Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Sojourner

from nytimes.com

August 5, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Where’s the Landslide?

Why isn’t Barack Obama doing better? Why, after all that has happened, does he have only a slim two- or three-point lead over John McCain, according to an average of the recent polls? Why is he basically tied with his opponent when his party is so far ahead?

His age probably has something to do with it. So does his race. But the polls and focus groups suggest that people aren’t dismissive of Obama or hostile to him. Instead, they’re wary and uncertain.

And the root of it is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner. He opened his book “Dreams From My Father” with a quotation from Chronicles: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.

Last week Jodi Kantor of The Times described Obama’s 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School. “The young law professor stood apart in too many ways to count,” Kantor wrote.
He was a popular and charismatic professor, but he rarely took part in faculty conversations or discussions about the future of the institution. He had a supple grasp of legal ideas, but he never committed those ideas to paper by publishing a piece of scholarship.

He was in the law school, but not of it.

This has been a consistent pattern throughout his odyssey. His childhood was a peripatetic journey through Kansas, Indonesia, Hawaii and beyond. He absorbed things from those diverse places but was not fully of them.

His college years were spent on both coasts. He was a community organizer for three years but left before he could be truly effective. He became a state legislator, but he was in the Legislature, not of it. He had some accomplishments, but as Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker wrote, he was famously bored by the institution and used it as a stepping stone to higher things.

He was in Trinity United Church of Christ, but not of it, not sharing the liberation theology that energized Jeremiah Wright Jr. He is in the United States Senate, but not of it. He has not had the time nor the inclination to throw himself into Senate mores, or really get to know more than a handful of his colleagues. His Democratic supporters there speak of him fondly, but vaguely.
And so it goes. He is a liberal, but not fully liberal. He has sometimes opposed the Chicago political establishment, but is also part of it. He spoke at a rally against the Iraq war, while distancing himself from many antiwar activists.

This ability to stand apart accounts for his fantastic powers of observation, and his skills as a writer and thinker. It means that people on almost all sides of any issue can see parts of themselves reflected in Obama’s eyes. But it does make him hard to place.

When we’re judging candidates (or friends), we don’t just judge the individuals but the milieus that produced them. We judge them by the connections that exist beyond choice and the ground where they will go home to be laid to rest. Andrew Jackson was a backwoodsman. John Kennedy had his clan. Ronald Reagan was forever associated with the small-town virtues of Dixon and Jimmy Carter with Plains.

It is hard to plant Obama. Both he and his opponent have written coming-of-age tales about their fathers, but they are different in important ways. McCain’s “Faith of My Fathers” is a story of a prodigal son. It is about an immature boy who suffers and discovers his place in the long line of warriors that produced him. Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” is a journey forward, about a man who took the disparate parts of his past and constructed an identity of his own.
If you grew up in the 1950s, you were inclined to regard your identity as something you were born with. If you grew up in the 1970s, you were more likely to regard your identity as something you created.

If Obama is fully a member of any club — and perhaps he isn’t — it is the club of smart post-boomer meritocrats. We now have a cohort of rising leaders, Obama’s age and younger, who climbed quickly through elite schools and now ascend from job to job. They are conscientious and idealistic while also being coldly clever and self-aware. It’s not clear what the rest of America makes of them.

So, cautiously, the country watches. This should be a Democratic wipeout. But voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place.

from merriam-webster.com
One entry found.
sojourn[2,intransitive verb]
Main Entry:
to sojourn
intransitive verb
Middle English, from Anglo-French sujurner, sejurner, from Vulgar Latin *subdiurnare, from Latin sub under, during + Late Latin diurnum day — more at up, journey
14th century
: to stay as a temporary resident

The "Dubya" Effect

from nytimes.com

August 5, 2008
G.O.P. Drops in Voting Rolls in Many States

Well before Senators Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the top of their parties, a partisan shift was under way at the local and state level. For more than three years starting in 2005, there has been a reduction in the number of voters who register with the Republican Party and a rise among voters who affiliate with Democrats and, almost as often, with no party at all.

While the implications of the changing landscape for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are far from clear, voting experts say the registration numbers may signal the beginning of a move away from Republicans that could affect local, state and national politics over several election cycles. Already, there has been a sharp reversal for Republicans in many statehouses and governors’ mansions.

In several states, including the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Iowa, Democrats have surprised their own party officials with significant gains in registration. In both of those states, there are now more registered Democrats than Republicans, a flip from 2004. No states have switched to the Republicans over the same period, according to data from 26 of the 29 states in which voters register by party. (Three of the states did not have complete data.)

In six states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the Democratic piece of the registration pie grew more than three percentage points, while the Republican share declined. In only three states — Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma — did Republican registration rise while Democratic registration fell, but the Republican increase was less than a percentage point in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Louisiana was the only state to register a gain of more than one percentage point for Republicans as Democratic numbers declined.

Over the same period, the share of the electorate that registers as independent has grown at a faster rate than Republicans or Democrats in 12 states. The rise has been so significant that in states like Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, nonpartisan voters essentially constitute a third party.

Swings in party registration are not uncommon from one year to the next, or even over two years. Registration, moreover, often has no impact on how people actually vote, and people sometimes switch registration to vote in a primary, then flip again come Election Day.

But for a shift away from one party to sustain itself — the current registration trend is now in its fourth year — is remarkable, researchers who study voting patterns say. And though comparable data are not available for the 21 states where voters do not register by party, there is evidence that an increasing number of voters in those states are also moving away from the Republican Party based on the results of recent state and Congressional elections, the researchers said.

“This is very suggestive that there is a fundamental change going on in the electorate,” said Michael P. McDonald, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor of political science at George Mason University who has studied voting patterns.
Mr. McDonald added that, more typically, voting and registration patterns tended to even out or revert to the opposing party between elections.

Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and one of the designers of the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, said: “Obviously, these are not good numbers for the party to be looking at. Democrats have always had extremely broad multifaceted registration programs.”
But in terms of the presidential election, Mr. Armey said the tea leaves were harder to read.
“I think the key in this one is, where do all these new independent voters break?” he said. “I think right now, you’ve got a guy in western Pennsylvania saying, ‘I am really disgusted right now and I’m not going to register as a Republican anymore, but I really don’t want this guy Obama elected.’ ”

Those in charge of state Democratic parties cite a national displeasure with the Bush administration as an impetus for the changing numbers, which run counter to a goal of Karl Rove, President Bush’s former top adviser, to create a permanent realignment in favor of Republicans.

“I think nationally and here, people are kind of tired of the way this administration has been conducting the policies of this country,” said Pat Waak, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Yet while an unpopular war, a faltering economy and a president held in low esteem have combined to hurt the Republican Party, Democrats are also benefiting from demographic changes, including the rise in the number of younger voters and the urbanization of suburbs, which has resulted in a different political flavor there, voting and campaign experts said. The party has also been helped by a willingness to run more pragmatic candidates, who have helped make the party more appealing to a broader swath of the electorate.

Among the 26 states with registration data, the percentage of those who have signed on with Democrats has risen in 15 states since 2004, and the percentage for Republicans has risen in six, according to state data. The number of registered Democrats fell in 11 states, compared with 20 states where Republican registration numbers fell.

In the 26 states and the District of Columbia where registration data were available, the total number of registered Democrats increased by 214,656, while the number of Republicans fell by 1,407,971.

The unsettled political ground has manifested itself in state and local elections. Twenty-three state legislatures are controlled by Democrats and 14 by Republicans, with 12 states with divided chambers (Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature). After the 2000 election, 16 state legislatures were dominated by Democrats, and 17 by Republicans, with 16 divided.
It is a similar story in governors’ mansions. After the 2004 election, there were 28 Republican governors and 22 Democrats; those numbers are now reversed. After the 2000 election, there were only 19 Democratic governors.

Elected Democrats have made significant inroads even in places where Republicans have enjoyed a generation of dominance. In Colorado, for example, Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the Legislature for the first time in over four decades. Last year, Virginia Democrats gained a 21-to-19 majority over Republicans in the State Senate, the first time the party has controlled that body in a decade.

In New Hampshire, Democrats are in control of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 1874. In Iowa, Democrats have taken over the statehouse and the governor’s office simultaneously for the first time in a generation.

The changes in state government could have broad implications for Congressional redistricting and on policies like immigration, health care reform and environmental regulation, which are increasingly decided at the state level.

In many states, Democrats have benefited from a rise in younger potential voters, after declines or small increases in the number of those voters in the 1980s and ’90s. The population of 18- to 24-year-olds rose from about 27 million in 2000 to nearly 30 million in 2006, according to Census figures.

Mr. Obama’s candidacy has drawn many young people to register to vote, and some of the recent gains by Democrats have no doubt been influenced by excitement over his campaign. But even before Mr. Obama’s ascendancy among Democrats, younger voters were moving toward the Democratic Party, demographers said.

Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California, also noted that a younger, native-born generation of Latinos who have a tendency to support Democrats is coming of age.

Further, young Americans have migrated in recent years to high-growth states that have traditionally been dominated by Republicans, like Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, which may have had an impact on the changing registration numbers in those places.

The changing face of many American suburbs has also had in impact both in voter registration and voting patterns. In many major metropolitan areas, suburbs that were once largely white and Republican have become more mixed, as people living in cities have been priced out into surrounding areas, and exurban regions have absorbed those residents who once favored the close-in suburbs of cities.

“What we speculate is that density attracts Democrats,” said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech who has researched voting patterns. “It is not that people move to those areas and change positions. It tends now to be a self-selection of singles, childless couples,” who tend to vote Democrat more than their married with children counterparts.

In the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Democrats carried nearly 60 percent of the Congressional vote in 2006 in inner suburbs, up from about 53 percent in 2002, according to Mr. Lang’s research.

This trend is particularly evident in places like St. Louis, southern Pennsylvania and Fairfax County, Va., which President Bush won in 2000 but lost in 2004.

Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, who won her seat in 2006, picked up the large majority of voters in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas, and Senator Jim Webb, also a Democrat, won his seat in a similar manner in Virginia, which has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.

Democrats have also succeeded, at least in part, by running centrist candidates where they are most needed. Bill Ritter, the Democratic governor of Colorado and former district attorney of Denver, opposes abortion rights. Among the men who flipped three of Indiana’s eight Congressional seats in the midterm election in 2006, two also oppose both abortion rights and gun control.

What the demographers, political scientists and party officials wonder now is whether the shift of the last few years will be sustained.

“Major political realignment is not just controlling the branches of government,” said Mr. McDonald of the Brookings Institution. “It is when you decisively do it. We haven’t seen that in modern generations.”

Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting.