Four More Years

So now we know. After one of the closest and hardest fought political campaigns in American history Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States. In the national popular vote, as the pollsters forecast, the two candidates were virtually neck and neck, with Obama narrowly ahead of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, by 50.1 percentage points to 48.4 points.

In the Electoral College it was a different story, with Obama leading Romney by 303 votes to 206, a margin that will rise to 332-206 if, as seems likely, Florida is also called for the President. This flattering margin of victory reflects the fact that, as most political pundits predicted, Obama carried almost all the key battleground states – Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia. Romney succeeded in recapturing just two states lost by John McCain in 2008 – Indiana and North Carolina. To add to a night of Republican woes Obama’s Democrats also retained control of the United States Senate by a margin of 51-44 seats with three results outstanding, in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota. The Grand Old Party did, however, as expected, retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives by a margin of 227-175 seats with 33 contests still in the balance.

In 2008 Obama’s victory was historic by virtue of the fact that he became the first African American to be elected as President of the United States. In 2012 his re-election will enter the record books for other reasons, making him the first incumbent in modern times to be re-elected with a national unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent. Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s has an occupant of the White House triumphed under such depressing economic conditions. Admittedly, Obama can claim things have got better, with unemployment down from the 9.9 per cent peak when he took office. Nonetheless, for the Republicans 2012 is likely to be seen as a year of wasted opportunity.

So why did things go wrong for the Republican campaign? Party diehards will cite the intervention of Hurricane Sandy. For two to three days in the closing weeks of the campaign the state of emergency that resulted in the wake of the super storm enabled Obama to showcase his qualities as a national leader, whilst Romney was marginalized in press and television coverage. There may be a degree of truth in this claim. At the same time Romney’s defeat can be attributed to other factors than the force of nature.

President Obama’s admiration for Abraham Lincoln is well known. In 1864 when Lincoln was running for re-election in the midst of the Civil War he famously advised his fellow Americans ‘not to change horses in midstream’. It may be that during the current economic crisis voters came to the same conclusion about Obama, deciding that it was better to stick with the President they know than risk the untested alternative offered by Romney.

The Republican also suffered from self-inflicted weaknesses. Despite his impressive performance in the first presidential debate Romney may be best remembered for a series of perceived gaffes during the course of the campaign. Remarks about the ‘binders’ of women he appointed to office as Governor of Massachusetts and the likelihood that 47 per cent of voters would always vote for Obama, because of their financial dependency on the federal government, may have alienated key groups of undecided voters. Earlier comments that the car industry in Detroit, Michigan, should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than receive a federal bailout also didn’t help.

The focus of attention on the presidential contest has distracted attention from arguably the most disappointing outcome of the evening for the Grand Old Party, its failure to regain control of the United States Senate. Again, Republican errors were at least partly to blame. In Indiana and Missouri controversial and offensive remarks by Republican challengers about women who were victims of rape contributed to electoral defeats in contests they might otherwise have won.

Perhaps the most worrying consideration for the Republican post-election inquest is the on-going impact of demographic change. Early exit polls suggest that although white Americans favored Romney the young, African Americans and Latino voters turned out in impressive numbers for Obama. It has long been recognized that over the course of the next two or three decades the United States will experience major demographic change as a result of the nation’s growing ethnic minority groups. By 2042, if not earlier, the Census Bureau has predicted that for the first time white Americans will no longer constitute a majority of the population. If the Republican Party cannot succeed in broadening its appeal it faces the long-term prospect of electoral oblivion.

But that is an issue for the future. For now what matters is that Obama has been re-elected as President. Despite the images of jubilant Democratic supporters his victory this time round has not been marked by the same sense of euphoria that prevailed in 2008. That is fitting, for major challenges lie ahead for the President during his second term of office. Abroad he faces the problems of an on-going conflict in Afghanistan, continuing political instability in the Middle East and the economic and political impact of the rise of China as a global power. At home unemployment remains stubbornly high and the national debt, now some $16 trillion, continues to rise. Tough decisions lie ahead and, if his first term of office is anything to go by, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives are unlikely to cooperate with the President in implementing his preferred solutions. Nonetheless, Obama can take comfort in one thought. ‘The problems of victory’, as Churchill once observed, are always ‘more agreeable than those of defeat’, albeit ‘no less difficult’.

All Over Bar the Counting?

As Americans head to the polls today the predictions from those who may know best, the bookmakers, make depressing reading for the Romney camp. Labrokes and William Hill rate Obama 5/1 on and 9/2 on respectively to be re-elected. How come when national opinion polls show a virtual dead heat on the final day of the campaign? The answer, of course, lies in those famous battleground states where the election will be decided – Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, and above all Ohio. Obama has had a small, but consistent, opinion poll lead in most of these states for weeks, if not months. Winning the national popular vote is not enough, as Al Gore discovered to his cost in 2000. What matters is stacking up votes in the electoral college, and in those terms the maths seem to favor Obama. Specifically, he would appear to be on target to win around 290 votes in the electoral college to 248 for Romney. Hence the optimism of the bookies about Obama’s prospects.

At the same time his Republican challenger still has some grounds for optimism. Most poll projections in the battleground states are close, well within the pollsters margins of error. Moreover, the polls don’t always get it right. In 1948 Democratic President Harry Truman stunned political pundits when he defeated Republican challenger Thomas Dewey after the polls had shown the latter to be well ahead. Some newspapers even saw the result as such a foregone conclusion that they went to press with ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ as the banner headline in their morning first editions.

How did those newspaper editors and the pollsters manage to get it so wrong? The answer lies in the fact that in the late 1940’s modern polling methods were still being developed. In those days pollsters favored the practice of ‘quota sampling’. Their staff on the ground were instructed to select and question a number of voters and then regularly re-interview them over several months to monitor any changes in their political allegiances. Sounds fine in theory, but it didn’t work out that way in practice. Faced with the prospect of regularly interviewing prospective voters in their homes over a long period polling staff included a disproportionate number of householders in pleasant leafy suburbs at the expense of other voters. The problem was that this favored group was also more likely to vote Republican than the rest of the nation, leading to skewed poll findings. Today, of course, pollsters would argue that their sampling methods are more sophisticated. At the same time, on election night in 2000 some TV Networks still initially called Florida for Al Gore, only to later change their prediction to George W. Bush, and then again to ‘too close to call’.

Another potential problem with opinion polls is that the voters questioned may not always give pollsters an honest answer. In the 1980s this possibility was dramatically highlighted by the so-called ‘Bradley Wilder’ effect. In 1982 Democrat Tom Bradley lost the election for Governor of California despite having large opinion poll leads in the closing weeks of the campaign. In 1989 another Democrat, L. Douglas Wilder, was elected Governor of Virginia by a margin of less than 0.5 per cent of the vote when opinion polls had put him ahead by as much as 15 percentage points. Bradley and Wilder were both African Americans. This led to some commentators advancing the theory that when questioned by pollsters a significant number of white voters falsely claimed to support African American candidates to demonstrate their enlightened views on race. In the privacy of the polling booth they then voted for other candidates. Today, many political pundits argue that this explanation of voter behavior is no longer valid – if it ever was. But one thing is for sure. If opinion polls in the battleground states have overestimated support for Obama by as little as 2-3 percentage points – let alone 15 percentage points – then the bookmakers will rue the day they made such bold forecasts.

If the pollsters do after all prove to be correct when the votes are counted in the early hours of tomorrow morning there is still one source of comfort for the Romney team. The bookmakers already have him as favorite to be elected as President in 2016.

Obama, Sandy and Chris

There seems to be a general consensus in the media that Hurricane Sandy has provided a much needed boost to the Obama campaign. The state of emergency created by Sandy in states along the northeastern seaboard has enabled the president to demonstrate his abilities as leader of the nation. In contrast to George W. Bush’s less than impressive response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 Obama has by all accounts risen to the challenge. Even the staunch Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has gone on record, several times, as praising the President for his handling of the crisis. In 2008 the famous Obama ‘cool’ was a major asset. One of the President’s difficulties this time round has been that his emotional detachment has, at times, comes across as cold rather than cool, most notably during the first Presidential debate. During a state of emergency however, a calm demeanor is perhaps more of an asset – the sign of a true leader.

And what of Mitt Romney? Marginalized in the immediate aftermath of Sandy his campaign lost momentum for two or three days. In what looks set to be one of the closest elections in living memory that could make the difference between success and failure.

Hurricane Sandy may also have helped the President in a less obvious way. Ever since the 2008 campaign leading Republican critics of Obama have sought to promote the idea that he is somehow, ‘not one of us’. In short, that worst of all things, at least for an aspiring politician – ‘Un-American’. Such attacks have taken a variety of forms. During the 2008 campaign Sarah Palin repeatedly highlighted Obama’s links to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers. The then would be President was ‘not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America’, she claimed. He was someone who saw America as so flawed that ‘he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country’. The fact that by then Ayers was a reformed character whose crimes were committed in the distant past – when Obama was only eight years old – didn’t matter.

Another charge that has plagued the President during his term of office has been the claim that he was not really born in the United States of America, and thus under the U.S. Constitution not eligible to hold the nation’s highest political office. For proponents of this so called ‘Birther’ movement, like Donald Trump, even the fact that Obama has produced a copy of his birth certificate still seems insufficient to fully allay their misgivings.

Other supposed Un-American traits of the President include the claim that he is really a Muslim, a view supported by 32 per cent of respondents in an August 2010 CNN opinion poll. Another line of attack is the claim that Obama has totalitarian political views. In the same CNN poll 40 per cent of respondents thus claimed that Obama was a Socialist, whilst 20 per cent believed that he was ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did’. The President has also been labelled unpatriotic for his refusal to wear a stars and stripes lapel badge and for not giving a hand on heart salute during the playing of the national anthem.

More recently the President’s culinary tastes have also been subjected to scrutiny. In April-May 2012 Mitt Romney was criticized by animal lovers for a news story that he had once made a 1,200 mile car journey with his family’s pet dog strapped in a basket on the roof of the vehicle. Adopting attack as the best form of defense the Republican challenger responded by saying that at least he didn’t eat the unfortunate animal. An implicit rebuke of the President, this sought to exploit the admission in Obama’s autobiography that as a child in Indonesia he had been introduced to ‘dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher) and roasted grasshopper (crunchy)’. Such exotic dinner table delights were clearly far removed from traditional all American favorites like burgers, pot-roast or the Thanksgiving Turkey.

What has all this got to do with Hurricane Sandy? Well, apart from highlighting the President’s leadership qualities the resulting crisis also allowed him to demonstrate his patriotism. When articulating his support and concern for fellow Americans who has suffered as a result of the natural disaster the notion that he was not ‘one of us’ seemed a bit less credible. Maybe not for die-hard Republicans. but perhaps in the minds of some of those key undecided voters in electoral battleground states like Ohio and Florida.

If Obama is re-elected and Sandy is seen by political commentators as being a factor in his success there is, however, one group of the President’s critics who may find a kind of grim satisfaction in the outcome. The 14 per cent of respondents in the CNN poll who claimed that Obama ‘may be the anti-Christ’ might well believe that Sandy was less a freak act of nature than proof positive that they were right in their suspicions all along.

Obama and Lincoln

Back in 2008 Barack Obama went to great lengths to compare his bid for the presidency with that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The comparison became so commonplace that campaign memorabilia included the sale of pictures and tee shirts with photos of the two men morphed into one image. For his inauguration lunch in January 2009 Obama chose the same menu as that selected by Lincoln almost 150 years earlier.

How can one explain the President’s fascination with his Republican predecessor? Well, the fact that Lincoln was a Republican is one factor. Identifying with a venerated historical figure from the opposing party can be seen as a shrewd move. It reinforced Obama’s claim to favor a bipartisan political approach, projecting himself as a candidate for all Americans. Associating himself with a great statesman of the past also enhanced Obama’s own image.
At the same time it made it difficult for present day Republican opponents to question Obama’s praise for Lincoln without appearing to attack one of the most venerated figures in their own party.

Obama was also fortunate in that there appeared to be at least some similarities between his own political career and that of Lincoln. Both men chose Illinois as their adopted home state and had limited political experience when they ran for the presidency. Both were elected at a time of unprecedented national trauma. In 1860 the Union was about to fall apart into Civil War whereas in 2008 Obama faced the worst economic crisis in living memory and not one, but two, unresolved foreign wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also seemed fitting for Obama, seeking to become the nation’s first African American president, to evoke the memory of Lincoln, the president who had initiated the abolition of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863.

Although Obama still periodically quotes Lincoln in his speeches the references to his distinguished predecessor have been notably more muted during the 2012 campaign. Why? After all, Lincoln’s advice to voters during his 1864 re-election campaign at the height of the Civil War, that they would be wise not to ‘change horses in mid-stream’ has a contemporary relevance for an Obama administration still fighting to reverse the U.S. economic crisis. Admittedly, Lincoln was assassinated within months of being re-elected, but surely a superstitious fear of history repeating itself cannot explain Obama’s reticence.

More considered explanations are more likely. In the first instance, although a hallowed historical icon Lincoln is also a controversial figure. During the Civil War he was accused by opponents of being dictatorial, and in parts of the South is even today reviled as a war
criminal. Obama has not quite suffered that fate, but he has been accused by Tea Party activists of being authoritarian and trying to impose his policies, most notably Obamacare, on the American people against their will.

Similarly, although Lincoln may have opposed slavery his views on race were not always enlightened. In 1858 he advised the voters of Illinois that he was not ‘nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races’. Moreover, there was ‘a physical difference’ between them that would ‘forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality’. Just in case his audience were in any doubt as to Lincoln’s own views he went on assure them that he, ‘as much as any other man’ was ‘in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race’. In fairness to Lincoln such opinions, shocking as they appear now, reflected the views of many, if not the majority, of white Americans of his own time. At the same time they make him a somewhat ambiguous figure to be cited by an African American president as a role model for Americans today.

There is of course one other consideration. Identifying with a great statesman of the past is a good way for an aspiring political leader to enhance their own image in the eyes of the electorate. Witness Ed Milliband’s recent praise for the ‘one nation’ philosophy of Benjamin
Disraeli at the Labour party conference. For a leader who has been in office for four years and seeking re-election the trick is harder to pull off. For good or ill, voters in the United States will judge Obama on his own record in office rather than that of an illustrious predecessor with whom he identifies.

Race and Class in the 2012 U.S. Elections

The 2008 Election

One of the most memorable images of election night on 4 November 2008 was of a tearful Jesse Jackson watching Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago. When Reverend Jackson gave a public lecture at Edge Hill the following month he was asked what had made him so overcome with emotion. He replied that it was because he had thought about all the sacrifices that had been made by earlier civil rights campaigners, like Asa Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, which had made Obama’s victory possible.

At the time many media commentators put forward similar views. Obama’s election was seen as the final vindication for the civil rights movement. The United States was now a truly post racial society, at least in terms of electoral politics. In the words of MSNBC host David Gregory, ‘the son of an African father, a Kenyan, and a white mother from Kansas, in a country that was stained by slavery, is now President of the United States. The ultimate color line has been crossed’.

Since then there have been a number of race related incidents that have cast doubt on this optimistic point of view. These are just a few:

  • February 2009: the New York Post published a cartoon of a chimpanzee signing the President’s economic stimulus package into law. It was widely criticized for being racially offensive and the paper was forced to issue an apology.
  •  July 2009: A dispute at the home of Henry Louis Gates attracted widespread media coverage. The prominent African American Professor was arrested by a white police officer sent to investigate a reported break in. President Obama initially criticized the conduct of the officer as ‘stupid’, but later withdrew the remark and both men were invited to the White House for a conciliatory drink.
  • September 2009: Former President Jimmy Carter claimed that opposition to the Obama administration’s health care reforms was motivated by racism.
  • November 2009: Google was forced to apologize for displaying a racist image of Michelle Obama which depicted her as a Chimpanzee.
  • July 2010: The United States Department of Agriculture fired an African American employee, Shirley Sherrod, after claims that she had made racially offensive remarks at a dinner hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was later re-hired and given a White House apology when it became clear that the allegations were unfounded.
  • February 2012: The shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Sanford, Florida, by a white neighbourhood watch member on patrol sparked a wave of protests. President Obama observed that if he had a son he would have looked like Trayvon.

The 2012 Campaign

In recent days Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has attracted a lot of criticism for his much publicized comments at a private fund raising dinner that 47 per cent of Americans pay no income tax and would never vote for him. Their dependence on federal government welfare programmes supported by the Obama administration meant that they would never support a Romney campaign committed to making significant reductions in public spending. Writing off almost half the electorate in this way is hardly the best course of action for an aspiring presidential candidate. It also implies that class and income are the main determinants of voter loyalty. As always in politics, it’s not that simple.

By almost any criteria – the number of families living in poverty, average household income – the South is probably the least prosperous region in the United States. Yet for the most part the southern states will be a Republican stronghold for Romney. In 2008 Obama secured 43 per cent of the white vote nationally but won over only 10 per cent of white voters in Alabama, 11 per cent in Mississippi and 14 per cent in Louisiana. Four years later things are unlikely to change. It’s hard to find any explanation for this voting pattern other than the troubled history of race relations in the southern states. In the South at least, conservative racial attitudes, rather than economic well-being, would seem to be a better indicator of voter loyalty.

Kevern Verney, 20 September 2012