Now that pundits have exhausted themselves asking and answering the question, "Why did Hillary lose?" it's time to turn to the much more important question, "Why did Obama win?" Asking that question encourages a look beyond the tactics of the just concluded primary campaign to the broader strategic and historical trends that made him victorious. Examining those trends, which we did for our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics, demonstrates that the 2008 election is a realigning event marking the end of one political era and the start of another.
Historically, when these types of realignments or makeovers occur, they produce changes in the voting coalitions that support the two parties, and this year’s political transition is no exception. For example, the previous realignment in 1968 shifted the South from the Democratic bastion that it had been for well over a century to a solidly Republican region, while at the same time former GOP strongholds in New England, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast moved toward the Democrats.
Despite the clear historical evidence that these makeovers, which occur regularly about every forty years, are as American and normal as apple pie and baseball, many observers seem unable to recognize the changes in party coalitions that are a part of this year’s political dynamic. As New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, perceptively noted, this sometimes leads commentators to ignore their own polling data. NBC did this recently when it emphasized the unwillingness of most white males to support Democrat Barack Obama--in spite of the fact that the last time a majority of white men had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964, prior to the last political realignment.
What NBC and others seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge is that the Democratic coalition (indeed that of both parties) continues to evolve. As the title of a recent article by Alan Abramowitz put it, "This is Not Your Father's (Or Mother's) Democratic Party." The Democratic coalition is no longer the New Deal coalition of the Deep South and urban white blue-collar workers assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. It is now a coalition heavily comprised of both the most downscale and upscale ("gentry liberal") voters; ethnic minorities, not only African-Americans, but also the rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations; and young people. Geographically, at this early point in the general election campaign, Barack Obama has a solid lead in the East and Pacific Coast blue states, more than hold his own in the "swing states" of the Midwest and Florida, and is even competitive in a number of formerly red states in the upper South (Virginia and North Carolina) and West (Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and Alaska).
What is underpinning the newly emerging Democratic coalition and propelling the unfolding political makeover are the same two elements that have produced all of America’s earlier realignments: a new generation of voters and a new communication technology that mobilizes that emerging generation. The 2008 realignment is being fueled by the Millennial Generation, born 1982-2003, and the social networking communications Millennials use so well. The Millennial Generation is the largest in American history. There are nearly 100 hundred million Millennials, about 40-percent of whom will be eligible to vote in November. This will give the Millennial Generation the capacity to have as much impact in 2008 as that of the more frequently touted senior citizens (those age 65 and older).
Like their GI Generation forbearers who fueled FDR’s New Deal realignment, the Millennials are a "civic" generation, focused on basic economic and foreign policy matters, rather than the cultural wars of the Baby Boomers. In the economy, Millennials are "liberal interventionists." In foreign affairs, they are "activist multilateralists."
Upwards of seven in ten Millennials agree that "government should take care of people who can't take care of themselves," favor "a bigger government that provides more services," and believe that "government should guarantee health insurance for all even if this requires raising taxes." Two-thirds of them favor increased environmental protection even at the cost of higher prices. While, like other generations, most Millennials have now come to believe that the Iraq war has hurt the fight against terror, virtually all favor active American participation in world affairs. However, they believe that such activism should be based on building international ties rather than relying primarily on U.S. military strength.
As a result of these attitudes, Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by a greater than 2:1 margin according to a March 2008 Pew survey Barack Obama led John McCain among Millennials nationally by a similar ratio (54% vs. 34%) in a June 2008 Rasmussen Survey.
Obama and the Democrats may be assembling a new majority voting coalition, but recent surveys indicate that important numbers of some groups important in recent Democratic victories, such as white suburban women, have not yet fully warmed to the Obama candidacy. And while Obama and the Democrats hold the advantage on most issues, national security and John McCain's military and governmental experience offer McCain opportunities to win over the Millennial Generation--if he can break decisively with current Republican Party orthodoxy. His Vice Presidential choice and the role George W. Bush will play at the Republican national convention in September will reveal just how much political courage this war hero will bring to the fall campaign.
Focusing on the broader historical and societal trends that helped propel Obama to victory in the primaries also makes clear the strategic path that he must take to be victorious in November. Who he chooses for Vice President and how he orchestrates the Democratic National Convention will reveal whether his own campaign understands, and is willing to ride, the wave of change that has lifted his candidacy so far. A new political tide is rising. Whichever side takes advantage of the changing tide will claim victory in November--and political dominance in America for the next four decades.