Progressive Mandate in a Sea-Change Election

Robert Borosage

Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 spearheaded not only a change election, but a sea-change election. It marks the end of the conservative era that has dominated our politics since 1980, and the beginning of a new era of progressive reform, driven by an emerging progressive majority.

The scope of the victory itself reflects the desire for change. Obama’s historic and unlikely candidacy won a majority of the vote, the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to accomplish that. Democrats in the House and the Senate gained seats in back-to-back elections for the first time since the Great Depression.

The repudiation of George Bush and the Republican Congress and the conservatism they championed is clear.

But what marks this as a sea-change election is the consolidation of a new majority coalition, and the mandate provided for progressive reform for Obama and Democrats. Republicans emerge from this election as an aging, monochromatic, largely regional party, increasingly in the grip of its evangelical base. Democrats are consolidating a governing majority in what is, increasingly, a center-left nation.

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The Emerging Progressive Majority

With voters overwhelmingly looking for change, Obama did better than John Kerry in 2004 virtually across the electorate, with the exception of the older white voters. He narrowed the margin in rural areas significantly; he did better among white men; he made gains among professionals; he consolidated support in the suburbs and exurbs. But what is striking about this election is his ability to consolidate an emerging strong majority coalition.

Young voters – 18 to 29 – represented about 18 percent of the electorate and supported Obama better than two to one. This is the third straight election in which this new generation has voted for Democrats in large numbers. And in this election, they can rightfully lay claim to having propelled the Obama candidacy from the start, playing an instrumental role in his victory in the primaries.

African-American voters came out in great numbers – representing 13 percent of an expanded electorate – and voted, needless to say, overwhelmingly for Obama. Latinos, the votes that some said he might not be able to win, constituted 10 percent of the electorate and voted two to one for Obama. Single women voted 70 to 30 Obama. Union households constituted almost one in five voters, and voted 65 to35 percent for Obama. And Obama, as his predecessors, consolidated support among professional Americans with advanced degrees, by 60 to 39.

The Emerging Progressive Movement

This majority is propelled by a progressive movement of increasing capacity and sophistication. This election represented the largest mobilization of that capacity. Obama, of course, ran a truly remarkable campaign, rewriting how campaigns will be run in the future. He set new ground in using the Web to build a community of volunteers and activists, to raise money, to communicate to voters. He devoted more resources to a ground operation. That built upon work done by Moveon.org, by the vibrant progressive blogosphere, by the Dean campaign four years previously.

He also benefited from growing capacity of progressives on the ground. Labor and Working America were on the front line of the debate with working people, and delivered, particularly in key battleground states. Women’s Voices Women Vote expanded its capacity to register and mobilize single women. America Votes helped coordinate an expanded effort by citizen groups on the ground. The Obama campaign, aided by groups like Acorn, expanded voter registration efforts, particularly among the young and in African American communities.

Our poll shows the result. Voters — particularly independent voters — report greater contacts from the Obama campaign in every area of campaigning — more ads on TV, more contacts by volunteers, more ads on lie, more people at the door, more emails, more cell calls. Only in the area of mail was McCain competitive. Even in the contacts of the last days—the vaunted area of the Republican 72 hour plan—the Obama campaign and its allies were far more effective.

The Mandate for Progressive Reform

Not surprisingly, the economy was the overwhelming priority of voters. Nothing else really came close. The argument about the economy – about what Obama described as the “failed philosophy” of trickle-down economics, or what McCain described as a choice between economic growth and socialist redistribution – was the center of the debate between these candidates.

Obama’s agenda was grounded on issues that were championed by progressives: Investment in new energy and conservation as a jobs and growth agenda. Affordable health care for all paid for by raising taxes on the affluent. Investment in education and infrastructure. Empowering workers to organize through passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Holding corporations and banks more accountable. Ending the war in Iraq. Promising no more NAFTA-type trade agreements, and to repeal tax breaks for companies moving jobs abroad.

McCain largely defended the verities of Reagan era conservatism, founding his campaign on more tax cuts, on freezing spending and stopping earmarks, and continuing corporate trade policies. His health care plan featured a tax credit for those negotiating their own plan. He favored Bush’s privatization of Social Security. He began the election committed to less regulation, but adjusted as the unregulated shadow banking system collapsed. The maverick stayed true to the core of the conservative agenda.

Obama won by large margins over McCain on every economic issue. On the economy generally, 51-38. On education, health care, the financial crisis, the energy crisis, Medicare and Social Security. He even won the debate about taxes 51-42.

When asked why they voted for Obama, the leading reasons were his proposals for withdrawing troops from Iraq, cutting middle class taxes first, providing affordable health care, and his commitment to invest in education and make college more affordable. When those who voted for Obama were asked about their doubts about McCain, picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin led the list, but fear that he would give tax breaks to the rich and big corporations came in second, followed by the notion that he would continue Bush’s policies.

For voters, Obama should give greatest attention to reducing unemployment and getting the economy moving. That is followed by investing in alternative energy and getting us off foreign oil and changing the health care system. Given a choice on priorities, ending the war in Iraq, ending dependence on foreign oil, fixing health insurance, regulating the banking system all ranked high.

In this the divide between independents and Republicans was clear. Independents gave Obama double-digit margins over McCain on the economy, education, health care. They have him a margin of 9 percent on taxes Only on government spending, Iraq and national security, did they favor McCain over Obama. Self-described moderates also favored Obama by double digits in economic issues. They sided with McCain only on national security.

This mandate was true down the ballot as well as on the top. Bernie Horn and Alex Carter of the Campaign for America’s Future completed a report – Congressional Elections Deliver a Progressive Mandate – looking at Democrats who won House or Senate seats previously held by Republicans. This report is available on our web site at www.ourfuture.org

We measured their position on six core progressive economic issues:

  • Social contract: support for quality health care for all, as opposed to the McCain type plan
  • Progressive taxation: support for raising taxes on the rich and tax breaks for the middle class
  • Fair trade: Opposition to NAFTA-style agreements
  • Investment: Focus on investing in clean energy sources over “drill baby drill”
  • Worker Empowerment: support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which business spent $20 million attacking in this election
  • Social Security: Opposition to the privatization of Social Security.

Of the 25 Democrats that won U.S. House seats previously held by Republicans, 15 campaigns on all six of these issues; another 8 supported the progressive posture on five of six. Of the six Democrats who have thusfar won US Senate seats held by Republicans, 5 supported the progressive position on all six issues; the other supported five of six.

Candidates up and down the ticket campaigned and won on a progressive agenda.

A Center-Left Nation

After the election, we’ve heard a repeated mantra about how this is basically a center-right nation. Obama is warned to curb his agenda. He’s warned not to succumb to pressure from the liberal wing of the party. Conservatives and Republicans take solace in the notion that by a return to conservative principles will help win back a majority.

After this election, there is no greater testament to the triumph of conventional myths over reality.

It is true that by addition, one can argue this is a center-right nation. There are more self-described conservatives than liberals. Add them to moderates and you get a center-right majority by simply addition.

But that addition disappears with any analysis about attitudes. The reality is that on basic values, on core ideological choices, on core issue debates, this is increasingly a center-left nation. And Republicans are increasingly isolated from the majority of Americans.

Worried about trade accords not protecting workers or the environment enough or about putting too much of a burden on trade? Democrats say protect by 37, Independents by 31 percent. Republicans go the other way by 20. Liberals worry about worker protections by 56; moderates by 8. Conservatives go the other way by 4.

Should gays be accepted or should their relationships be discouraged? Democrats say accepted by a 50 percent margin; Independents by 23 percent. Republicans go the other way by 20 percent. Liberals accept by 65 percent; moderates by 32 percent; conservatives discourage by 32 percent.

Does government regulation do more good than harm? Democrats say more good by 53 percent; independents by 12 percent. Republicans say more harm than good by 23 percent. Again conservatives are isolated from liberals and moderates on the issue.

Are you more worried that Obama will put minorities first or that McCain will put the rich and big corporations first? Democrats, not surprising worry about McCain and the rich by 51 percent. But so do independents by 28. Republicans worry about Obama and minorities by 35 percent. Liberals worry about McCain by 61 percent; moderates by 23 percent; conservatives the other way by 16 percent.

There is only one area—and it is a critical one—where independents and moderates still side with conservatives. That is on government spending. Clearly, years of conservative misrule have made people skeptical of the ability of government to act effectively. That will surely be where Republicans try to reassert themselves in the coming days. But the test on that will not really be about spending – it will be about effectiveness. The challenge – and it is a monumental one – is reviving the government to work effectively once more. That isn’t a contradiction to the progressive project; it is at the center of it.

This has clear implications for the debate going forward. Republicans will find that their conservative base is increasingly out of step with a growing majority of Americans.

So for example, we asked voters if Republicans should give Obama the benefit of the doubt and help him achieve his policies, or, since his policies will lead us “down the wrong path,” Republicans should oppose them. By nearly three to one – 71 to 24 – voters thought they should support Obama’s policies. They’ve elected him to change things and they want that mandate respected. Independents agreed by a nearly 40 percent margin. Republicans by 40-33 said Republicans should oppose.

We asked people should Obama try to reach across the aisle to gain Republican support for his agenda, or should he compromise his agenda to gain Republican support. Voters chose 54 to 39 that he should try to bring Republicans to his agenda, not compromise it. Independents agreed 48-43. Republicans thought he should change his plans by 63-31

Our poll asked: did Republicans lose because they were too conservative or not conservative enough? By a twenty point margin, voters chose too conservative. Independents agreed by a 21 point margin. Republicans disagreed by an 11 point margin Moderates when with liberals as too conservative by 41 percent.

The Progressive Mandate

Obama and the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate inherit the desert – an economy plummeting into recession, two wars, and an increasingly dysfunctional government. They have a clear mandate for bold change – for bringing the Iraq war to an end, for getting the economy moving, for reforming health care, on energy, on holding corporations and banks accountable, on progressive tax reform.

They face a public clearly skeptical, after years of conservative misrule, about the capacity of Washington to get anything done. That will be our test. If progressives succeed in providing Americans with at least some of the change that they so desperately need, a new and potentially enduring majority for progressive reform is there to consolidate.

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