Posted by: The Poli Sci Guy | November 12, 2008

These Divided States of America

A week ago America chose Barack Obama as its 44th president.  The election sent shivers down the spines of some on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, albeit for vastly different reasons.  The left celebrated the election of the first African-American while the right mourned and wept for the loss of liberty sure to come under the first socialist president in American history.  Or so they argue.

In historical terms the election of Barack Obama is truly monumental.  Not only did he need to overcome the presumptive democratic nominee, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her huge fundraising machine heading into the primary season but he also had to battle for name recognition.  Even so, by the end of the Democratic primaries in June many voters were still saying to themselves Barack who?  My wife and I were not in that group as we had joined the Obama bandwagon long before that chilly day in February 2007 when the senator officially announced his candidacy.

The election is now history and history making.  The past 16 years in Washington DC have been among the most divisive I can recall.  Beginning with the election of Bill Clinton through the end of George W. Bush’s 2nd term the mood in the country has been extremely polarized.  Republicans bitterly fought every initiative of Bill Clinton while Democrats did the same under George W. Bush.  Some things did get done, of course, as they always do no matter who is in charge.  But it got me to thinking about just how divided we are as a nation and how the Obama campaign promised a cleaner sort of politics.  I think in large part that contributed to the victory of Senator Obama.  Most polls indicated that voters saw John McCain as running a mean spirited dirty campaign.  Voters said enough is enough and repudiated the politics of personal destruction this time around.  Or did they?  Time will tell as the candidates for 2012 should announce in a week or so!

Many pundits were predicting this election would be too close to call and in several states it was.  Thankfully, however, we elected a president without legions of lawyers, poll watchers, and justices of the Supreme Court becoming involved.  So I started thinking about the partisan division of the presidential vote in America over the past 5 elections.  Democrats have now won the White House in 3 of the past 5 contests (4 if you count the popular vote in 2000) by a margin of 19 million votes.  If we go back to 1988 and the victory of George H.W. Bush the margin shrinks to 12 million votes in favor of the Democrats.  Adding in Ronald Reagan’s two victories moves the ledger to the Republican side by 13 million votes.  That means that over 8 presidential elections over the span of 28 years the two parties are divided by only 13 million votes out of nearly 775 million votes cast for the two major parties.  That amounts to a margin of 1.7% over 28 years!  If we add in the millions more that were cast for third party candidates John Anderson (1980), Ross Perot (1992 & 1996), and Ralph Nader (2000) the margin falls even lower, to just over 1.5%.

What does all this mean?  Either it means that neither of the two major parties knows how to govern well enough to build a permanent majority or Americans really do like to keep their government close to the center of the political spectrum.  Sometimes they prefer strong leaders on security issues and other times they want strong domestic policy leaders.  The first party that figures out how to produce both at the same time may find itself running a one party nation.



  1. Sounds like a research article waiting to happen…

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