It was a good election for the opinion polls. The result came out just as they said, and in just the places they predicted. Just look at fivethirtyeight.com, which has been aggregating and projecting polls throughout the campaign: it’s final numbers were pretty much spot on.
But Obama’s victory is important in much more interesting ways than that. It’s historic for America not just that a Black man won, but how he won: demolishing the “southern strategy” that has increasingly ruled Republican thinking over the last 40 years.
Ever since the Democrats embraced civil rights in the early 1960s, they have been at a disadvantage in the south. That gave the Republicans the presidency for 28 of the last 40 years, and control of Congress for twelve years up until the 2006 elections. It became conventional wisdom that only a southerner — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore — could ever win for the Democrats.
But for the GOP, depending on southern votes led to southern control; standing its history on its head, the party of Lincoln became dominated by southern white conservatives. By 2000, the electoral map had come to look much like it did a century earlier, but with the party labels reversed. That in turn made Republicans increasingly unelectable in the rest of the country, a process that culminated yesterday in a Confederate’s worst nightmare.
Not that the south is solid either: one of the most fascinating things about watching the results come in yesterday was the way the networks were reluctant to call even deep southern states like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. I expect the increased Black turnout was playing havoc with their exit poll models.
But those states eventually came good for McCain, as did Georgia, which several commentators (including me) had doubts about in the last week. With only Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, Obama will have the smallest base in the south of any president in living memory.
No president since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has won fewer than four states in the old Confederacy. No Democrat has ever done it — until now.
Instead, the north, the midwest and the west coast, once good Republican territory, are now voting overwhelmingly Democrat. It’s a powerful lesson in what happens when you rely on just one section of the country, and especially when you pander to its worst elements.
Let’s hope that when the south rises again in importance, as it surely will, its racial demons will finally have been exorcised.