For Obama, doing the converse—widening the margin, running up the score—is more than a matter of political pride. The scale of his victory will determine the size and scope of the mandate that he can legitimately claim. If Obama racks up the totals currently projected by FiveThirtyEight’s resident numbers guru, Nate Silver, his Election Night tally will be impressive indeed: 52.2 percent of the popular vote (making him the first Democrat to break 50 since Jimmy Carter) and 354 electoral votes (a modest landslide). But equally critical in terms of governing will be another metric: the length of Obama’s coattails when it comes to the House and Senate.
Nobody understands this better than Obama—and so he has been applying ample pressure on the relevant players. “Obama has said to me, ‘If you guys don’t pick up a significant number of seats, it will be far more difficult for me to accomplish the kind of change America needs,’ ” Chuck Schumer tells me. “And he’s right. If we don’t, he would probably have to limit his proposals, let alone what he could reasonably expect to pass.”
For the second election cycle in a row, Schumer is at the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Two years ago, he was widely credited for the party’s success in recapturing control of the upper chamber. Today, his eyes are firmly fixed on a grander prize: picking up the nine seats that Democrats would need to get them to 60, a filibusterproof majority.
On a recent Sunday, I drove out with Schumer to the annual bivalve festival in Oyster Bay, where I watched him both schmooze the crowd and chomp on an ear of corn with equally obscene gusto. When I asked him to rate his party’s prospects of reaching the magic number, Schumer cited—what else?—FiveThirtyEight: “They said there’s an over 50 percent chance that we pick up seven seats, 40 percent that we pick up eight, and 30 that we pick up nine, and that’s probably about accurate.”
“A lot of people around Barack are reading books about FDR’s first hundred days,” says a member of Obama’s kitchen cabinet.
Though 60 is Schumer’s holy grail, he contended that getting to 58 or 59 would be almost as good. “Every seat in the Senate makes a difference,” he said. “On an issue like taxes where the Republicans are all locked in together, like the Bush tax cuts, you might need 60. But on an issue where you can pick off one or two, like the Iraq war, you don’t. There are a large number, fifteen or twenty, of what I call traditional conservatives: John Warner, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dick Lugar, Johnny Isakson, Bob Corker. I think they went along with the hard right for the past eight years grudgingly, because they felt the hard right had the upper hand. But if we get to 57, 58, 59, they’re going to smell the coffee. They’re going to be more pliable than before, more open to our arguments.”
On the House side, Rahm Emanuel radiates a similar brio about the Democrats’ outlook for November. Emanuel ran the party’s Congressional Campaign Committee for 2006, and although he’s graduated to chairman of the caucus, he remains neck-deep in data concerning competitive House contests. “North of 20 and less than 30,” is how Emanuel answers when I ask how many seats he expects his side to gain. “Yesterday I would have said 22, today I’m at 26. The way things are going, I need to keep opening up a bigger band.”
If Emanuel and Schumer are right in their estimations of what’s likely to play out on Election Day, the Democrats will enjoy commanding majorities in the next Congress. So commanding that the temptation will be nearly overwhelming in some quarters to declare 2008 a realigning election: the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the start of the Obama epoch.
It’s worth pointing out that the postulated Democratic numbers for 2009–11—57 to 59 seats in the Senate, 253 to 263 in the House—aren’t all that different from those that obtained in the doomstruck 1993–95 session. Yet Schumer argues that, for all of Clinton’s promise, no one seriously considered 1992 a “tectonic-plate-shifting election” like 1980 and 1932. “Even though Democrats controlled Congress and Clinton was in the White House, we were playing on the playing field created by Reagan,” he says. But now those plates have shifted again, thanks largely to the electorate’s revulsion at what went on from 2000 to 2006. “As Clinton pointed out at the convention, that was the first time in 50 years the Republican Party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House. And when they got to do what they really wanted to do … whoa.”
Schumer is undoubtedly correct that 2008 is shaping up to be a case-closed repudiation of latter-day Republicanism—a point that few sane conservatives would bother to dispute. But whether the triumph of Obama and beefed-up Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will constitute a realignment is impossible to say at present. The reason is simple: What happens at the ballot box is just the first step toward building a stable, lasting majority. As Democratic Leadership Council president Bruce Reed puts it, “The battle for realignment starts the day after the election.”