It's fascinating that an election as historic and momentous as Tuesday's, one that resulted in the election of the first African-American, indeed the first minority, president in history, is also one of the most complicated and nuanced in memory.
Although Sen. Barack Obama won an enormously impressive, 349-plus-electoral-vote victory, Democrats on the other end of the ballot picked up five state legislative chambers (the New York Senate, the Delaware House, the Ohio House, the Wisconsin Assembly, and the Nevada Senate), but lost four others (the Tennessee House and Senate, and the Montana and Oklahoma Senates), with the Alaska Senate going from GOP control to a 10-10 tie. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures' Tim Storey, the authority on such things, Democrats gained approximately 100 state legislative seats, about half of the normal turnover. In fairness to Democrats, it was hard to build on their impressive pickup of legislative seats in 2006.
But given the strength of the top of the ticket nationally, one might have thought that the victory would have been more vertically integrated. Notice where the gains were: New York, Delaware, Ohio, and Wisconsin; the losses: Tennessee, Montana, and Oklahoma. Storey points out that Democrats will now hold every state legislature in the Northeast (north of Virginia) except the Pennsylvania Senate.
Although there are still several undecided congressional races, Democrats will pick up at least 17, probably a bit over 20, seats in the House and at least five in the Senate. This is impressive by any measure, though in recent weeks Democrats had hoped for even higher numbers.
There is no shortage of theories. It could be that a lot of first-time and younger voters cast their ballots for Obama but didn't bother to venture down the ballot. Once the final vote tallies are tabulated, we will have a better idea of whether that happened. Or maybe there was a determined effort to apply checks and balances. By deciding to elect Obama president, more than a few voters may have opted to keep the Republican incumbent in place, just to prevent Democrats from getting carried away.
Another theory supplied by Storey is that in the states where the Obama campaign was the strongest, it was able to deliver big numbers of voters who boosted Democratic hopes, but in other states, notably Southern ones such as Tennessee and Oklahoma, Obama may have been something of a liability.
It is important to remember that in the U.S. House and in many of the state legislative contests, Democrats had already gained many seats in 2006. And since you can't pick up a seat you have already won, Democrats were defending a lot of seats in districts previously held by Republicans. So, there was more exposure and fewer opportunities to gain. In the Senate, capturing three open seats and knocking out at least two incumbents from the other side, while suffering no losses, is a winning record by any standard. The political environment and momentum that Democrats seemed to have in recent months may have led to an unrealistic set of expectations. In this, perhaps we pundits share some blame.
Even having made these caveats, what happened down-ballot was not proportional to what happened at the top. It certainly can be argued that the Obama campaign had become such a highly personalized movement that it was unrealistic to expect it to carry down through its party, particularly in states that the campaign was not targeting and where Obama's appeal was naturally less.
It's also true that wave elections are never even; rather they tend to be somewhat ragged. Someone like Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., for example, is always pulled under. No matter how strong a swimmer he was, the undertow was too great. Yet in Maine, a career of cultivating an independent image allowed Republican Sen. Susan Collins to win easily. More than a few Democrats commented that they wished they had a candidate as competent as Rep. Tom Allen, Collins's Democratic challenger, in certain other states, where the limitations of the Democratic contender prevented them from taking better advantage of Republican vulnerabilities.
The only thing that is really clear, other than the impressiveness of Obama's victory, is that this was a very complicated election that will take some time for us to really understand what happened and why.
This article appears in the Nov. 8, 2008, edition of National Journal.