Obama’s Win Is Not Necessarily the Beginning of a Political Realignment

Polls show voters keep changing their minds.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog.

Beneath the numbers in political polls, which suggest a certain continuity of opinion, are millions of voters who keep changing their minds. This is the finding of a series of Associated PressYahoo polls as laid out in this Associated Press story. The APYahoo poll tracked some 2,000 adults periodically throughout the campaign—a panel back in the lingo of pollsters—starting in November 2007. Overall, 17 percent of those who ultimately voted for Obama said they were for McCain in at least one of the 10 tracking polls, while 11 percent of eventual McCain voters said they backed Obama. In other words, 14 percent of all voters switched from one candidate to the other over a period of 12 months. As the AP story concludes, "Election polls that showed only gradual shifts in support for Obama and McCain were masking a much more volatile electorate."

All of which is worth keeping in mind when you hear people predicting that Obama's election is the beginning of a lasting political realignment. That's possible. But it's far from inevitable. McCain, after all, was ahead during the first two weeks of September. Some may dismiss this as an ephemeral reaction to the two-party conventions and as a lead that could not be sustained. That may be right: We have no way of knowing for sure what would have happened in the absence of the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers September 15. But the APYahoo polls suggest that opinion was volatile and that in different circumstances the McCain lead might have endured. And that Obama's impressive 53 percent-46 percent lead should not be regarded as etched in stone. Voters this year, more than in 2000 or 2004, seemed to be willing to switch their votes in response to events. And it suggests that they may be willing to switch again—toward the Democrats or toward the Republicans—in the months and years ahead.