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Has US politics changed forever?

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election has left many euphoric Democrats with a feeling that the landscape of American politics has shifted - but is it true or is it an illusion?

CHANGING POLITICAL MAP
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Democratic strategist, Simon Rosenberg, director of the New Democrat Network, is one of those who argues that the pattern of the last four decades has been broken.

Since the the 1960s, when the Democrats passed civil rights legislation, the southern states have mostly voted Republican in presidential elections.

This has given them an in-built advantage, and only two Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (both southerners), have won the White House in the last 40 years.

Now Mr Rosenberg argues the Democrats have created a new paradigm that means they could dominate politics for a generation.

He gives three reasons:

Demographics: The Democrats are appealing to the fastest-growing groups in the electorate

Technology: The Democrats have mastered the new digital technologies, enabling them to fundraise and mobilise their supporters more effectively than their opponents

Issues: The Democrats are better equipped to deal with the new issues, like global warming, immigration, and the global financial crisis, which go beyond traditional left and right divisions

He also argues that the Republican brand has been irrevocably damaged.

At the same time, he recognises that the main issue for many voters in this election was an old-fashioned one - falling living standards - and this will represent a major challenge for President Obama.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Simon Rosenberg argues that the US is going through its biggest demographic transformation in history. In 1976, 90% of the electorate was white, while in 2008 it was 74%. In the next 30 years, the Census Bureau predicts that the US will no longer be a majority white nation.

The main reason is the growth of the Hispanic population, which will double from 15% to 30% of the total.

Exit poll - race

So for Mr Rosenberg, the most important result of the election was that Mr Obama won the Hispanic vote by a two-to-one margin.

He points out that this vote, magnified by increased turnout, was the key to victory in four of the nine states that shifted to the Democrats (Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida).

No less impressive was the huge margin of victory for Mr Obama among young voters and new voters.

Winning this large Millennial generation - the children of the baby boomers - is the other key to the future, he says.

But does a vote for the Democratic candidate in 2008 imply a similar voting pattern in future?

Exit poll - age

ABC News polling director Gary Langer puts the question this way:

"We know that voting is habit forming; its best predictor is having voted previously. The question here is whether the Democratic preference of young and first-time voters in 2008 carries on in their age cohort."

The voting patterns of Hispanics have certainly been quite volatile in previous elections - George Bush won an impressive 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

It was Republican opposition to immigration reform - which would have provided a path to citizenship for many illegal Hispanic workers - that helped the Democrats this time.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

There is no doubt that the Obama campaign succeeded in using the internet to get their message out and mobilise their supporters to an unprecedented degree.

Senator Obama has been drawing huge crowds at his rallies.
The younger generation flocked to the Obama campaign

They raised $650m, double the amount achieved by the McCain campaign, mainly through small donations online.

And they mobilised an army of several million volunteers who worked on getting out the vote and registering new voters.

The internet was also an important place where people could watch campaign videos and other messages of support via You Tube, and through social networking sites like Facebook find other like-minded supporters.

The Democrats took a leaf from the Republican playbook in "micro-targeting" key groups of voters with specific electoral messages targeted to their particular interests.

They had also studied the example of Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, which pioneered the use of the web, and vastly improved their techniques.

"We were the Wright Brothers to their Apollo 11," commented Joe Trippi, Mr Dean's campaign manager.

This election also showed the new media campaigning only worked if it led to personal contacts. The Democrats were twice as likely to have personally talked to potential supporters than the Republicans in battleground states.

But technology is not necessarily owned by one party. In the next election cycle, it is possible that the Republicans will learn how to excel in the use of new media, just as they did in 2004.

NEW AGENDA

Mr Rosenberg argues that a key reason the Republicans failed to connect with the electorate is that they were arguing in terms of the old issues such as tax and spending, not the new issues that the Democrats embraced.

He believes that there is a new set of issues such as global warming which go beyond left and right, stretch beyond national boundaries and require imaginative solutions which involve both government and individuals.

Immigration is another issue, he says, that requires bi-partisan, global solutions that go beyond the nation state.

On the economy, the new approach looks to investing in education, infrastructure and technology to make America more competitive, rather than putting up trade barriers.

According to Mr Rosenberg, Barack Obama's campaign task force on globalisation accepted that globalisation is positive, as long as there are global rules - the emphasis is on "better globalisation" rather than unfettered capitalism.

However, the Democrats' advantage in these policy areas cannot be taken for granted.

The issues split the Republican Party in 2008, but in future they may not. A figure comparable to the British Conservatives' David Cameron could, in theory, arise.

There are also groups in the Democratic Party that see market protection as the best defence against globalisation, and they could gain ground if economic conditions get worse.

DAMAGED REPUBLICAN BRAND

The election has marked a major shift in partisan identification.

People wait to vote in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 20 Oct
There were fewer Republicans at the polls this time

The number of voters who called themselves Republicans was at a 28-year low of just 32%, compared to 39% who said they were Democrats.

Just four years ago, equal numbers of voters (37%) identified with the two political parties..

Gary Langer says: "The election marked a reversal of the Reagan revolution. His presidency heralded a generation of close division in political partisanship, shrinking a 15% advantage in Democratic identification in 1980 to 2% advantage in 1984."

The other danger for the Republicans is that they are increasingly being seen as a regional party which looks and sounds Southern.

There are now no Republican congressmen left in New England and much of the North East.

Mr Obama also ran strongly in the suburbs, with the Republicans the majority only in the smaller rural areas. And he had some success in the South - winning Virginia and North Carolina as well as Florida.

Mr Rosenberg believes that the Republicans must look forward and embrace the new issues and the new demographic groups if they are to have a chance for the future.

In particular, they must recognise that as America becomes more multi-racial, and voters across America become more racially tolerant, they will need to find a new basis for their appeal in the South - the memory of their former campaigns against affirmative action and the use of school buses to de-segregate schools will no longer be enough.

But at the moment, the party is engaged in recriminations over who is to blame for their defeat - and whether to move to the centre or further to the right.

LIVING STANDARDS

Despite the new agenda, bread and butter issues remained decisive in this election.

Exit poll - issues

The exit polls showed the economy was by far the dominant concern in the election, with 62% citing it as the most important issue facing the country.

Mr Rosenberg believes the roots of voter disillusion is not just the current financial crisis, but a decline in the standard of living for the average citizen during the whole of the Bush presidency.

He sees reversing that decline in the real incomes as the key to Mr Obama's re-election in 2012.

It is already clear that achieving economic recovery will be the central theme of the first part of the Obama presidency.

He will have to deliver results in this area if he is to reap the full benefit of the long-term trends that appear, possibly, to be working in the Democrats' favour.

The National Election Exit Poll is a sample of 17,856 voters surveyed on election day after they have left the polling booth on behalf of AP and the major US TV networks.

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Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
Select from the list below to view state level results.


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