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The why of the win

President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory resulted from his extraordinary talents as a candidate, from a flawless campaign and from the central role of the fundamentals discussed — perhaps too frequently — in this column.

Already two years ago, I opined here that whoever won the Democratic nomination was likely to win the White House because the underlying fundamentals favored us so strongly. Quoting yourself is bad form, so please forgive me, but as I predicted in December 2006, “George Bush will bequeath the 2008 GOP nominee a failed presidency, an unpopular war and a sputtering economy — the weakest platform imaginable from which to wage a campaign for four more years of Republican rule.”

Re-examining those fundamentals in light of the exit poll data helps illustrate their role.

George Bush went into this election as the most unpopular president in the history of polling, and likely in the history of the country. To put that in perspective — just before he helicoptered off to San Clemente, having resigned the presidency, Richard Nixon was less unpopular than George Bush.

Continuous and devastatingly effective ads linking McCain to Bush made the incumbent’s central role in this election evident, as do the exit poll results. McCain won 89 percent of the vote among the 27 percent who approved of Bush’s performance in office. But among the much larger number who disapproved (72 percent), Obama won by more than 2 to 1.

McCain held onto about the same percentage of Bush approvers as Bush himself garnered in 2004. The difference: Bush’s approval rating was 26 points lower this year than it was four years ago.

The economy is another critical fundamental, and it could hardly have been worse in the electorate’s view. Those positive about the economy were generous to McCain, giving him 72 percent of their votes. However, just 7 percent rated the economy positively (one has to wonder about these folks), while Obama won handily among the 93 percent who rated the economy negatively. These negative evaluations were 40-points higher last Tuesday than they had been in 2004.

War, in this case Iraq, is another of the fundamentals that worked strongly against McCain. In 2004, 51 percent of voters approved of the war and 85 percent of that group voted for Bush. This year, McCain got a nearly identical 86 percent from war supporters. However, over the last four years support for the war shrank by 16 points, enabling Obama to get the votes of fewer war opponents than did John Kerry but still win handily.

Finally, the issue agenda clearly favored Obama and the Democrats. With voters more intensely worried about the economy and healthcare costs than about a terrorist attack, unlike 2002 and 2004, this was not a national security election.

This year, 63 percent of voters selected the economy as the most important issue in determining their vote — the largest number ever to coalesce around a single issue. The president-elect won those voters by nine points, while also winning those concerned about Iraq by 20 points, those focused on healthcare by 47 points and those who selected energy by four points. Indeed, there was just one issue Obama did not win — terrorism — a segment McCain won by 73 points.

Four years ago, Kerry won economy voters by a 62-point margin — but there were only a third as many. McCain won terrorism voters by almost the same margin as Bush had, but there were less than half as many this year. Thus, the electorate’s single-minded focus on the economy sculpted an issue terrain quite friendly to Obama.

There is no discounting the brilliance of the candidate or the skill of the campaign — but understanding what happened in this historic election also requires analysis of the fundamentals.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.