In March John McCain looked a good bet to be the next President of the United States. He had just won the primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island and his last serious opponent had conceded. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton meanwhile, were locked in a bitter wrangle which dragged on for another three months.
But, in January, it will be Barack Obama who is sworn in as President. How did a man who has just three years experience in the Senate, who, in Sarah Palin’s words, “has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform”, become president?
McCain chose to fight the election on cultural issues. Obama’s pastor hollering “God damn America!”, his remark about “bitter” small town voters clinging to guns and religion and his relationship with former terrorist Bill Ayers were all used to paint him as out of touch with the average patriotic American. A month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and less than a week before the election McCain was still pursuing this line of attack in radio interviews and stump speeches.
But these cultural tactics failed. McCain was re fighting the campaign of 1972 when Richard Nixon thrashed George McGovern by painting him as the ‘Triple A’ candidate; Amnesty (for Vietnam deserters), Abortion and Acid. This convinced many socially conservative working class Democrats to vote Republican.
In reality, with the economy heading into recession, this was a re fight of the 1992 election. Back then a charismatic neophyte, Bill Clinton, beat a war hero with extensive foreign policy experience by hammering home on message; “Its the economy stupid”.
Obama followed this blueprint to victory. He went around the country hammering home the message that he empathised with the economic hardships of ordinary Americans. In North Carolina, for example, he said “You don’t have to read the stock tickers or scan the headlines in the financial section to understand the seriousness of the situation we’re in right now. You just have to go to Pennsylvania and listen to the man who lost his job but can’t even afford the gas to drive around and look for a new one.”
A pre election poll in The Economist showed how right Obama was. It found that American voters preferred Obama to McCain on economic management by 43% to 36% and on values McCain was preferred by 39% to 33%. Crucially, however, whereas 84% of Americans placed the economy in their top three concerns, just 15% placed values in their top three. McCain chose to fight on ground which few voters considered sufficiently important.
This has been an exceptional election in many ways; the first black candidate, the second female candidate and the first election since 1928 in which neither an incumbent president or vice president has run.
But the transformational nature of the election can be overstated. Obama won a slightly smaller share of the popular vote than George Bush in 1988 and Bush was voted out four years later. Also, the Republicans cultural conservatism isn’t so far out of synch with wider opinion. Twelve states voted to ban gay marriage, five of them while voting for Obama.
President Obama’s mandate is an economic one. With a narrow margin and the cultural winds still blowing favourably for the Republicans, he will have to go beyond the rhetoric to grapple with horrendous economic circumstances. If he can do that, he really will be something to believe in.
(Printed in London Student, vol 29 issue 5, 17/11/08)