Time for perspective on election's numbers

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Political myths take hold as quickly as urban legends, and often with even less supporting evidence. Someone stands in a particularly long line on Election Day and decides that it signals a once-in-a-generation eruption of civic engagement.

But anecdotes are not data. We now have enough exit-poll data from Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International to put last week's election in context. Let's examine some of the already established myths:

An energized electorate produced a historic turnout.

Yes and no. On the one hand, 123,525,445 votes were cast for Barack Obama and John McCain - the biggest combined total in history. On the other hand, that number was up only 2 percent from 2004. And to really put the number in perspective, consider that the U.S. population grew by 2.7 percent in the intervening four years, so the growth in voting actually lagged behind overall population growth.

Obama's racial identity was an electoral burden.

The numbers suggest otherwise. It's true that the single biggest demographic factor in voting was race. If you are a black, there's a 95 percent chance you voted for Obama. By comparison, self-identified Democrats voted for Obama at a mere 89 percent clip, and only 90 percent of self-identified Republicans went for McCain.

At a more detailed level, 19 percent of voters said that race was a factor in how they voted. Those who said race was the "most important factor" went for Obama 58 percent to 41 percent. Those who said race was an "important factor" went for Obama 52 to 47. And those who said race was a "minor factor" went for Obama 54 to 45.

As a baseline, voters who said race was "not a factor" went for Obama 51 to 46. Surely, some voters in some precincts voted against Obama because he's black. But on the whole, it's clear that his race helped him more than it hurt.

Obama motivated a new generation of young people.

Not quite. The "youth vote" (meaning voters between the ages of 18 and 29) ticked upward only from 17 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2008.

As Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini noted, the big story wasn't that Obama brought in a wave of new young voters; it was that he produced a huge swing in the 18-29 demographic. In 2004, John Kerry had a nine-point advantage in the youth vote; Obama won young voters by 34 points.

That's a 25-point swing, and, as Ruffini notes, it accounts for 4.5 percent of all the votes cast - which is a big chunk of Obama's margin of victory.

Sarah Palin sank the Republican ticket.

Voters who said that Palin was "not a factor" in their decision went for Obama by a big margin, 65 percent to 33 percent. But 60 percent of voters said Palin was a factor in their decision, and McCain did very well among them.

Voters who said Palin was an "important factor" in their decision (33 percent of the electorate) went for McCain 52 to 47. And voters who said Palin was a "minor factor" (20 percent of the total) went for McCain 66 to 33.

True, the small group of voters who said Palin was the "most important" factor in their decision (7 percent of all voters) went for Obama. But the margin was 52 to 47, much smaller than it was among those who said Palin didn't matter.

By any measure, Palin helped McCain - quite a lot, actually.

You can't trust the polls.

Fordham University political science professor Costas Panagopoulos examined 23 national presidential polls and found that they predicted an average 7.52 percent Obama victory. Obama won by 6.15 points. That's pretty good work.

For what it's worth, four polls overestimated McCain's strength, and 17 overestimated Obama's.

The early bird gets the worm.

In recent years, there has been a perception that if you want to be president, you have to start running early. Who were the big early favorites in the 2008 cycle? Mark Warner, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, George Allen, Bill Frist and Mitt Romney.

As we prepare for the 2012 race - pitchers and catchers, report to Iowa in just 1,137 days! - it's worth keeping in mind that early positioning doesn't always help.

• Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at jlastphillynews.com.

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