Masterful voter mobilization and turnout operations fueled President-elect Baracka Obama’s successful road to the White House. His team peformed brilliantly in many states — organizing one of the most impressive political operation in modern history. Consider these numbers: the president-elect generated about 66 million votes across the country, almost 10 million more than Sen. John Kerry produced four years ago.
But a closer look at the numbers reveals another pattern.
No doubt, massive pro-Obama vote surges flipped states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida from Republican in 2004 to Democrat in 2008. But many other states witnessed a different trend - Republican voters staying home. In these areas, GOP apathy - rather than increased Democratic turnout - contributed to Sen. John McCain‘s loss and produced some down ticket Republican losses or unexpectedly close races. This presidential campaign was a tale of two electorates, with some states falling into the Obama column due to massive Democratic mobilization and others because of anemic Republican participation. The results, however, were two sides of the same coin called enthusiasm — Mr. Obama produced a surplus of it, while Republicans suffered a deficit.
Let’s first examine the three Southern states that flipped from red to blue: Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Call these the Obama enthusiasm surplus states, averaging well over half a million more Democratic ballots in 2008 versus 2004. Compared to four years earlier, the number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate increased by 497,223 in Virginia, 597,541 in North Carolina, and 690,826 in Florida.
But Mr. McCain was no slouch here either. Despite losing in all three, he actually garnered more votes than George W. Bush did four years earlier. For example, Mr. McCain improved by 6,576 votes in Virginia, by 148,532 in North Carolina, and by 75,326 in Florida. So Mr. McCain actually scored better than did President Bush four years ago in each of these states. He just couldn’t compete with Team Obama’s turnout.
Yet these marginal gains by the Republican candidate were purely a southern phenomenon. Moving out of the South reveals a different story as the McCain enthusiasm deficit emerges.
Ohio offers a good example. It’s true the Buckeye State produced 23,985 more votes for Mr. Obama than Mr. Kerry, but that’s a relatively small percentage of the over 5.4 million votes cast. More staggering is the number of Ohio Republicans who apparently stayed home. Mr. McCain received 299,650 fewer votes in Ohio than did Mr. Bush four years earlier. So Mr. McCain “lost” more votes than Mr. Obama “gained.” These vanishing Republicans led to the loss of one GOP incumbent and at least another open seat (another remains in a recount) in this key Midwestern battleground.
Wisconsin was another potential battleground state that broke solidly for Mr. Obama. But here again, the enthusiasm deficit emerged - Mr. McCain “lost” 219,939 votes compared to Mr. Bush in 2004, while Mr. Obama only “gained” 180,970 compared to Mr. Kerry. As Walter Shapiro presciently wrote in Salon.com on October 6 about the Badger State: “[I]t’s hard to find evidence that the Republicans have papered over their enthusiasm gap here in the Paper Valley.” And in California with the fate of the election apparently sealed, incredibly over 1.3 million fewer voters cast ballots for Mr. McCain than Mr. Bush in 2004, while Mr. Obama gained just 110,023 votes over Mr. Kerry. I assume many Republicans just said, “What’s the point?” But here too, the vanishing Republicans led to closer than expected Republican congressional contests in traditionally “safe” GOP districts.
But both the Obama “surge” in states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida and the “vanishing” Republicans in places such as Ohio, Wisconsin, and California are tied to Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm edge. Gallup’s Frank Newport notes that as of mid-October 2008, Mr. Obama enjoyed a 20-point enthusiasm advantage over Mr. McCain among self-identified partisans. Messrs. Bush and Kerry were tied on this important measure four years ago, according to Mr. Newport.
This gap took its toll. As Karl Rove wrote in Newsweek this week, “[M]ore than 4 million Americans who go to church more than once a week and voted in 2004 stayed home.” Nothing the Republican candidate tried closed the gap - the “maverick,” the “reformer,” the “war hero,” the “bipartisan negotiator,” could not compete with Mr. Obama’s narrative of hope. The Democrat’s story fired up not only his own partisans, but a large bulk of independent voters as well.
Many factors helped to produce the enthusiasm surplus/deficit in the 2008 presidential election. But few dynamics contributed more to electing our next president and expanding the Democrats majority in Congress.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.