Should Barack Obama win in November, as he appears poised to do, his victory will be viewed by future generations of political scientists as a fulcrum when the balance of power in American coalition politics shifted. The election of the first African-American President in the history of the United States would finally put an end to conservative-dominated “backlash” identity politics, replacing it with a new, pluralistic mainstream. Even if John McCain somehow does snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the underlying structural dynamics of the electorate all point toward the same conclusion: the end of Bubba dominance is at hand, and a new era is imminent.
Technically speaking, even a large Obama victory would not be a realignment. Realignments are moments when there are broad shifts in the electorate, and in 2008 there will be no significant shifts in the partisan voter preference of any demographic group. Important swing groups such as white Catholics, suburban women, Latinos, seculars, Independents and working-class whites are not likely to demonstrate any large, sudden or long-term shifts in allegiance from one party to the other. Instead, an Obama victory would simultaneously be comeuppance to a forty-year-old conservative strategy of scapegoating minorities and the realization of long-term demographic trends that finally allow those minorities collectively to achieve majority status. Relative to his national levels of support, Obama will receive pretty much the same percentage of support from virtually all demographic groups that previous, defeated Democratic nominees such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry received. The difference will be that, in 2008, those groups will be large enough to win a national election.
Since 1968 American presidential elections have been defined as a competition over fundamentally conservative identity groups. Even though they are not precisely congruous, a direct lineage exists from the Nixon-forged Southern Strategy of the 1960s and ’70s, to the Reagan Democrats of the ’80s, to Mark Penn’s Bubbas of the ’90s and on to the Values Voters of this decade. These swing voting groups are overwhelmingly white, not very urban, heavily blue-collar, generally Southern and always socially conservative. Even though the labels have changed, these four criteria have been the genetic code of swing voters for nearly forty years. In every case, the decisive swing voting group has been hostile to impending social change brought on by various civil rights movements and resentful of the cultural predilections of an urban, bicoastal “liberal elite.” The quest to capture these voters has created an entire generation of pundits, strategists and party leaders who will do everything possible to appear not-liberal, not-elite and in touch with the values of small-town America, whatever those values happen to be at any given moment. A Southern accent helps, too. A Democratic politician’s willingness to distance himself or herself (but usually himself) from–and to use “Sister Souljah” moments frequently to denounce–the left wing of the Democratic Party helps even more.