Just how durable is this electoral coalition that Barack Obama has put together? Will his army of young and first-time voters stay engaged, or will their interest wane as quickly as they change their Facebook status updates? And what about all those suburban and exurban voters who supported President Bush in 2004 but switched sides this time around?
Thanks to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to get an up-close and personal look at some of these Bush-Obama voters. The good news for Obama is that they're ready for him to turn the page. But the bad news is that they expect him to -- and if he does, it's still not clear they'll stick with him.
This focus group of 12 voters from the Northern Virginia suburbs is not exactly the kind of group Democrats target in a normal election. All but four supported Bush in 2004, and half of them voted for Republican Sen. George Allen in 2006. Yet all supported Obama this time around.
To be sure, almost all of them admitted to looking at other candidates during this election. And five of them said that their vote for Obama was as much as a vote against John McCain. (A quick note for those starting to handicap 2012: Almost every one of these ex-Bush voters cited Sarah Palin as the primary reason McCain lost their vote. If Palin decides to run four years from now, these suburban voters could be her biggest soft spot.)
Even so, there was an overall sense around the table that regardless of their overarching political views, Obama won them over with his message of hope and change.
More importantly, they don't just hope he will take that message with him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- they expect him to.
Fortunately for Obama -- and maybe even for House Democrats, who will face re-election in 2010 -- the Virginia converts don't believe everything's going to be fixed two years from now. After the last two presidential elections, it seemed that the losing party was anxiously awaiting the winner's failure. This time, based on what I saw this weekend, voters across the ideological spectrum want to see the new president succeed. Given the U.S.'s precarious economic situation, there's a sense among the electorate that Obama can't afford to fail.
Even if he does succeed, however, it's not a given that these voters will stick with him four years from now. In fact, he could easily lose them if he gives even the slightest hint that he's gone soft on his promise to change the way Washington works. These voters have personally invested a great deal in Obama. If he lapses into partisan gamesmanship, they will feel that the failure is theirs -- that they believed in something that just isn't going to happen. That's a lot of pressure for a first-term president to handle on top of the serious financial crisis he's already inherited.
It's also clear that the economic crisis shifted other topics that have been more important to these voters in the past, like Iraq or social issues, to the back burner. Will they stay there once the immediate crisis has been handled?
If Obama decides to govern in the same way that he appears to be setting up his Cabinet, with a heavy focus on centrism instead of ideology, he may be able to lessen the influence of the cultural wars on voters' electoral preferences. This isn't to say that the red/blue divide will go away, but for voters like the ones brought together on a frigid Saturday in November, it just might get a little more blurry.
As Virginia voters look to the race to succeed Gov. Tim Kaine (D) next year, one thing seems certain: Traditional lines of attack just aren't going to cut it. Voters understand that we are in a unique economic situation and expect it to get worse before it gets better. While they feel less pessimistic about the situation in Virginia than the nation as a whole, they still see cloudy skies in the commonwealth's economic future. As such, voters are expecting a level of discourse that fits the times, not one that's trapped in the same old liberal vs. conservative back-and-forth.
This, in the end, may be the one Obama electoral legacy that both sides embrace.