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Too Close to Call? Maybe Not

With two months to go for the presidential elections in the United States, the race to the presidency appears to be a very close one, akin to the last two elections in 2000 and 2004. The puzzle is why, in spite of president George Bush's unpopularity, Barack Obama does not have a major lead over John McCain. The country may not yet be ready for a black president, and the Republicans are more than likely to sell the message that "he is not one of us". And perhaps the centre of gravity of the electorate has shifted to the right, making it extremely difficult for Democrats to break the Republican stranglehold over the presidency.

teaches political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.

LETTER FROM AMERICAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW september 13, 200811John McCain has been Bush’s accomplice in nearly every one of his disastrous decisions and yet he barely trails Obama in the polls. Indeed, his “experience” is lauded in comparison to Obama’s youth. A Republican Monopoly?If all of Bush’s incompetence does not besmirch his fellow Republican McCain, it was the reverse back in 2000. Then, all the gains of the Bill Clinton years – jobs, deficit reduction, and strong economic growth – could not help vice president Gore prevail against the Republicans and he managed to lose an election regarded as a “slam-dunk” for him. It makes one realise that the centre of gravity of the American electorate is closer to the Republican platform than it is to that of the Democrats, and the latter have an uphill battle when it comes to the presidency. BillClinton interrupted the Republican monopoly over the White House for the last 28 years by running a carefully orchestrated campaign that positioned him as a safe bet on a number of issues regarded by many white voters as crucial – notably race relations, crime, welfare reform, and big government – without losing the Democratic base amongst the white working class, liberals, African-Americans, and other minorities. The fact that he was from the south, as was his run-ning mate (ironically, Gore) no doubt helped reassure these multiple constituencies. Clearly, in tightly-contested races, it is the candidate, who can capture the “undecideds” and the independents, who is likely to win. Perhaps the tendency of Democrats to veer towards the middle after the Convention is explicable in this light. The problem is – as Dukakis (1988), Gore (2000) and Kerry (2004) found – when you do that you start sounding pretty close to the Republican nominee, and the indepen-dents and undecideds figure they might as well then vote Republican in that case. The Republicans have perfected the art of sticking to a simple message and hammering it home during the critical months of September and October. In 1988, Dukakis was beaten by saddling him with the image of being soft on (black) crime and a tax-and-spend liberal. In 2000, Bush won by portraying himself as more in tune with the common man in contrast with the over-intellectual Gore. That the Andover-Yale-and-Harvard edu-cated Bush, a scion of wealth and privi-lege, could parlay his inarticulateness and down-home demeanour into affinity with the average American tells its own de-pressing tale about the electorate. In 2004, the Republicans successfully diverted attention from the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos to Kerry’s alleged tendency to flip-flop on issues, and, astonishingly, man-aged to convince enough that the “deci-sive” Bush would be a better president in a time of war. The American-ness IssueIt is no exaggeration to say that qualities such as lucid speech and complexity of thought have become liabilities for Demo-cratic presidential nominees. The signs are clear that the emerging line of attack by the Republicans on Obama will ham-mer on the theme that he is not “one of us”. His race, name, and diction as well as his capacity for appreciating the nuances of government and history will be repack-aged as un-American and a risk not worth taking. Obama also interestingly compli-cates the usual overlaps between race and class in America: he is black but highly educated; he comes from an economically deprived but culturally rich background; and his sartorial and culinary tastes are definitely not low-brow. (Suddenly, those dowdy pantsuits for which Hillary was mercilessly parodied on network television begin to make sense!) The comforts offered by McCain – experience, whiteness, war-time service – will drown the details of his record. His American-ness goes without saying while Obama has to work energeti-cally to convince everyone that he belongs. There are a few factors in Obama’s favour. Firstly, there is no question that he is an extraordinarily charismatic politician. His oratory can bring tears to the eyes of the most jaded and cynical of us, and his appeal is transcendent in truly remarkable ways. Secondly, his campaign (like Bill Clinton’s) has been incredibly well or-ganised and efficient – and a contrast to the bumbling efforts of the McCain camp so far. Thirdly, he seems to have learned valuable lessons from Gore and Kerry’s failures – he has hit back hard and fast at every Republican effort to define him in the usual ways. Finally, there has been much talk of the cohort of new voters (the 18-22-year olds) and the new media technologies (the internet, Facebook, youtube, texting) which have underlain the mobilisation strategies of the Obama campaign. Some have argued the under-estimation of these forces caused Hillary Clinton to lose a nomination once con-sidered hers. These same technologies of mobilisation also underlay Obama’s phenomenal success in fund-raising from small donors and average citizens. The argument that this new not-yet-under-stood force will propel Obama to the presidency will be tested in November. Hazarding a prediction on the winner of this very close race is certainly foolish. As I proceed to recklessly offer one, I am reminded of something the conservative columnist George F Will once wrote: “Being a pessimist is by far the better choice for either you are right or you are pleasantly surprised”. While I like pleasant surprises as much as the next person, my own pes-simism has been consistent: “president McCain” – get used to the sound of it. Camel Books (Repeat of 23/8/08 Page 40 (12 x 1))

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