The ink on last Wednesday’s historic headlines had hardly dried when a panel of political experts gathered for a biannual AU tradition: the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies’s postelection analysis.
“One year ago it was easy,” said James Thurber, the center’s director and moderator of the event. “The war was the issue. Hillary Clinton was going to be the nominee. There was also a guy named Giuliani, and he was going to get the Republican nomination.”
Needless to say, quite a bit (here’s that word) changed.
During a lively two-hour discussion before a standing-room-only crowd, a panel of pollsters and politicos reflected on the marathon campaign, broke down the election results, and looked toward a future Obama administration.
Thurber praised the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation and pointed to its financial advantage as major components of its victory over John McCain. In the battleground state of Virginia, Obama staffed 71 field offices, as compared to 20 for McCain. He outspent McCain on television advertising 4 to 1 in Colorado, 4 ½ to 1 in Virginia, and 2 ½ to 1 in Pennsylvania. All those states went in the Obama column.
“He dominated the ground, and he also dominated the air,” Thurber said.
Dotty Lynch, School of Communication executive in residence, arrived at the forum fresh from New York, where she spent election night on the CBS News Decision Desk.
“I think the coalition he put together is very interesting,” she said. “Among young people 19-to-29, it was 66-32 [percent] Obama. Men broke just about even, women 56-43 for Obama.”
Among the voters who said they were very concerned about the economy—half of everyone who cast a ballot, according to exit polls—Obama won 58-38, Lynch said.
“The turnout and coalition are two things that will give him a base from which to start to govern,” she said.
Kiki McLean, principal of the Dewey Square Group and communications director to Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s 2000 vice presidential campaign, pointed to the endorsement Obama received from Sen. Ted Kennedy on Jan. 28 at AU as a key moment in the race.
Obama, she said, was able to take the mantle of a progressive leader able to affect generational change.
“I believe he doesn’t view this as a mandate,” she said of the Illinois senator’s victory. “He called on people to join him, not to get out of his way. I think we’re going to see a president-elect who [has] deep political capital but a great understanding that he doesn’t quite have a mandate.”
Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute, School of Public Affairs, also pointed to increased turnout and enthusiasm among young people as a key cog in Obama’s win.
“Both my children are in the 18 to 29 demographic and they were calling me asking, ‘What’s happening mom?’” she said. “I haven’t seen them that excited since the Red Sox won the World Series.”
Mark Mellman is president and CEO of the Mellman Group, one of the nation’s leading polling firms. He made news last year during an event at AU in which he was quoted as saying the Democrats had almost no chance of losing the race for the White House—regardless of who the party nominated. George W. Bush’s approval rating was 53 percent during the 2004 election, but plummeted to 27 percent this year.
“The fundamentals are what’s most important in presidential elections,” he said. “[Since 2004] we’ve had a tremendous change in attitudes toward George Bush, a sea change about the economy, and a dramatic change about the war. In essence you would have to say the Obama campaign was dealt a straight, and they did a wonderful job of playing it into a straight flush.”
Looking toward the future, all the panelists agreed that despite strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama faces a tough road ahead.
“I think his governing begins tomorrow,” McLean said. “He will not be allowed to drive the agenda—the agenda already is driven with what’s happening with the economy and the war. There is no honeymoon.”