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Winning by Losing in a Watershed Year

Many of the fault lines of American society have risen to the surface in the current presidential election. Observers see the resulting electoral volatility of 2008 mirroring watershed years such as 1928 and 1968.
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As Mark Brewer sees it, God has gotten a bit too much press in recent years.

“In the last decade, religion has taken over as the ‘hot’ cleavage in the American electorate,” said the University of Maine political scientist. “It merits the attention it gets, but it often gets emphasized to the exclusion of others. A lot of times, you read analyses of an election, and you wouldn’t even know there was any class division in American politics. Or you might think the gender division of the 1980s has disappeared.”

Think again. While previous presidential elections have highlighted specific societal divides (red states/blue states, anyone?), 2008 is shaping up as one in which all of our underlying fractures — race, class, gender and, yes, religion — are surfacing. The unpredictable ways these fault lines intersect and influence one another likely will determine both the outcome of the election and the political direction of the country for years to come.

“We’re being pushed into uncharted territory,” said Swarthmore College political scientist Keith Reeves. With a woman and a black man currently leading the Democratic field, as well as a Baptist minister and a Mormon as serious contenders on the Republican side, “we are seeing a number of firsts,” he noted. Add to that an unpopular incumbent, a couple of ongoing wars and a disintegrating economy, and the result is an utterly unpredictable, ultimately revealing race. “Who emerges on the other side of this come November,” Reeves said, “will tell us a lot about who we are as a society.”

“Change” is, of course, the mantra of the campaign to date. John K. White, a veteran political scientist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., uses that word almost as often as the candidates, but in a very specific sense: He is tracking the nation’s dramatically shifting demographics. Smith believes this could be a watershed year, much like 1968 — when, in his analysis, the increasing suburbanization of the nation tipped the balance in favor of the Republicans, where it stayed for 40 years.

A similar shift, he argues, is well under way today: “The question is whether (Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama) are capable of capitalizing on it.”

Thirty years ago, White noted, more than 70 percent of the electorate was composed of married couples with children under 17 living at home with them. “That’s now one-quarter of today’s electorate,” he said. “We have more Americans living alone than ever before in our history. We have more cohabitation than ever before. We have had a real shift in what constitutes a family.

“Then you have race. By 2050, whites will be a minority in the U.S. We are expecting that Hispanics will constitute 8 to 10 percent of the electorate in 2008. In 1980, they made up about 2 percent. More and more Americans are identifying themselves with more than one racial category. America is moving rapidly toward a multiracial society, as symbolized by people like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. They are symbols of where the 21st century is going.”

Ah, but it’s very early in the 21st century. Are we ready for such a symbol in the Oval Office?

Robert Huckfeldt, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, is doubtful, and he isn’t swayed by the enthusiasm for Clinton and Obama in the early primary states. “Whether or not a woman candidate or an African-American candidate will appeal to a nationwide electorate is a very different question than how they’re going to do in the primary campaign,” he said. “It’s fantastic that an African-American candidate is doing as well as Obama is doing. But that doesn’t mean race isn’t going to be an issue.”

Brewer agrees. “I place very little stock in public opinion polls that show 95 percent of Americans say they have very little problem voting for a female for president, or 90 percent have no problem voting for an African American,” he said. “I don’t think those are accurate. People know the answer they’re supposed to give.

“I wouldn’t pretend to know what the real numbers are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 25 percent of the electorate wouldn’t vote for an African American or a woman for president. We don’t really know. And I have no idea what the number would be if you look at people who would be affected by race or gender on a subconscious level. They might legitimately think they have some other explanation for their vote choice, but really it’s grounded in race or sex.”

While such factors serve as wild cards (in a deck that is clearly full of them), Brewer believes that — unless there is another terrorist attack, or major blow-up overseas — the winning candidate will be the one who best addresses the economic anxiety of the middle class.

Reeves agrees, noting that the two parties’ candidates will articulate very different views about the role of government in the marketplace. He believes the one who can make the strongest case to independent voters and Latinos will likely be the victor.

Among Republicans, that is arguably Mike Huckabee, a man who is clearly comfortable commiserating with economically strapped voters — something that can’t be said for his more corporate-oriented competitors. “I think he has tapped into a vein that is out there for either party to tap into,” White said.

A number of Republican contenders have channeled that economic anxiety into anger over illegal immigration — a strategy that could lead to long-term problems for the party as the Latino population grows.

“Immigrants don’t hear the distinction between legal and illegal,” White said. “They think, ‘They just don’t like us.’” He pointed out that, since California Republicans whipped up anti-immigrant sentiment to pass the controversial Proposition 187 in 1994, the state has been dominated by Democrats (with the exception of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself and a maverick who has publicly spoken about his party’s need to be more inclusive). Reeves, on the other hand, thinks the historic rivalry between the Latino and black communities could pose problems for the Democratic party.

“As I travel across the country, I’ve talked to a lot of African Americans who are very much against putting illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship,” he said.

This isn’t the first time an influx of immigrants has thrown the American political scene into confusion. White sees a parallel between our current decade and the 1920s, when the huge wave of newcomers from Europe changed the ethnic makeup of America. Then, too, he noted, there was a strong backlash to this societal shift — one that played itself out over a couple of election cycles.

In 1928, Democrat Al Smith became the first Catholic to become a major-party candidate for president. He lost by a landslide, but in the process he recruited millions of those new immigrants into the political process, and they became part of the grand coalition that elected Franklin Roosevelt four years later (and ensured Democratic domination for decades).

Similarly, Catholic University’s White said, the Democratic nominee could lose this year. But with Obama in particular mobilizing young voters and people of color, the long-range impact could be enormous. The nonprofit Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reports the turnout rate for voters under 30 at the Iowa caucuses rose from 4 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008. The rise was even more dramatic in the New Hampshire primary, with participation by 18- to 29-year-olds rising from 18 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2008.

“By losing,” White noted, “you can win the future.”

Reeves essentially agrees, but he adds a cautionary note. “It depends on whether there is sufficient stimulus to keep them engaged,” he said. “The research is clear about new voters: Oftentimes, their participation is episodic. They’re excited about a particular candidate or a particular election, so they enter the process. But will they remain engaged and connected?” His answer is: Quite possibly, but it will take skillful and persistent political organizing.

“That,” he said, “will be the real challenge."