Courtesy of Tom Oliphant
Tom Oliphant spent 40 years covering politics for The Boston Globe. His most recent book is Utter Incompetents: Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush.
It is not a mandate, not by a long shot.
It is more like a contract, and President-elect Barack Obama could easily get fired if he fails to produce.
Tuesday's election was also far from a landslide. It was a solid victory, but compared with all the hype of recent days, it was hardly spectacular. It made history, but the margins were anything but historical — a few percentage points in the popular vote and an emerging Electoral College majority that could be very large or rather narrow, depending on late results in at least six closely contested states that President Bush carried four years ago.
Based on the returns themselves, as well as exit polling data, this was a very competitive election.
In geographical terms, Obama has, at least for one election, created a new political reality in the industrial Midwest. It takes the form of a solid bloc of the states that touch one or more of the Great Lakes. He also added Ohio and put Indiana in serious play to go with states that have regularly been part of Democratic presidential coalitions throughout the past two decades: New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
It linked the country's major cities with a growing collection of close-in suburbs and, in a significant addition to the coalition, a growing group of communities even farther from urban cores. It also added Latino voters to the Democratic ranks in noteworthy numbers, reversing gains made in President Bush's two victories. Latino voters appeared to have cost John McCain dearly in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
The map of Virginia was nonetheless a sea of red. In the voting, it is clear that Obama narrowly won the state because economic conditions are seen as poor, and because, even in a previously red state, clear majorities disapproved of the war in Iraq and voted their feelings overwhelmingly. The polls showed that among that huge majority (roughly 90 percent) who consider economic conditions in the U.S. not so good or poor, Obama was ahead of McCain by more than 10 percentage points. And among the nearly 60 percent who disapproved of the war in Iraq, his margin over McCain was an enormous 4-to-1.
In Florida, the exit poll showed how important Obama's support from Americans of color was in his election. Among white voters, McCain beat him by a solid 56 percent to 42 percent. Obama's slight margin came from his enormous support (more than 95 percent) among African Americans and a remarkable showing among Latinos, 57 percent to 42 percent, despite the uniquely large number of conservative Cuban-Americans who live in the state.
The clincher for Obama was Ohio. His narrow win followed the geographic contours of traditional Democratic victories in the state — along Lake Erie to the north and along the Ohio River to the northeast, with a large chunk of votes from the center of the state in the area around the capital, Columbus. McCain lost self-described liberal and moderate voters by 4-to-1 and nearly 2-to-1 majorities, respectively, dominating Obama only among the 22 percent of the Ohio electorate who call themselves conservatives. The voter survey also showed that while each candidate enjoyed roughly 90 percent support from adherents of his own party, it was Obama who prevailed among independents, 52 percent to 44 percent.
With notably increased majorities in Congress, Obama will have the votes to further stimulate the ailing American economy. And it is the American economy that will be critical in the end. The voters who made history Tuesday night are by definition fickle. Somewhere — in an arc from the suburbs of Washington to the Latino communities in Colorado to the middle-class families of western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio — lie the voters who could toss him out four years from now just as easily as they made his victory possible.