Changing Electorate Promises Bright Future for Progressive Politics

Changing Electorate Promises Bright Future for Progressive Politics

Thursday, November 14, 2008

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PSN ON THE AIR: Round Table Discussion with Laura Flanders

This Thursday, PSN's Policy Director Nathan Newman joined PSN ally legislators from New York, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Montana for a round table discussion on Laura Flanders's nationally-syndicated television show GRIT TV. Newman and the other panelists analyzed the state-level results of the November 4 election and outlined strategies for acting on the national progressive mandate that accompanied Obama's victory. You can watch the full video below or by visiting the GRIT TV website.



Changing Electorate Promises Bright Future for Progressive Politics

In last Tuesday's election, there was a dramatic demographic and geographic shift in who supported progressives all the way down the ballot.  These changes could lead to long-term electoral support for progressives if they deliver on the promises they made to voters. 

As we highlighted last week, progressives made gains across the country, with statewide results tracking federal results more than in previous elections.  The overall trend is that progressive candidates are making gains in every region of the country except Appalachia (an area stretching from Tennessee and Kentucky into Arkansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas and Mississippi) where both Obama and progressive candidates at the state level had heavy losses. Progressives, however, made strong gains almost everywhere else, and importantly, strong inroads were made in the West.  If we examine in depth where voters drove this shift to the left, the numbers are striking.

Young People:
 One of the great questions of this election was whether or not young people, seemingly more energized than at any time in two generations, would turn out at a rate equivalent to older voters.  While not hitting the average turnout, young people did participate in larger numbers, breaking beyond 50% and accounted for 60% of the increase of voters this year.  Even more important for progressives, the shift in voter allegiance for young people shifted dramatically. Among voters under 30, two-thirds voted for President-Elect Obama, compared with just over half for Senator Kerry in 2004.  (See graph to the right courtesy of UMass Political Science Professor Brian Schaffner.) This is just the latest piece in a string of evidence showing that the so-called millennials are the most progressive cohort in generations. And not only are they more progressive than their predecessors, they are also more politically involved, and as this election illustrated, civically engaged.  Given these shifts, it is vitally important that progressives implement reforms to foster youth participation such as early registration for 16-year-olds, making schools "motor voter" registration agencies, and permitting internet registration.

Hispanics:  President Bush famously courted Hispanics and increased the Republican share of this rapidly growing ethnic group.  Central to Democratic efforts this year was reversing that trend and placing Hispanic voters solidly within their coalition.  On election day those efforts paid off, and while not seeing a national surge in Hispanic turnout, Hispanic voters did strongly favor the Democrats, giving Obama the same two-thirds of their votes.  Importantly, although Hispanic turnout didn't surge nationally, it did in key battleground states in the West, such as Colorado (where Hispanic turnout increased over 100%) and Nevada (which saw a 50% increase).

Religious Voters:  President-Elect Obama made a bold push for religious voters, who many assumed had abandoned the Democratic Party for good over differences on "cultural" issues, principally abortion and gay rights.  This year, however, voters of every faith increased their support for Obama relative to Kerry's performance in 2004.  And while not the tectonic shift that we saw among young people and Hispanics, Obama did raise the party's share of weekly churchgoing voters by 8% and occasional worshipers by 11%.  Although evangelicals as a group continued to give overwhelming support to the Republican Party and made up a large percentage of John McCain's coalition, there was one major shift that was significant for progressives.  In the Midwest, Obama received 33% of evangelicals votes, which is a dramatic increase from the 25% that Kerry obtained in 2004.  Additionally, the racial divide among evangelical voters remains as deep as ever.

With youth and fast-growing segments of the population, like Hispanics, voting overwhelmingly for progressive candidates, and progress being made in bringing white evangelical and other religious voters into the progressive fold, demographic shifts will grow the ranks of progressives in coming years if they can merely maintain this new level of support among these groups. 

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How our Election Systems Held up Under a High Turnout Election

This year election administrators, many of whom were fielding new voting equipment for the first time, faced record turnout.  After the pervasive problems with the previous two presidential elections and the fears of more election problems, both real and imagined, voters across the political spectrum faced the election with deep skepticism about its fairness and integrity.  Today we give a brief overview of whether the expectations for the election were born out, and what election day tells us about where to focus reforms.

How Big was the Wave?  The biggest question that most people have is how high was actual voter turnout this election. There is some serious inconsistency in the numbers that are being reported, but from American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, the preliminary number is 62% of eligible voters which is five points below 1960.  That was clearly below the most ambitious expectations.  But beyond turnout percentages, every four years there are more total voters than the last because of population growth.  So even without a record turnout, the actual number of voters was about 6.5 million more than 2004.  It is also clear that turnout wasn't consistent across the country, with some states experiencing turnout well above the average.  And, of course, battleground and election day registration states led the pack.

So what we saw was not a best case scenario in terms of participation.   This moderately high turnout election, however, managed to seriously tax the system and disenfranchised an unknown number of voters on election day.  The result was long lines throughout the country and hours-long waits to vote.  The system was definitely over capacity: an election with over 65 to 70 percent turnout likely would have been a complete disaster with huge numbers of precincts totally overwhelmed.  But even some states and counties with very high turnout managed to avoid major strains on their polling places.

Early and Mail-in Voting Save the Day in Many States:  For several states that have seen problems at the polls in recent elections, early voting - either in person or through the mail - appears to have made a significant difference in how smoothly things went on election day. Colorado stands out for having faced serious problems in previous elections, responding with a strong commitment to using mail-in voting to ease the pressure off the polls, and successfully implementing that strategy which resulted in a successful election.  In the end, a majority of votes in the state were cast early, as was the case in Texas where two-thirds of votes were cast before election day. The tremendous success of early voting, even for in-person early voting where there were sometimes long lines, has already prompted several states to examine adding or extending early voting, including key swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Obama Campaign Makes Early Voting a Key Component of GOTV:  Early voting efforts gained a lot of momentum due to a strong push by the Obama campaign to emphasize the importance of getting as many people to vote before election day as possible.  In past elections, early voting was often more popular among conservatives and reflected a pool of voters older and more white than the average pool of voters.  However, early voting was an essential element in Obama's get out the vote efforts and worked in concert with his efforts and independent progressive efforts to register new voters.  In the end, the campaign's work paid serious dividends.  Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by significant margins in several key battlegrounds.  In North Carolina, a traditionally red state, early and newly registered voters accounted for a Democratic victory

Chronic Election Problems Persist: Beyond preparing for very high turnout, which didn't happen adequately in areas across the country, there were several areas where election experts and observers were expecting trouble - registration errors, voting machines malfunctions, and voter suppression.  Before election day and during the early voting period in many states, significant problems did crop up.  In some instances that allowed election officials to deal with problems before election day, or in the case of voter deception, inform voters of the threat.  In others, like purging of voters from the rolls, problems in the run-up to the election could not be rectified after the fact.  While there were no crises in this election, it is also clear that voting problems are not behind us and significant reform is still needed to ensure that we have a free and fair election system.

Voter Registration Problems:
 Election post-mordems virtually all identify voter registration problems as endemic this year.  In many states voters were removed from the polls within 90 days of the election, in direct violation of federal law.  In other states election officials used overly restrictive rules such as demanding exact matches between voter registration info and government databases to keep people off the rolls.  On election day there were many reports of people who had registered showing up at the polls only to find their names missing from the poll books, leading to a substantial number of provisional ballots being cast.

Problems with purges and restrictive registration rules were the most significant voter registration problems this year.  Yet, accusations that ACORN was engaged in voter registration fraud, though not supported by facts, drowned out much of the discussion of real problems.  Ironically these real problems include the arrest of a prominent rightwing signature gatherer for voter registration fraud.  However, the uproar over ACORN may have a silver lining in convincing conservatives of something that progressives have known for decades - the voter registration process is in need of serious reform. 

The problems, both real and imagined, are leading to a consensus that either states on their own or the federal government must implement universal voter registration.  Many of the controversies  and failures surrounding the current systems would disappear if the government took responsibility for registering as many eligible citizens as possible.  Many nations reach over 90% registration (some even have turnout that high as well), and as the world's leading democracy, we should endeavor to reach similar levels.

Electronic Voting Machines Continue to be Unreliable:  While critics and proponents of electronic voting agree that there were no major meltdowns of voting systems during the election, as there have been in the past, machines once again proved themselves to be unreliable throughout the country (update here).  Perhaps the most troubling problems occurred during the early voting period where machines flipped votes from one candidate to another in at least four states.  Election integrity experts continue to call for the use of paper ballots and the implementation of robust hand count audits of election results in every state.

Voter Suppression Remains Popular and Unpunished:  Voting rights advocates have become accustomed to the host of voter suppression efforts that occur with every election, many of which we've highlighted in Dispatches leading up to Nov. 4th (here, here and here).  This year was no different, and with conservatives on the ropes in many states, may have become more widespread.  States across the country saw deceptive and intimidating flyers and phone calls circulated to minority voters and students in the days before the election.  Caging and voter challenge campaigns were also widespread.  (For those interested in the specifics, the good folks at the Voter Suppression Wiki have a rundown of suppression problems reported before and on election day.  Video the Vote has also released a compilation of voting problems experienced on election day).

What is beyond clear is that voter suppression will not go away on its own.  The Department of Justice has been asleep at the wheel for the last eight years and has shirked its responsibility to pursue vote suppressors with criminal prosecutions.  It is also clear that many states have a long way to go to improve and expand their voter protection laws.  Additionally, state need to take efforts to track down perpetrators.

Conclusion:  This election was the culmination of a dramatic shift in the political landscape of this nation that began in 2006.  Voters are recoiling from the conservative excesses and failures of the last decades and are embracing a new progressive agenda to strengthen families and the nation as a whole.  However, if we are to build a true progressive majority, much work remains in modernizing our election practices for the 21st Century.  Without significant gains in securing the franchise, the tremendous gains progressives have recently had at the ballot box might slip away as quickly as they came.  All progressives should guard against complacency born of these triumphs and use their new prominence to put election reform at the center of the broader progressive agenda.

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Obama May Quickly Reverse Bush Attacks on State Policy Authority

Progressive States Network has regularly detailed the mounting attacks on and preemption of state policy by the federal government in recent years.  The incoming Obama administration is signalling that many of the Bush-era regulations restricting states may be reversed.  A few examples include:

  • Allowing California and other states to regulate global warming emissions from cars:  Criticizing Bush's denial of California's ability to establish "clean car" regulations to reduce automobile emissions, Obama earlier this year said that, "[g]iven the failure of this administration to act [on global warming], California should be allowed to pioneer."  Seventeen other states, representing 45 percent of the national auto market, have promised to adopt California's rules.
  • Expanding SCHIP to more children:  As a US Senator, Obama supported a $35 billion expansion of SCHIP, which would have allowed states to override Bush regulations and extend health coverage to more children.
  • Protecting State Consumer Regulatory Power:  The Wall Street Journal is up in arms (which is a good sign) that Obama is considering appointing David Frederick as Solicitor General -- ie. the administration's main advocate before the Supreme Court.  Frederick is currently the lawyer representing plaintiffs in a case to challenge the Food and Drug Administration's attempt to preempt state consumer liability laws where the FDA has given approval of a drug, so appointing Frederick would be a sign that Obama expects to protect state authority on consumer protection.   
  • Allowing States Receiving Federal Funds to Research New Lines of Stem Cells:  Obama has indicated he will reverse the federal restrictions on such research by programs.

The hope is that these are just the beginning of restoring state authority on a range of areas to restore the states as a full partner with the federal government in promoting public health, protecting labor rights, and promoting corporate accountability.

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Research Roundup

Republicans: Fenced In By Immigration - This analysis by America's Voice is another demonstration of how the anti-immigrant movement is largely isolated and unable to effectively perform at the polls.  The report has an election analysis on how practical immigration solutions by pro-reform candidates beat anti-immigrant partisan pandering to the base in 19 of 21 districts.

Why We Need Government and Government Needs Us - In hopefully a new era of government reform, a timely report by the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute nicely details the list of accomplishments by effective government, from bringing electricity to rural communities across the country to turning a generation of veterans after World War II into a generation of college graduates through the G.I. Bill to cleaning our waterways through the Clean Water Act.

2008 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard is the second annual edition of state-by-state rankings on energy efficiency programs and policies by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).  The scorecard has California earning the number one ranking and Idaho "most improved" from last year's rankings.

Working hard or hardly working?- This Economic Policy Institute (EPI) snapshot shows how, after decades of per capita work hours increasing since World War II, largely as women entered the workforce in greater numbers, work hours plummeting in the wake of the 2001 recession and then languishing during the weak expansion.

Four Tenets for Rural Economic Development in the New Economy-This Carsey Instiute  report emphasizes the importance of innovation and investments in infrastructure and education to promote economic stability in rural communities.

A Portrait of Chinese Americans- a study by the University of Maryland and civil rights institution OCA finds that Chinese Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant group. It also debunks the model minority myth, finding that as one of the most highly educated groups in the nation, Chinese Americans are confronted by a "glass ceiling," unable to realize full occupational stature and success to match their efforts.

Lastly, the Migration Policy Institute has announced their Immigrant Integration Awards, four awards of $50,000 to individuals or organizations that best promote immigrant integration. The deadline is Jan 31, 2009.

Please email us leads on good research at


Changing Electorate Promises Bright Future for Progressive Politics

CIRCLE - Youth Turnout Rises to at Least 52%
New York Times, Adam Nossiter - For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics
Los Angeles Times, Cathleen Decker - How Obama Captured a Large Chunk of the 'Faith' Vote
Beliefnet - Who Are The Obamagelicals? - A Few Notable Patterns from the National Exit Polls  

How our Election Systems Held up Under a High Turnout Election

Alternet, Tova Wang - Despite Clear Presidential Victor, No Shortage of Problems in 2008 Election
AmLaw Daily, Daphne Eviatar - Election 2008: The Voting Problems Aren't Over, Kim Zetter - Election Problems Around the Country
Voter Suppression Wiki - Voter Suppression in the 2008 Election, J. Barkin and C. Smith-Socaris - End the 'Voter Fraud' Debate

Obama May Quickly Reverse Bush Attacks on State Policy Authority

Wall Street Journal - Would an Obama Victory Preempt Wyeth v. Levine?
Progressive States Network - Industry Looks to Federal Rules to Preempt State Regulation
Public Citizen - Preemption of Consumer Remedies and Related Topics


The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Kayla Southworth, Privatization and Contractor Accountability Policy Associate
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

Please shoot us an email at if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

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