The 2008 presidential election saw the biggest partisan shift in a generation – more of a rejection of Republicans than an embrace of Democrats – but voter surveys find no broad ideological realignment behind that shift.
Democrats made up 39 percent of the electorate and Republicans 32 percent in a national exit poll for The Associated Press and TV networks. That left the share of voters considering themselves members of the GOP lower than in any presidential election since 1980 and was a sharp contrast with the 37-37 split between the two parties in the 2004 election.
But there was virtually no change in the ideological spectrum: This year 22 percent called themselves liberal, compared with 21 percent in 2004; 44 percent moderate, compared with 45 percent; and 34 percent conservative, same as four years ago. Since at least 1992, liberals consistently have been 20 percent to 22 percent of the electorate, while the conservative and moderate numbers have been a little more volatile.
The figures suggest that despite Tuesday's broad victory for Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, voters nationally have not shifted significantly leftward – something Democrats may bear in mind as they take full control of government in January eager to reshape federal policy.
Then again, some voters can't be pigeonholed by ideology. For instance, one in five self-described conservatives voted for Obama. One in 10 liberals voted for Republican John McCain.
And on a broad philosophical measure, 51 percent said government should do more to solve problems, the first time even a narrow majority said so since exit pollsters started asking the question in 1994. In a likely reaction to the global financial shock this fall, only 43 percent said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, down from 49 percent in 2004 and a high of 56 percent during the 1994 midterm elections.
National pre-election polls had presaged the change in partisanship, which is known to follow broader trends – in this case, the precipitous plunge in President Bush's job approval ratings, the economic crisis and other factors after the GOP controlled the White House for eight years.
With huge samples – nearly 18,000 voters this year – sampling error on the national exit polls is plus or minus just 1 percentage point.
What if it had been Clinton?
There's no way to be sure, but she might have won by even more than Obama did.
Voters in the Obama-McCain race said they would have preferred Hillary Rodham Clinton over McCain by 51 percent to 41 percent, a larger margin than Obama's 53-46 win.
Among the differences: Women say they would have backed Clinton over McCain by 18 percentage points, bigger than Obama's 12-point advantage with them. Whites favored McCain over Obama by 12 points but leaned toward the Republican by a narrower 5 points against Clinton. Eighty-six percent of blacks would have backed Clinton – solid, but shy of the 95 percent who supported Obama. Clinton almost matched the two-thirds of people under age 30 who voted for Obama, but nearly one in 10 of them said they wouldn't have bothered voting at all.
Do Obama and McCain supporters live in parallel universes? Not quite, but here are some differences between them:
Nearly a quarter of Obama's voters were under age 30, almost double the share of McCain's.
Ninety percent of McCain's voters and 61 percent of Obama's were white.
A quarter of Obama's backers and 1 percent of McCain's were black.
Half of McCain's voters attend religious services weekly or more, compared with a third of Obama's.
Almost six in 10 of Obama's voters are in worse financial shape than four years ago, double the number of McCain's.
About six in 10 of McCain's voters have a gun in their household, twice the rate of Obama's.
On the issues
How Obama's coalition views some top issues, and how their opinions differed from McCain's:
Six in 10 of Obama's voters are very worried about the economy's direction, compared with four in 10 of McCain's.
Three-quarters of Obama's voters worry about affording health care, while fewer than six in 10 of McCain's do.
Nine in 10 of Obama's voters oppose the Iraq war, as do three in 10 of McCain's.
Nearly all McCain's backers favor drilling for oil off U.S. shores, while Obama's are split about evenly.
Six in 10 of Obama's voters think race relations will improve in the next few years, double the number of McCain's who say so.