Digging into the 2008 Exit Polls
by Ruy Teixeira
The 2008 exit polls are full of fascinating data and I'll be delving into them for months to come (especially once the NEP archives the data and I can conduct my own analyses on the raw data). But even a basic analysis of the publicly available data yields some very interesting findings, which I outline below.
1. First, a few words on how well the Democrats did with the white working class (WWC). They lost these voters by 18 points, a significant improvement over 2004 when they lost them by 23 points, but somewhat worse than I thought they'd do based on preelection polls. In my paper with Alan Abramowitz, The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class, we allowed as how Democrats needed to get the WWC deficit into the 10-12 point range to be assured of a solid victory. As it turned out, they were able to achieve a solid victory even with a higher deficit than 10-12 points. This is because the simulations we were working with made pretty conservate assumptions about white college graduate support for Democrats and about minority turnout and support for Democrats. As it turned out, minority turnout and support were through the roof and white college graduates also exceeded our conservative assumptions. So an 18 point WWC deficit was in the end adequate for a solid victory, rather than a squeaker as I thought. And a 10-12 point deficit would have translated into a true landslide.
But Obama did not attain that. His WWC deficit was very similar to Gore's (18 vs. 17 points). It's also interesting to compare Dukakis' performance in 1988 among WWC and white college graduates to this year's performance. In 1988, the Democratic deficit among these two groups was identical: 20 points. This year's WWC deficit is only a slight improvement (down 2 points) but the white college graduate deficit was just 4 points, a 16 point Democratic swing since 1988.
The stubbornly high deficit for Dems among WWC is mitigated by the fact that there are now far fewer of them in the voting pool. According to the exits, the proportion of WWC voters is down 15 points since 1988, while the proportion of white college graduate voters is up 4 points and the proportion of minority voters is up 11 points.
A final note on Dems' overall performance this year among WWC voters. The Dems did manage a fairly solid 7 point improvement in their deficit among whites with some college, the more affluent, upwardly mobile and aspirational part of the WWC. But they only managed a 3 point improvement among the less educarted segment, those with only a high school diploma or less. So that held down their overall performance among the WWC.
2. On the state level, Obama did stunningly well among WWC voters in four of the five highly competitive states they won in 2000 and 2004 (MI, MN, OR and WI). The average WWC deficit for Kerry in these states in 2004 was 8 points. In 2008, Obama had an average advantage in these states of 6 points, a pro-Democratic swing of 14 points. In PA, however, the other highly competitive state the Democrats won in 2000 and 2004, Obama did worse than Kerry, losing the WWC by 15 points as opposed to Kerry's 10 point deficit. But college educated whites in PA swung Obama's way by 17 points, turning a 12 point '04 deficit into a 5 point '08 advantage. (Note: data on PA in this paragraph corrected from initial posting.)
3. In the highly competitive states the Democrats lost in both 2000 and 2004 (FL, MO, NV and OH), the general pattern was different. In 2004, the average Democratic WWC deficit in these states was 13 points; in 2008, the average deficit was actually slightly worse (14 points). But Obama made progress in other ways. Among white college graduates, the Democrats' improved their average margin by 9 points. And minority support went up substantially and in some cases spectacularly.
In Ohio, the minority share of voters rose from 14 to 17 percent and black voters supported Obama by a stunning 95 point margin (97 percent to 2 percent), compared to Kerry's 68 point margin (84-16). In Nevada, the minority share of voters rose by a full 8 points, from 23 to 31 percent of voters, with 95-4 black support for Obama (up from 86-13 in 2004) and 76-22 Hispanic support (up from 60-39 in '04). And in Florida, while the minority share of voters did not increase, blacks supported Obama by 96-4 compared to 86-13 support for Kerry, while Hispanics, whom Kerry lost by 56-43, supported Obama by 57-42. The latter is truly a sign of change in Florida as Hispanic voters, spearheaded by relatively conservative Cuban-Americans, have long been a key segment of the GOP coalition in that state.
4. Some of the state minority figures are mentioned above. Overall, the minority share of voters in the national exit poll rose from 23 percent in 2004 to 26 percent this year. The share of black voters rose from 11 to 13 percent (hugely impressive for a group whose share of the overall population is growing very slowly) and the share of Hispanic voters rose from 8 to 9 percent. And blacks voted 95-4 for Obama (up from 88-11 in 2004), while Hispanics voted 67-31 for Obama, a 36 point margin that is double Kerry's margin in 2004. So much for the idea that racial frictions between Hispanics and blacks would prevent Hispanics from giving Obama whole-hearted support. Finally, Asians supported Obama by 62-35, up from 56-44 for Kerry in 2004.
The overall minority vote was an impressive 80-18 for Obama, a 62 point margin. In 2004, minorities gave Kerry a significantly smaller 44 point margin (71-27).
5. Women voted 56-43 overall for Obama. Even married women with children, traditionally a difficult group for Democrats, supported Obama by 52-47. Single women voted Democratic by 70-29, up from 62-37 in 2004. And working women, who voted Democratic by a slender 51-48 margin in 2004, voted Democratic this time by an impressive 60-39 margin.
6. The march of professionals toward the Democratic party continued. Using those with a postgraduate education as a proxy for this group (the exit polls have no occupation question), Obama received 58-40 support. That figure includes 54-44 support among white postgraduates.
7. The youth vote of course was huge for Obama. This is the first year the 18-29 year old age group was drawn exclusively from the millennial generation (those born 1978 or later) and they gave Obama a whopping 34 point margin, 66-32. This compares to only a 9 point margin for Kerry in 2004. The youth share of voters also increased from 17 to 18 percent across the two elections.
8. Turning to religion, data from the exit polls suggest that attempts to inflame culture wars issues in the 2008 election campaign were not successful. Democrats gained support throughout the religious spectrum, with some of their largest gains among the most observant.
Consider first the vote broken down by how often people attend religious services. Famously in US politics over the last couple of decades there has been a strong relationship between how often you attend services and how you vote, with those who attend most frequently being much more conservative than those who attend least often. This relationship did not go away this year but it did become less strong.
For example, Obama ran the same relatively modest 12 point deficit among those who attend services more than once a week as he did among those who attend weekly. In fact, Obama’s 17 point improvement from a 35-64 Democratic deficit among the most frequent attenders in 2004 to a 43-55 deficit this election day was his largest improvement among the different attendance groups in 2008. He also improved the Democratic margin by 8 points among those who attend a few times a month, by 10 points among those who attend a few times a year and by 11 points among those who never attend.
In terms of religious affiliation, Obama improved the Democratic margin among Catholics by 14 points, from a 5 deficit in 2004 to a 9 point advantage in 2008. He also reduced the Democratic deficit among Protestant/other Christian voters by 10 points, compressing it from 19 to 9 points. And he carried Jewish, other religion and unaffiliated voters by astronomical margins: 78-21, 73-22 and 75-23, respectively.
Obama even managed to reduce conservative support among white evangelicals. In 2004, these voters supported Bush by 57 points; this year they supported McCain by 50 points.
None of this suggests that divisions by religion and religious observance are disappearing from our politics. But they do appear to be softening, as voters across the religious spectrum, including some of the most observant, saw much more to like in the Democratic approach this year.