Sure, Barack Obama won an impressive electoral victory, but the popular vote in many states was quite narrow, the margin overall was decisive but not overwhelming and, moreover, the House and Senate losses were modest by historical standards. It wasn’t 1980 or 1984, to be sure. Considering the incumbent president’s unpopularity and the economy, one might have expected far bigger margins.
On the downticket races, there are two theories. First, people got nervous about giving Obama all the marbles and ticket-split. Like crazy. In Minnesota, Norm Coleman essentially made up a 10% deficit at the top of the ticket. Second, the combined effect of gerrymandering and the big Democratic win in 2006 didn’t leave many easy House seats left for the Democrats to scoop up this time.
On the Presidential level, Obama expanded the map but didn’t obliterate it. Conservative strongholds remain in the deep South for the GOP and John McCain fought to hold on in some, but not all, Red States in the Rust Belt.
It is no consolation to Republicans who lost to say it could have been worse. But it really could have. This suggests that if the Republicans manage to get their act together, by recruiting better candidates and coming up with a competitive and distinctive message, they can get back in the game. That’s what Republicans did between 1976 and 1980 and between 1964 and 1968. And in each of those cases they were even further in the hole than they are now.