On Election Day, President Bush may pull off something progressives have been working to achieve for decades: usher in a sizable Democratic governing majority. With his disastrous foreign policy, mishandling of the economy, and legacy of cronyism, Democrats could make a clean sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress. Barack Obama deserves the victory he appears poised to achieve because he is the antithesis: a transformative leader promising to reach across the political abyss to tackle the sizable challenges that the Republicans have left behind.
But not every year will be like 2008. And not every Republican will be as inept as George W. Bush. As the 1950s advertising executives in Mad Men sometimes remind one another, "The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them."
So even if Bush's abysmal record in office makes this election an anomaly, subsequent elections will not be. And as we think about how to govern, we should remain focused on those who are most likely to shape elections to come.
Recently, the Democratic Leadership Council released a study identifying the core of voters who determine close elections. We found that white voters with a high school education—but no college degree—swung "an astonishing average of 6.7 percentage points between the elections that Democrats win and lose, respectively." In the midst of the economic crisis, they are likely to vote for Obama this year. But will they in years to come?
It all depends on how Obama governs. Tackling the big issues will require that he reach out beyond the Democratic base—as he has promised to do. To sustain the majority Democrats will most likely win on Election Day, he will need to appoint a cabinet that values merit over partisan affiliation, for example. To solidify the Democratic Party's hold on the swing voters that will put him on top, the solutions he offers—from the economic crisis to the effort to rebuild America's standing in the world—will need to set aside the special interests that see politics in Washington as a simple game of tug of war between two opposing camps.
So how can a new occupant of the White House keep focused on maintaining the new Democratic majority? By following the simple rule that over the years has meant the difference in Democrats'—and America's—success or failure: Never forget the forgotten middle class.
From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, successful presidents have understood that our country does well when the middle class does well. Presidents who do badly by the middle class don't last long.
The good news is the forgotten middle class—the swing voters who decide elections—aren't hard to find. This year, they're likely to break in surprising numbers for Obama.
Consider Obama's surprising success in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Virginia. If the latest polls in those states are right, Obama is making great strides in the epicenter of the forgotten middle class: Wal-Mart country.
According to an analysis of two recent elections, the list of counties in battleground states where voters are most likely to switch into the Democratic column tracks the list of counties where Wal-Mart is most saturated. Roughly half of the 468 counties that make up Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Virginia house at least one Wal-Mart. Those with the greatest saturation (the 120 counties with fewer than 20,000 residents per store) swung by an average of nearly 20 points from Clinton in 1996 to Bush in 2004. But the remainder—those counties where the ratio of Wal-Marts to residents is lower—swung by little more than half as much.
Shoppers flock to Wal-Mart in tough economic times. Democrats should continue to build a party that can say the same.
After years in the wilderness, watching as Republicans dug the nation a ditch and then kept on digging, Democrats have pent-up frustration and are ready to take the reins to begin correcting the Bush administration's mistakes.
But the test that should focus each governing decision from the first day of the next administration should be: In the long run, is this good for the forgotten middle class?
The best time to go after swing voters is when they're up for grabs. So spending the next four years building a coalition that reaches into the heart of Wal-Mart country will serve as the foundation for election victories to come.
Al From is founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.