When Barack Obama wasn't looking, someone stuffed him into that souped-up DeLorean from the movies and took him back to the past.
For months, Democrats have expected this year to produce a breakout, transformative election. They have bubbled with optimism about their ability to redraw the electoral map by bringing more states into play, and to remake the electorate by energizing new voters and recapturing working-class families squeezed by the economic downturn.
By November, events might still validate that vision. But in the first national polls after both parties' national conventions, September 2008 looks more similar to September 2004 or September 2000 than Democrats ever could have imagined. Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain are locked in trench warfare, grappling over just a few true swing states in a country that is once again divided almost exactly in half--just as in the past two presidential contests.
"Before the conventions, the election looked only modestly like the alignment of 2000 and 2004," said University of Akron political scientist John Green. "After the conventions, it looks much more like the alignment of 2000 and 2004."
That's not just because most polls now show Obama and McCain running in the sort of dead heat common during 2000 and 2004. Even more telling is the coalition each side is attracting and the shape of the boundary between them.
Each party made clear at its convention how it wants to divide the electorate. Democrats sought to segment the voters by class. They presented Obama (the "son of a single mom") and running mate Joe Biden (the "scrappy kid from Scranton") as working-class heroes who would defend the middle-class because they are products of it. The Democrats portrayed McCain as an out-of-touch economic elitist who doesn't understand the interests of average families.
Republicans sought to segment the voters along cultural lines. They presented McCain as the personification of timeless values--honor and duty. Far more importantly (and effectively), they introduced vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as an embodiment of small-town America who champions conservative social values not only in public life but also in her private life. They completed the picture with tough national security messages that usually resonate loudest with the same traditionalist voters most attracted to conservative social positions. Meanwhile, the Republicans portrayed Obama as an out-of-touch cultural elitist who belittles small towns like Palin's Wasilla as not "cosmopolitan enough."
There was some cognitive dissonance in the fact that those particular words were delivered by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose most intimate contact with small-town America probably comes when he makes a wrong turn driving to the Hamptons. But that didn't diminish the effectiveness of the overall assault. The first post-convention polls suggested that the Republicans succeeded more than the Democrats in dividing the electorate along the lines they prefer.
An array of surveys released this week show McCain dominating among economically pressed but culturally conservative (and generally hawkish) white working-class voters, just as President Bush did in 2004. In the Diageo/Hotline daily tracking survey this week, Obama was winning just 30 percent of white men without a college education, even lower than the meager 35 percent share that exit polls recorded for John Kerry in 2004. Among white noncollege women, Obama was attracting just 37 percent, down from Kerry's 40 percent. Among "waitress moms" (married white women without college degrees), Obama was polling just 33 percent in the Diageo/Hotline survey, no improvement on Kerry's anemic 32 percent.
Economic hard times may indeed allow Obama to regain some ground among working-class whites by November. But given Obama's previous difficulties with that group--and the power of the cultural connection that Palin is establishing--some analysts wonder whether he might be better served by shifting his focus toward upscale voters more likely to recoil from a Republican ticket that wants to ban abortion and has praised the teaching of creationism.
Obama recently dipped his toe in that water with a radio ad presenting McCain as a threat to legalized abortion. This week, Biden also lashed the GOP platform's opposition to stem-cell research. But without a more concerted effort from Obama to convince socially liberal constituencies (such as single women or infrequent churchgoers) that McCain and Palin don't share their values, Democrats may be left wondering whether it's really a culture war when only one side is firing its guns.
This article appears in the September 13, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.