In 2004, two British journalists, John Micklethwait (now editor of The Economist) and Adrian Wooldridge, published a book called The Right Nation, which charted the rise of the American Republican Party after 1964. It prophesied a Republican hegemony for the immediate future. The rest, as you know, was history: the 2006 Congressional elections, and then the events of last week.

That’s called being trapped in the moment, and they weren’t alone. Lots of folks have been explaining over recent years that the Democrats, having allowed themselves to drift fatally away from the core values of middle America could not win again for the foreseeable future. Many Democrats themselves probably believed it.

It was the same with our own Labor Party before 2007: no talent, no ideas, inward-looking, can’t relate to middle Australia. But all it took was one election and the boot moved to the other foot.

By the same token, today’s tales of a dire prognosis for the Republicans are also surely wrong.

It happens after every election. If the left of centre party is now in opposition, its support is seen to have dwindled to a few migrants, pathetic urban trendies a few remaining unionists. If right of centre, no-one votes for them anymore except angry white males, used car dealers and geriatrics.

And if a party wins the American swing states by a few percent they are deemed to have captured the country’s centre. The same in Australia with the outer suburban and regional marginals.

Everyone loves telling big stories about politics based on a few percentage points, but in dreary two-party systems like ours electoral gravity tends to even things out.

And watch out for the various demographic stats reeled off in coming months: about this and that group swinging to Obama. Bear in mind that these figures only have meaning relative to the national swing.

At the 2004 presidential election, the vote gap was 2.4 percent in favour of the Republican candidate, and this year the Democrat won (at last count) by about six and a half. That’s a turnaround of about nine points. (Turnout is another variable.)

For example, people are telling us that 95 percent of African Americans voted for Barack Obama. That sounds like a lot, but a large majority of blacks always (these days) votes Democrat, and a quick google finds two estimates of blacks’ support for John Kerry in 2004: of 88 and 92 percent. Either of those numbers would mean that the swing to Obama among African Americans was actually below the national one.

Turnout (again) is another factor. But a larger turnout motivated by support for Obama should have added to that percentage swing.

More research required. But beware of big stories.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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