Organizing to Govern:
Election '08 Recap and America's New Direction
by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory

The votes of November 4 were a wakeup call for the nation and marked the renewal of its conscience. Extraordinary levels of participation--at least 131 million voters, more than 61 percent turnout--and the election of a new president on a platform infused with commitments to integrity, inclusion, fairness, and competence brought an abrupt end the nightmare decade that began in 1998 with a partisan impeachment of one president and continued through the catastrophic deceptions and failures of his successor. That era of politics is now over.

Dramatic expansion of the electorate, achieved through registration and turnout drives by both partisan and nonpartisan organizations, as well as deliberate mobilization of young voters helped deliver a mandate for change to state capitols and to Washington. For Barack Obama, a campaign of unprecedented technological mastery and grassroots mobilization may be prelude to an administration likely to draw on massive engagement and advocacy from supporters to propel an agenda for reform and economic recovery through Congress. A preelection survey by Gallup indicated that the Obama campaign had vastly exceeded McCain's efforts in voter contact, outpacing Republicans 34 to 28 among all Americans and 38 to 30 among registered voters. In exit polls, 26 percent of voters said the Obama campaign had contacted them personally, while just 18 percent said that McCain’s backers had contacted them.

In one further testament to the depth and detail-oriented organizing of his campaign, Obama captured one electoral vote from conservative Nebraska. The state, in a nuance shared only by Maine, awards its votes in the all-important Electoral College by Congressional district, as well as a premium of two more to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Democrats have long spotted the opportunity to flip one of Nebraska's five reliably Republican tallies by capturing a majority in the 2nd Congressional District, centered in Omaha. Targeting the district is advantageous in part because Omaha is also a media market for western Iowa, so there is even a spillover benefit to advertising in the area. In very close presidential elections, such as Al Gore's race in 2000, garnering one vote from Nebraska could conceivably prove pivotal even to a national outcome. By deploying staff to Omaha and visiting the area, Obama actually managed to outpoll McCain in the district by more than 1,200 votes to secure one of the state's five electors. Electors meet December 15 in each state to cast the official and final vote of the Electoral College for President of the United States.

Because of the deep grassroots reach of his campaign, Obama's victory helped many other Democrats finish on top on Election Night or in ballot counts that continued into November. The new president's capacity to move an agenda of change at the federal level will gain traction from this dynamic. Having so many lawmakers in office at all levels of government who benefited to varying degrees from the surge of voter support generated by his campaign will invite some residual allegiance, a boon to effective governance.

In votes for state leadership, Americans took definite steps toward non-ideological and responsive governance, including honest and transparent administration of elections. Three Democratic candidates for state secretary of state--in Montana, Nevada, and West Virginia--prevailed in campaigns aimed at restoring access, fairness, and professional oversight of elections. Democrats in West Virginia welcomed a new state elections chief with special gusto. In October, at least six voters casting ballots early in two different counties complained that electronic machines were flipping their votes for Obama or other Democrats to Republicans. The Republican clerks in both counties called the cases anomalies and suggested that voters themselves were at fault for such hazards. Democrats succeeded in gaining majorities in four state legislative chambers that emerged as priorities over the past two years: the New York and Nevada state Senates, the Ohio state House, and the Wisconsin Assembly.

Democrats also turned back GOP bids to gain power in six other states. Majority Democrats maintained control of five state legislative chambers that Republicans were eyeing in the lead-up to the election: the state House in Indiana, Iowa, and Pennsylvania and the state Senates in Maine and New Hampshire. And in Washington state, Governor Christine Gregoire, who won office in 2004 by a scant 133 votes after three recounts, won a second term as state executive. Gregoire governed from the center and emerged as an especially cogent ally of equal rights for LGBT people, signing legislation that provided many benefits to committed same-sex couples, including visitation rights to hospitalized partners. Targeted in part for this track record by Dino Rossi, the same challenger she vanquished in 2004, Gregoire widened her margin of victory to 53 to 47 percent, or nearly 175,000 votes.

At the federal level, legislative and executive branches will have Democratic leadership poised to redirect public resources away from war and private contractors and toward education, effective public services, economic opportunity, health care, transportation, and other key aspects of domestic infrastructure that nearly groan from inattention. The third branch of government, the federal courts, will now stand to gain new appointments that will gradually replace conservative dominance with moderation and give added weight to the workplace, privacy, and equal-protection claims and concerns of ordinary Americans.

At the same time, voters in California dealt a narrow but stinging setback to equality under law in the right to civil marriage. This result, on a ballot measure known as Proposition 8, came in the face of 18,000 committed same-sex couples who had wed since the recognition of their equal-protection right by the state supreme court in May 2008. Impact from the elimination of this right, indeed, the immediate suspension of same-sex marriages in the state, proved all the more heart-breaking for its jarring divergence from the prevailing electoral message of prejudice overcome, amplified by the breadth and passion of the multi-racial coalition that powered Obama to victories nationwide, including in three states of the Old South.

Thousands of same-sex couples wed or considering marriage under the California law became ambassadors for equality and constitutional rights and the importance of participation in the democratic process to defend both. They enlisted family, neighbors, fellow worshipers, and coworkers--some never before involved or invested in a fight to win or preserve freedom. In California, this surge of support fell short of securing a statewide majority but is now channeling into street demonstrations that are sweeping the state to protest Prop 8 and support the legal challenge to it. Similar outpourings of solidarity failed to stop measures barring equal marriage that won passage in Florida (Amendment 2) and Arizona (Proposition 102), where voters in 2006 had rejected an even broader attack that encompassed domestic-partnership benefits. In Arkansas (Act 1), an initiated measure barring adoption and foster-parenting rights to unmarried couples and promoted as an attack on gay people as caregivers, also won passage. Nationally, lesbians, gay men, bisexual, and transgender people constituted 4 percent of the electorate, accounting for more than 10 million votes, at least 70 percent of them cast for Obama.

Other groups of Democratic-leaning voters, locally and nationally, who saw their rights and freedoms at stake in the election also turned out in extremely large numbers. African American voters--for whom the highlights of the Bush years include purges of voter rolls by partisan officials, substandard or scarce polling equipment in Black-majority precincts that discouraged voting, and even rejection of ballots cast at disproportionate levels due to breakdowns of election oversight and machinery--voted for Obama and Democrats by a margin of 24 to 1. They amounted to 13 percent of voters. Latinos--subject to recurring insults from anti-immigrant advocacy groups and GOP candidates as well as back-tracking on a compromise immigration- reform bill even from former sponsor John McCain--voted for Obama and Democrats by a margin of more than 2 to 1. They were 9 percent of voters. Women, who account for 53 percent of all voters, broke for Obama and Democrats by an unprecedented 4-to-3 margin, or 56 to 43 percent. Women voters also helped sink three ballot measures at the state level--in California (Proposition 4), Colorado (Amendment 48), and South Dakota (Initiated Measure 11)--aimed at restricting or removing their right to choose on abortion.


California voters of all backgrounds criticized Prop 8 before and after Election Day, when it passed narrowly.
Here Claudia Garcia (left) and sisters Sophie and Saron Sellasie (right) speak out against the measure, which aimed
to eliminate equal marriage rights for committed same-sex couples by changing the state constitution.

Union members, at 12 percent of the electorate, also sought to turn the page on the anti-labor hostility of the Bush years and restore an even playing field for efforts by workers to join together and win contracts through bargaining. The Employee Free Choice Act--passed by the House in 2007 but stalled by a Republican filibuster in the Senate, with only Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) breaking the lockstep GOP resistance barring a final vote on the issue--became a crucial tool for focusing the attention of voters in union households on the stakes of the elections, especially for the President and seats in the U.S. Senate. Democrats gained at least six seats in the Senate, and may add two more when all ballots are counted in Minnesota and Alaska (Georgia's Senate race will go to a runoff in early December.). In races for the U.S. House of Representatives, union members were key to Democrats' pickup of 21 seats, including the Ohio win by John Boccieri, a seat held by Republicans for 36 years. In terms of ballot measures, union members also rallied voters against three anti-labor issues in two states (Oregon's Measure 64 and Colorado's Amendments 47 and 49) aimed at weakening unions or sidelining workers in the democratic process.

Women and people of color voters took particular advantage of advances in early and absentee balloting at the state level that allowed nearly 32 million, or more than 24 percent of all voters, to make their voice heard even before Nov. 4. Based on tracking of early voting by Michael MacDonald of George Mason University, women were a disproportionate share, or 56 percent, of early voters. African Americans in at least three states--Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina--also found in-person early voting an especially reliable and attractive option, constituting a disproportionate share of such ballots cast. These states and others, such as Colorado and Nevada, achieved rates of 50, 60, and even 70 percent of total ballots cast early. Look for the continued expansion of this popular trend toward in-person early voting and voting by mail, through legislative and administrative action, in 2009 and 2010.

Roster of Selected Federal House and Senate Races to Watch

First reported Oct. 18, 2008:

Results of races profiled (as of Dec. 8. 2008):

House: 10 Democrats and 6 Republicans

Senate: 5 Democrats and 0 Republicans

All Democratic candidates' names in bold

Contests for open seats all held by Republicans in the 110th Congress:

1. California's 4th District

Tom McClintock over Charlie Brown

2. Illinois' 11th District

Debbie Halvorson over Martin Ozinga

3. Minnesota's 3rd District

Erik Paulsen over Ashwin Madia

4. New York's 13th District

Mike McMahon over Robert Straniere

5. Virginia's 11th District

Gerry Connolly over Keith Fimian

6. New Jersey's 3rd District

John Adler over John Myers.

7. New Jersey's 7th District

Leonard Lance over Linda Stender

8. New Mexico's 1st District

Martin Heinrich over Darren White

9. New York's 25th District

Dan Maffei over Dale Sweetland

10. New York's 26th District

Christopher Lee over Alice Kryzan

11. Ohio's 15th District

Mary Jo Kilroy over Steve Stivers

12. Wyoming At-Large

Cynthia Lummis over Gary Trauner

FOUR OTHER RACES TO WATCH (not open seats; all held by Republican incumbents):

Colorado's 4th: Betsy Markey over Rep. Marilyn Musgrave

Florida's 13th: Rep. Vern Buchanan over Christine Jennings

Idaho's 1st: Walt Minnick over Rep. Bill Sali

Michigan's 7th: Mark Schauer over Rep. Tim Walberg


(open seats all held by Republicans)

1. Alaska: Mike Begich over Sen. Ted Stevens

2. Colorado: Rep. Mark Udall over former Rep. Bob Schaffer

3. New Mexico: Rep. Tom Udall over Rep. Steve Pearce.

4. New Hampshire: Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen over Sen. John Sununu

5. Virginia: Former Gov. Mark Warner over former Gov. Jim Gilmore