Monday, 27 October 2008

The Obama Landslide

With just over a week to go to the US presidential election, I now feel confident in predicting not only an Obama win, but a landslide of historic proportions. The Obama and McCain campaigns are both playing this possibility down, claiming the result will be close. They have to. If Obama relaxed now and predicted a landslide, it could result in some of his supporters staying at home. If McCain conceded now, not only does he lose the improbable chance of a last-week turnaround, but he also (further) sabotages other Republican races.

So both sides have to say at this stage that it will be close; if Obama didn't say this, paradoxically, it would be more likely to be true.

Let's look at the indicators for a massive Obama win.


What of the “Bradley effect”, the alleged tendency for polls to be biased against black candidates because those polled don’t want to be seen to be racist? There is considerable dispute as to whether this effect was real. For example, one of the polls that erroneously predicted that Tom Bradley had won the 1982 California gubernatorial race was an exit poll, that failed to take into account absentee ballots, and the Republicans won on absentee ballots. On the whole, there is evidence that the “Bradley effect” is more likely to be a cover for weak polling technique rather than a real effect. In the current campaign, Obama has several times done better than predicted in the polls.

A big difficulty with polling in a game-changing election is that pollsters rely on demographics from past polls to predict future outcomes. In an election where some constituencies that have low participation rates come out in force, all those numbers could be skewed.

This close to an election, it would be an extremely rare event if polls showing the sort of lead Obama now holds reversed. Absent a real Bradley Effect and taking into account that it is his campaign that is mobilising key groups with a history of low participation, any error is more likely to be in his favour than not. So based on polling, unless his campaign makes a truly significant blunder in the last few days, his chances of not only a win, but a big win, are high.

The ‘it’s time’ effect

Again, all the pressures are on his side if you look at desire for change. The McCain's camp is trying to argue simultaneously that his short time in Washington makes him both inexperienced and a Washington insider, while McCain’s lengthy period in office makes him not only experienced but an outsider. That these contradictory arguments are implausible only helps Obama.

The ”it’s time” effect that worked so well for Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd in Australia (the latter against the backdrop of economic prosperity) is amplified by a widespread agreement that the Bush presidency has failed on all fronts. The war on terror has lost direction, the economy is in the toilet and social divisions are as deep as at any time since the civil rights movement. For McCain to claim to be an outsider, he would have had to disavow many more Bush positions than he has; it is not enough just to say that Bush was right on strategy but wrong on tactics, which is what the McCain position amounts to.

Also, despite the prejudice at the start of the primaries that Hillary Clinton would be a divisive figure, she turned out to be be surprisingly popular. Obama in many ways has similar pluses and minuses to her. Both have a sharp intellect (a plus or a minus, depending on how dig you deep into social strata), with backgrounds in law. Both have had relatively short periods in elective office; the talk of his inexperience somehow failed to touch on hers. Both represent demographics that have traditionally been excluded from high office. Both therefore represented change even before they articulated a platform. McCain, on the other hand, represents the past, and has failed to say how he really represents change. Had he campaigned as himself rather than the lapdog of the hard right, he may have stood a chance. But having allowed his campaign to look like George W. Bush, the remake, he has totally lost any chance at claiming it's his time. The Palin mistake only compounds his problems. McCain would have been a better president than Bush, but he's 8 years too late. If something happened to him and Palin was put in charge, very few people honestly believe she will do an even halfway competent job. She is the one part of his campaign that does represent change, but it's a scary kind of change: not what people are looking for in a time of multiple crises.

That brings me to the next range of issues.

Crisis Leadership

It's very seldom to have as wide a range of crises as is currently facing the US: peak oil, mitigated by worldwide economic collapse (as if that is a solution), all layered on top of climate change.

The US now needs a leader with the mass appeal of a JFK, the long-range vision of an FDR, and the unifying skills of a Nelson Mandela.

It’s not totally clear to me that Obama has all of the above, but it is clear that McCain falls far short. His campaign has been one of the most divisive I've witnessed. It is all very well for the ignorant to label Obama's tax proposal (that goes back to the tax rates in the time of one of the most popular presidents in recent times, Bill Clinton) as “socialism” but for McCain to repeat this is just absurd. His campaign has not done enough to stop ridiculous claims that Obama is a Muslim (as Colin Powell put it, it's not true and anyway why should anyone care?). They also keep harping on the by now thoroughly debunked “palling around with terrorists” claim. This is not even smart campaigning, let alone the question of dishonesty. When you are up against a candidate who can outspend you by as much as seven to one in battleground states on advertising, going negative assumes a level of risk not seen in previous campaigns.

Obama certainly has crowd appeal; even his opponents recognise that. On long-range vision, his case for heavy investment in alternative energy is a good sign, even if he is putting too much store on the bogus concept of “clean coal” (contrary to what we are widely lead to believe, even if this technology works, it will not fix existing coal power stations, so it is a total fraud to use “clean coal” as an excuse for continuing to build coal power stations). On unifying, he seems to be doing pretty well.

So as the transformational figure needed in a time of extreme crisis, Obama at least has the potential to do what needs to be done. Before the election, I would have scored McCain higher. Back in February, I blogged on the US election, starting with the words “Lucky, lucky Americans”, comparing their options with the incumbent. But his entire approach is to appeal to the section of the Republican Party that didn't like him before (Palin, calling Obama a “socialist”, allowing others to label Obama as a close associate of a “terrorist”). Ignoring the rest of the country is a massive failure of judgment at a time when the US demands clear and decisive leadership of a kind only required in the past at rare times of extreme crisis.

Reality Check

That in my judgment the US requires such a transformational figure doesn’t mean that the average US voter sees this. All the polls point that way, but I don’t recall seeing one that directly asks the exact questions needed to determine if people agree with my assessment of what’s required. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama is a better fit to my requirements and the fact that he is energising a wider base than any candidate for decades indicates that he is making some strong connections with broadly-held perceptions.

Given how much hangs on this election, I hope Obama is up to the challenge.

Another Opinion

The New York Times has recently editorialized on the same subject, giving Obama one of the strongest endorsements I've ever seen them give a candidate.

Check Your Views

Electoral Compass USA allows you to compare your position on the issues with those of the two candidates. This is an interesting way of seeing which candidate your are really closer to, independent of your preconceptions of which is closest to your views.

On the Lighter Side

The right has been trying desperately to label Obama as a socialist. Here's a YouTube response:

Another version

This article has also been published at On Line Opinion.

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