Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Perspectives on the 2008 Elections

By Shawn Healy
I had the great pleasure of waxing nostalgic last evening as I attended a program sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Foundation titled "Perspectives on the 2008 Election." The program featured two distinguished UW-Madison political science professors, Department Chairman John Coleman, and Charles Franklin, co-creator of my favorite web site of this election cycle,

The event was held at the Blackstone, known as the "Hotel of Presidents" as 12 have spent an evening there. One in particular, Warren G. Harding, was selected by party leaders who were attending the Republican National Convention at the Chicago Coliseum. These backroom dealings at the Blackstone gave birth to the term "smoke-filled room."

Franklin based the bulk of his presentation on the recent release of the Big Ten Battleground Poll, a project initiated by the UW, but with partners at seven other Big Ten institutions. They interviewed nearly 5,800 individuals in the eight battleground states that represent the conference, and concluded that the Midwestern region is "incredibly competitive" in the context of the presidential race. Most state races are currently within the margin of error, Senator Barack Obama's Illinois excepted. This poll will be repeated in October and again after the election, providing a rich database of information to propel future studies.

From a national scope, Franklin spoke of the McCain-Palin bounce after the Republican National Convention, qualifying it as real, but short-lived. He estimates that Obama currently leads the national race by a 3-4% margin, and suggested the 5-6% swings in tracking polls characterized the 2000 and 2004 races, too. McCain's post-convention bounce played out in both red and battleground states, but both have trended toward Obama in the past two weeks.

On a micro level, Republicans regularly carry the white vote, even when Democratic candidates win the presidency. Obama was barely behind Senator John McCain until after the Democratic National Convention and McCain's surprise pick of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. White women shifted by more than 12 points to the Republican ticket, but, along with white men, have since retreated part of the way back to Obama during the past two weeks.

Franklin identified 19 battleground states based upon recent polling data. Obama is ahead in 8, while McCain leads in 11. In order from largest to smallest lead, Obama is ahead in Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. McCain's biggest lead lies in Louisiana, followed by Missouri, West Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, and Virginia. With the exception of New Hampshire, Bush won each of these states in 2004, along with New Mexico and Colorado in the Obama column, and Iowa, which is considered safe for Obama at this point.

If each of these trends hold, the two candidates would split their electoral votes evenly, 269-269, meaning the House of Representatives would determine the outright winner. Given the fact that Democrats currently control the House of Representatives, Obama would probably emerge victorious. Both candidates will attempt to hold their existing portfolio while stealing one or two states from the other. Given that many battleground contests are within the margin of error with only 41 days remaining until the election, the outcome could truly break either way.

John Coleman provided a broader view of the presidential race, acknowledging the length of this campaign and the difficulty in predicting the ultimate outcome. He reminded us that Obama clinched the nomination by cleaning up in caucus states while Senator Hillary Clinton won a majority of the delegates in primaries. McCain was counted out several times throughout the second half of 2007 only to prove his resilience and capture the Republican nomination.

Coleman noted that both candidates did an end-around of their parties to become the nominees, as both relied upon independents to place them over the top, and McCain used the support of moderates to trump the conservative base of the party. Insurgent candidates like McCain and Obama win their party nominations once in a while, but it is rare for two to claim victory in the same year. Both then faced unique tests upon clinching their respective nominations as they were forced to rally their bases and heal old wounds.

Age is also a unique factor in this election, as Obama has inspired those under 30, while McCain holds a decisive edge among older voters. Obama's campaign tapped into the sensibilities of this younger demographic. Coleman compared him to an iPod, a smooth brand with minimal turmoil. By comparison, he labeled McCain as a cassette, maybe even an eight-track player.

Both candidacies charted their courses away from the central issue of this election as it stands today: the economy. Obama based his campaign on change, while McCain made placed his foreign policy credentials front and center. Both campaigns have since pivoted toward this issue, but have yet to find traction and have appeared out of their element at times.

On a macro level, the Democratic Party is better-positioned in this election cycle. The underlying fundamentals of an ailing economy, an unpopular war, and an Republican administration with few friends beyond blood relatives and paid staffers give a decisive edge to the Democrats, along with the fact that their party is relatively unified. Republicans, on the other hand, are divided over the central tenets of conservatism, and a victorious McCain would likely preside over divided government given the strong likelihood that Democrats will hold Congress, probably even strengthening their majorities.

One caveat is in order, however. Coleman highlighted the fact that Democrats have struggled to eclipse 50% in presidential elections for much of the last half century. Only Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Cater in 1976 won with majorities, while Republicans have attained this mark seven times over the same period. Coleman also argued that McCain is the one Republican candidate who can win in this difficult year for his party, while Obama is the only one who could lose given the strong tailwind at his party's back.

Last evening's program brought back fond memories for me of my years as an undergraduate sitting in lecture halls with these nationally-esteemed professors imparting their knowledge upon impressionable minds. This crowd of fellow alums was significantly longer in the tooth, but in returning to our roots for a couple of hours on a warm fall evening, we emerged once more with the wisdom to weather this election season for the ages.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

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McCormick Foundation

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McCormick Freedom Project

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