, and 48% of voters said they thought if McCain were elected, he would mainly continue Bush’s policies. Among voters who said that McCain would continue Bush’s policies, the vast majority (90%) favored Obama.

Sarah Palin’s impact on McCain’s fortunes will no doubt be long debated, and the results of the exit polls are somewhat mixed. Fully 60% of Americans casting ballots said that Palin is not qualified to be president should it be necessary; 81% of these voters favored Obama. Yet those who cited Palin’s selection as a factor in their vote — 60% of all voters — favored McCain by 56% to 43%.

While Obama’s supporters expressed concern about the impact of his race on the election, the exit poll suggests that, if anything, the race factor favored Obama. Only a small share of white voters (7%) said that race was important to their vote, and they voted overwhelmingly for McCain (66% to 33%). But their impact was overshadowed by the much larger proportion of whites who said race was not important (92%).

At the same time, there is little doubt that Obama’s race was a factor in bringing out large numbers of new African American voters to the polls. Blacks made up a larger share of the electorate in 2008 (13%) than they did in 2004 (11%) or 2000 (10%), and they supported Obama at higher rates than they did either Kerry or Gore.

Looking forward, most voters are upbeat about an Obama presidency. A majority of voters (54%) described themselves as either “excited” or “optimistic” about the possibility of Obama serving as president. Twice as many Obama backers (56%) as McCain backers (28%) were excited about the prospect of their candidate winning.

Nearly two-thirds of voters (64%) said McCain attacked Obama unfairly during the campaign, compared with 49% who said Obama attacked McCain unfairly. These attacks evidently did not raise widespread concerns about Obama ascending to the nation’s highest office. Overall, 24% of voters said the idea of Obama winning “scared” them, while 28% said the same about the idea of McCain winning.

About one-in-three voters (32%) said they received calls or visits on behalf of one or more of the presidential candidates, and the extensive outreach of the Obama campaign is apparent in the exit poll data. Nationwide, 26% said they were contacted on behalf of Obama, compared with 19% on behalf of McCain. A third of Obama’s supporters reported having been contacted by the campaign, while McCain’s outreach contacted 24% of those who voted for him.