While America celebrates Barack Obama’s victory–particularly for what it represents–Americans would be wise to remember that his win, while strong, was far from a landslide.
The media in 2008 like to speak of mandates and sea changes, but in fact, Obama’s victory is far less decisive than some other recent elections, and McCain’s showing was not half bad.
Via Wikipedia, I compiled a list of victory margins by electoral votes for all the presidential elections since the electoral college expanded to 538 votes in the 1960s. Obama’s win is mid-pack:
Year Elected Won Lost 1984 Reagan 525 13 1972 Nixon 520 17 1980 Reagan 489 49 1964 Johnson 486 52 1988 George H. W. Bush 426 111 1996 Clinton 379 159 1992 Clinton 370 168 > 2008 Obama 349 163 < 1968 Richard Nixon 301 191 1976 Carter 297 240 2004 George W. Bush 286 251 2000 George W. Bush 271 266
(Note: two states are still being decided; this post will be updated when the final votes are tallied and declared.)
Obama’s victory in terms of the popular vote tells a better story but also comes with a caveat. First, a tip of the cap: his 64,908,616 votes as of this writing are the greatest number of votes ever recorded by a presidential candidate. That is a figure to celebrate.
However, John McCain received more than 57 million votes of his own. Obama’s margin of victory by popular vote is 6.3% (which is to say, if the U.S. had a straight democratic vote instead of an electoral college, he’d have won, 53 to 47 percent).
This is a sound victory. But it still leaves 9 out of every 20 people in the other camp. Four elections in the 538-electorate era have had a greater vote margin between winner and loser. Richard Nixon beat George McGovern by 18 million votes out of 77 million; Obama beat McCain by 7.5 million out of 120 million. Yesterday’s win was solid but not overwhelming.
Still, this is an academic exercise–Obama earned a far stronger win than either of George W. Bush’s campaigns, and his victory forever alters the political landscape in terms of campaigns, backgrounds and style.