The potential for record numbers of voters in this year’s election reflects a level of public interest that may be unprecedented, said historian Richard Norton Smith. With a number of traditionally Republican states in play for either ticket and an almost-certain shift in the balance of power in the U.S. Congress, this year’s election is “a history in the making,” he said.
“This could be the end of a 40-year cycle of conservative domination of American politics,” said Norton Smith.
Black studies professor Peniel Joseph says this year’s public interest mirrors the excitement of past elections. With Sen. Barack Obama vying to be the country’s first black president and Gov. Sarah Palin aimed at the vice presidency, Joseph is reminded of other important firsts in American history, such as the election of John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960.
“Kennedy’s the first Irish-Catholic and the only Irish Catholic president in the history of the United States. People don’t remember, but there was really a prejudice against Catholics, and people thought if Kennedy became president, he’d be taking his marching orders from the Pope and the Vatican in Rome, so it’s very interesting and that was really an issue during the primary,” Joseph said.
Both Joseph and Norton Smith see shifts in former Republican strongholds such as Indiana and Georgia as reflective of an unexpected shift in political leanings.
“Indiana is really sort of the heartland of America — so for Obama to be in contention in Indiana and Indiana to be a kind of toss-up state - that’s very surprising,” Joseph said.
Norton Smith feels that while Democrats are expected to seize control of many formerly Republican seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, the electorate in conservative states will still control local politics.
“The fact is, if the Democrats pick up 20 or 25 or even 30 seats tonight, most of those, the overwhelming number of those, are going to be in red states, they’ll be on Republican turf,” Norton Smith said. “So one of the great ironies that has thus far escaped media attention is that a significantly more Democratic House of Representatives in particular might not be more automatically liberal, it might in fact be more diverse or more conservative at least in terms of the Democratic majority.”