Sunday, October 12, 2008



October 11 2008

In Summary

Amid a steady surge in opinion polls, Obama is pushing McCain out of some key states

The considerable interest in the US presidential election around the world may partly reflect just its entertainment value.

But it is also true that however much of its “single superpower” status America has lost since the early 1990s (and this even before the current financial crisis that serves in part to confirm this), the outcomes of such elections have major global implications.

Indeed, some (such as Emmanuel Todd, in After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order) have argued that it is the very decline of the US’ economic might, in large part a result of its energy dependence, rampant consumerism and the resultant burgeoning indebtedness, financed primarily by foreigners, that promotes ultimately futile military adventurism, designed more to show fire-power “hardware” than to rationally address threats to the US national security.

But whatever one’s view of the evolving US position in the world, the importance of its national leadership to people outside its own borders is obvious, and has been, at least since World War II.

And with one of the two major candidates in this year’s election having Kenyan roots, the heightened interest here and indeed in much of the rest of the world, even outside Africa, is to be expected.

Over such roots, however, it is misleading to describe Barack Obama as an African-American, as his wife Michelle for example, should be.

More accurate, perhaps would be “American-African”, at least in terms of his origin, since being a “point 5” (in local parlance), he is at least genetically much more of a “mixture” than are African-Americans, as the term is generally used.

Yet especially given the fact that his father featured so briefly/distantly in his actual upbringing, he may be viewed, especially by many African-Americans, with some disdain as far more “white” than a 50-50 mixture.

In this sense, too, it is suggested that while certainly being the first major presidential candidate of colour, his rather unique mixed identity actually constitutes much less of a barrier to high office than to those in his wife’s racial category, which is a sad commentary on American race relations, even after all the recent progress.

But the unusual, if not rather unique, aspects of this election go beyond Obama’s DNA.

For each of the candidates are outsiders in a number of other ways.

Having yet to complete his first term in the US Senate and having had no previous executive experience, besides having been trounced in an earlier election for one of Illinois’ seats in the House of Representatives by over 30 per cent while serving in the Senate of that state, one wonders just how Obama was able to even get close to capturing the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

As The Economist noted recently, Obama “has the thinnest resume of any (presidential) nominee in living memory.”

The same bewilderment may be applied to John McCain’s success in getting himself onto the Republican ticket.

After all, here is a long-serving senator who some years ago considered becoming a Democrat, an option that seems less bizarre when one examines the ranking he earned a few years ago from the conservative National Journal.

Among some 50 Republican senators, he ranked 46th in terms of backing his own party’s position on legislative initiatives. Such a ranking fits in with his “maverick” reputation generally.

For example, when Bob Dole was running for president in 1988, his campaign staff is said to have suffered near-nervous break-downs whenever McCain accompanied him as he could make statements to the Press that were completely at odds with the Dole/Republican party policy.

Said one aide: “We didn’t even want him on the airplane with Dole…”Within Republican circles, McCain claims that his voting record proves he was a “foot solider in the (President Ronald) Reagan revolution.”

But when asked if McCain “could be trusted as a conservative”, fellow Republican, Utah Senator Robert Bennett, coyly replied: “I’m going to dodge that question.”

Thus, even if his lifetime voting rating by the American Conservative magazine is 82 per cent, it dropped to 65 per cent in 2006 when five other Republican senators had a perfect score — 100 per cent.

For example, even while he has backed conservative positions on gun control and abortion, he opposed the massive 2001 Bush tax cuts, being one of only two Republican senators to do so, arguing that they would, as indeed they did, produce huge federal budget deficits, and gave disproportionate benefits to the wealthy.

Later, he earned the wrath of many fellow Republicans for jointly supporting an Immigration Bill with Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy that would have granted amnesty to the current illegal immigrants. Opposed by President Bush, it was eventually defeated.

Some would also consider his age, at 72 the oldest presidential candidate in history, an aspect of his “outsider” status. Obama, while at 47 not by any means the youngest to have sought the presidency, is certainly on the junior side of the ledger in this regard.

The US constitution requires that one be at least 35; there is no upper age limit.

So what explains how these two outsiders and mavericks managed to capture their party flags?

Among a number of complex factors, two quite different, if complementary, ones seem to have been especially salient.

One is more permanent and structural, and relates to the primary election process itself. The other stems from the current circumstances the US finds itself in, starting with the highly unpopular Bush presidency.

Regarding the primaries, a key factor is that participation is low, with turnout figures rarely reaching even half of those who vote in actual elections, but which was the case this time, the highest level since 1972.

They are also generally restricted to registered members of political parties, or at least require a pledge not to participate in the primary contest of any other party; the specific rule varies from state to state.

This means that a relatively small number of highly energised party activists, including newcomers associated with the campaigns of particular candidates, can have a major impact on the outcome.

And this is especially so given the psychological knock-on effect of “momentum” of those candidates who do well as the primary calendar plays itself out.

As was summarised by an article on the ABC News website a few months ago, “the question is whether the more organically grown game plans that carried Mr Obama to victory in Democratic primaries and caucuses can match the well oiled organisations Republicans have put together…”

Obama has moved in recent days to transform his primary organisation into a general election machine, hiring staff, sending organisers into important states and preparing a TV advertisement campaign to present his views and biography to millions of Americans who followed the primaries from a distance.”

Underlying these dynamics that link the parties’ nomination contests to the election itself is the fact that the American electorate has become increasingly fluid in recent decades, as cultural issues such as gun control, abortion, religion in schools and, earlier, the racially charged issue of affirmative action along with such global issues as terrorism and the appropriate use of military power abroad dilute some of the traditional dividing lines between Democrats and Republicans, starting with the role of government in the economy and addressing socio-economic inequality generally, with the former generally backing more and the latter less state intervention.

According to the Pew Research Centre, while more Americans now identify themselves more as Democrats than Republicans (36-27 per cent), an equally significant number (37 per cent) classify themselves as independents, though here, too, the Democrats have an edge, with 15 per cent saying they “lean towards the Democrats” and only 10 per cent say this about the Republicans, with another 12 per cent saying they lean in neither direction.

Note also that in 2004, these partisan figures were equal, and until that year there was a tie between those identifying themselves directly with the two parties.

Thus, while Democrats would seem to have a clear advantage in this election, independent voters nevertheless hold the key to the White House.

This leads to the second key factor in this election — the highly unpopular Bush leadership.

With his approval ratings around 30 per cent – the lowest ever recorded for a U.S. president – McCain is having to both distance himself from his party’s own incumbent to win over independents and non-Obama Democrats (by keeping any joint appearances with Bush off of his campaign schedule, for example), even as he seeks to ensure that all of Bush’s steadfast supporters mark their ballots for him on November 4.

Perplexing question

Yet this reality raises a perplexing question for the Obama campaign. Given Bush’s unpopularity – reflecting, among other factors, even before the Wall Street crash, rising unemployment and stagnant or falling wages, illusive progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, the massive rise in energy costs (even if this cannot be blamed entirely on Bush), a growing sense of US isolation in the world, and more general fatigue with Republican leadership in general after eight years, notwithstanding the Democrats’ success in capturing first the lower and then the upper house of Congress in the last two elections – it is striking just how narrow Obama’s lead is.

This suggests not only how many potential voters find it difficult to entrust the country’s well-being with such a newcomer in public life, but that even his poll ratings may be shakier than they appear.

Thus, even with just three weeks and just one final debate between the two contenders remaining, the outcome is still far from certain.

A more precise appraisal of this situation may be discerned by looking at the most recent polling results in a clutch of key states.

Together, these 10 states represent 117 electoral votes, just over 40 per cent of those needed to win (270).

As the McCain campaign team has already pulled out of Michigan, where Obama has a 7 per cent lead, it may be assumed they have effectively written off Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico as well, where the latter’s leads are even larger.

Most significantly, the fact that in defeating John Kerry four years ago, Bush won six of these states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio — and with Kerry ending up with just 252 electoral votes – suggests just how good Obama’s chances are, at least as of now.

Indeed, figures provided by Real Clear Politics indicate that if the current poll numbers hold, Obama should romp home with some 364 electoral votes.

But as already suggested, Obama’s current standing in the polls may be a bit misleading.

It is suggested that up to 3 per cent of his ratings could be false — an expression of support to the pollsters by those who want to look liberal while being interviewed, even when done so anonymously over the telephone, but who at the moment of voting will find themselves unable to elect a non-white.

In addition, such expressed voting intentions may capture antipathy to the status quo as represented by Bush and, by extension, McCain simply because he represents the same political party.

But again, at the moment of truth, many of these people will simply not be willing to entrust the country’s national security to such a novice, especially in terms of his minimal national security credentials.
In the meantime, however, Obama has achieved phenomenal success in one critical area — fund-raising.

Having rejected public funding, he has avoided restrictions that would have put him at a clear disadvantage compared to McCain’s generally much wealthier contributors.

In the event, Obama has raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, even with the average donation being just $60 (Sh4,000).

In addition, there is the critical factor of voter turnout. Americans are notorious among advanced countries for failing to vote in national elections.

Although this figure reached 56 per cent in 2004 , it has hovered close to the 50 per cent mark in previous contests, with only about 70 per cent of those eligible to vote bothering to register in the first place.

Historically, this factor has been a clear advantage for the Republicans, since better educated, more affluent people both feel more empowered and have the means (vehicles, time, information) to enable them to vote, whether, increasingly by absentee ballot or at polling stations on the election day.

In the 2004 election, for example, while only 43 per cent of those in the lowest economic quintile voted, 77 per cent of those in the richest did so.

Efforts by the Obama campaign machine, targeting especially first-time, younger white voters who have been critical to his campaign success so far, and African-Americans whose turnout rates – largely a reflection of their relative poverty compared to whites, now that intimidation and victimisation to discourage them from doing so is much less common — have also been low, will thus also be critical to the actual outcome.

Taking all these factors into account, the question is, assuming no major event occurs before the election, if these possible disadvantages for Obama will be of such magnitude as to shoe-horn McCain into the White House.

With only one debate remaining and with Obama having had a slight poll boost after each of the first two and with the vast majority of voters having by now made up their minds, the McCain team may resort to much more negative tactics than have been employed so far.

How Obama reacts to any such attacks, rather than their actual content, may then determine whatever impact they have.

Aside from the cards played by the candidates themselves, any credible security threat to the US, let alone an actual attack, would undoubtedly play greatly to McCain’s favour, given his own heroic military background and apparent greater willingness to employ this type of “hard” power to pursue America’s global objectives.

Why anyone would actually want to be president of the US at this particular point is another question.
Many issues confront him.

They include the collapse of the financial markets, the constraints of the budget deficit and the finely tuned policy remedies devised by think tanks and other experts.

Other challenges are job losses and declining real wages, burgeoning health care costs along with the proportion of those without medical insurance, energy shortage/dependence.

Also on the plate are the highly problematic Iraq and Afghanistan military campaigns, the stalled Middle East peace process, terrorism, global warming and other environmental threats, drug trafficking and other crimes as well as the looming bankruptcy of the social security retirement kitty, among other issues.

Thus, and even without considering McCain’s age, whoever wins this election should not count on much of a chance for a second four-year term.

But even four years’ sitting in the chair of the most powerful office in the world can be a very long time. So the interest that Kenyans – and many others – have shown in this riveting contest is far from misplaced.