Jay Cost | Barack Obama and the Triumph of Identity Politics

Barack Obama is now the first president in American history to win a second term with a smaller share of the electoral vote, a smaller share of the popular vote, and a smaller aggregate vote than when he was first elected. There are still votes to be counted, but as of this writing he actually has fewer votes than George W. Bush won in 2004.

An important takeaway from Tuesday was the massive decline in voter turnout, particularly white voters. It is guaranteed to be down – perhaps substantially – from 2008 in raw numbers, and as a share of the total population it will almost assuredly be down substantially.

This is no coincidence; at least in part, it is a consequence of the campaign the president ran. Credit where it is due to Team Obama. Recognizing the economic headwinds the president faced, it borrowed a page from Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign, accomplishing two goals simultaneously.

First, it played to its base with a level of intensity rarely seen in the modern era. “The war on women” was a prime case in point. The idea was to maximize turnout for the president’s core groups by focusing on identity politics, encouraging them to come out and vote against a fictitious GOP bogeyman who would suppress their rights to vote, deport their friends and neighbors, deny them Medicare, ship their jobs overseas, raid their pensions, and eliminate their access to contraception. And it worked.


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