Reflections on the 2008 Election

The following post is from Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, co-editors of The New Politics of North Carolina. Cooper is MPA director and assistant professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. Knotts is department head and associate professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.

Every four years journalists, political commentators, and those interested in politics tend to use phrases like “historic election.” In fact, a Google search of the terms “Obama historic election” garners over 1,200,000 hits. While the description is often nothing more than hyperbole, this year it appears to be true. We have elected the first African American president in the history of our country. This occurred just 60 years after Senator Strom Thurmond (then a relatively young man) famously declared that “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Given this context, it is certainly no exaggeration to call this election historic. The pundits seem to have gotten that much correct. Journalists and politicians are much more adroit with the written and spoken word than we, so although we acknowledge the importance of the election, that is not what we wanted to blog about. Instead, we wanted to examine hard data to determine whether some of the major storylines around this election were, in fact, true.

Assessing the Big Stories

Big Story #1: Don’t trust the polls this time. There was a lot of talk about whether we could trust the polls. Some bloggers and journalists discussed the possibility that white people might claim they would vote for a black candidate, but when voting in anonymity, would vote for a white candidate. Others suggested that the increase in cell-phone usage might lead the polls to underestimate Obama’s vote. A third storyline about polling suggested that the massive expected turnout would render the “likely voter” screens useless. To determine whether this was the case, we plotted the predicted results from with the actual outcome by state. The resulting picture (below) suggests that we shouldn’t fire the pollsters just yet. In fact, the pollsters got almost every state correct.

Big Story #2: The South is back in play. This was certainly a good year for Democrats across the country and in the South, as Obama won a triad of southern states (VA, FL, and NC) that have not gone for a Democratic candidate in quite some time. Add Kay Hagan taking over Liddy Dole’s Senate seat and it is easy to see why southern Democrats might be in a particularly good mood. Although we agree that this was a banner year for southern Democrats, we also believe it might be a bit too early to use the term realignment.  We believe that any analysis of the 2008 election has to consider the economic conditions, lingering war in Iraq, and President Bush’s unpopularity.

We think a lot about the South and frequently ask the question “Just where is the modern South?” Although it is convenient to think about state boundaries, there are some interesting changes occurring within states. As any frequent visitor to the Research Triangle in North Carolina can attest, this part of the state doesn’t feel much like the rest of the South. The Research Triangle is dominated by highly educated professors and researchers, many of whom hail from all over the country, and even the world. As a result, we are not sure that the Research Triangle qualifies as the South anymore. So, given this, what did the “real North Carolina” do in this election? To find out, we subtracted the votes in Orange, Durham, and Wake Counties from the North Carolina totals. Without these counties, McCain wins the state 52% to 48%. Obviously the closeness of the election means that just a few counties can change the results, but we were struck by how differently the results looked outside of these three counties. Of course parts of Virginia and Florida fall outside of many traditionalists’ definitions of the South as well.

Big Story #3: Turnout was extraordinarily high. For this storyline, we wanted to consult Michael McDonald, a voter turnout expert at George Mason University. For the past few years Professor McDonald has been keeping some of the most accurate data available on turnout. His data suggest that turnout was indeed high, but perhaps not as high as many had hoped. Further, youth turnout was up, but the real story was not as much about the quantity of the vote, but rather the degree to which Obama dominated amongst people below the age of 30. For more about the characteristics of the youth vote among Tar Heel college students, consult our recent op-ed at

Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts
Western Carolina University