Archive for October 19th, 2008

What if Obama Loses?

Although things look good for Obama, there is still a chance that he could lose.  The McCain campaign has unleashed “robo-calls” in swing states or states where one would expect the Republican to be strong.  McCain’s campaign is down to one desperate measure: to try to make Obama appear risky and scary.  In swing states DVDs are put with newspapers to warn of “Muslim extremism,” the robo-calls suggest that Obama coddles terrorists, and McCain himself has taken to calling Obama a “socialist.”   Politico has reported that 100% of McCain’s ad spending is negative.  Normally this would have no chance of working, similar efforts against Bill Clinton failed dramatically.  There is one way it could work this time: if Obama’s funny name and the fact he is black cause enough whites to be far more sympathetic to those arguments than they otherwise would be.

Most McCain voters are already decided, and would be voting Republican no matter who the Democratic nominee was.   Others like McCain personally and their votes is based on that.  They fear either a Democratic majority in Congress plus a Democratic President, or in general believe the GOP best protects them against big government.  Culturally and ideologically, they would never vote for Obama, even if he were white and his name was John Smith.

I want to make that clear upfront so no one misunderstands this analysis.  I am not arguing that it is racist to vote for McCain, or that most McCain supporters are racist.  Yet I believe that if McCain wins this election it will be because a chunk of voters decided that Obama was “to different, strange or risky” to be President.

The polls show Obama with a comfortable lead in the swing states, and early voting in North Carolina and Georgia suggest he may even have a chance in those Republican stalwart states — making an Obama landslide possible.  Yet one cannot yet assume an Obama victory.  Most of Obama’s support emerged in the wake of the financial crisis, and thus is soft — many people could shift to McCain at the last minute.  Rather than trying to make the case in a positive way, McCain’s chosen to focus on attacking Obama, with the idea of making people fear that he is a risky choice.

If this works against Obama, it will be primarly because of race, and the inability of some segments of the American public to accept a black President.  If it doesn’t work against Obama, then that shows that Americans have indeed moved beyond the kind of racist reaction that in the past would have made an Obama candidacy impossible.   One could point out that similar efforts, including robo-calls by the same company employed now by McCain, helped George W. Bush defeat John McCain in 2000.  At that time he was bitter and angry about the dishonest campaigning.  Apparently, though, he’s learned that such is the way the game is played, and with the stakes so high, “anything to win” becomes the watchword.  So if negative campaigning can work, why would it be a sign that race is a factor of it does this time?

Here’s why:  right now the structural factors are all in favor of a Democratic victory, regardless of the candidate.  The economy is hurting, the public is more willing than ever to accept more governmental action, and McCain is a relatively weak candidate.  Obama has won the three debates, and McCain’s VP choice is the subject of ridicule.  Obama is outspending McCain by a large margin, and the public tends to agree with Obama more on the issues.  Structurally everything points to a Democratic victory and the Republican nominee is focused on a very specific, and sometimes even dirty, strategy to raise doubts about Obama the man.  This is meant to suggest that Obama is somehow “strange and different,” thus appealing to the racist elements still existing in American culture.

If that happens, there will be a lot of disillusion and anger, especially among minorities and the youth.  Again, Americans will have shown that they prefer a tired, old white guy against a vibrant, hopeful black.  If Obama loses, it will also show that people like me over-estimated the power of Obama’s ground game.  I believe that the intense voter registration and get out the vote campaign is a game changer, that could give states that still look unlikely for Obama (like West Virginia and Georgia, let alone North Carolina and Virginia).  But that’s speculation; an Obama loss would mean that these efforts had a minimal impact.  If that happens, there will be a lot of anger and disillusionment among people who have become very energized for the campaign.

Still, if Obama loses, the real lesson in this election season is how far we’ve come.  The fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could make it this far shows that we are becoming a different kind of country than we were in the past.  No longer the white picket fence conservatives, we embrace diversity and are learning to truly accept blacks, women and others as viable leaders of this country.  Even if Obama falls short, it has to be remembered that 20 or 30 years ago this candidacy would not even have been possible, let alone capable of being truly competitive.

So, while I still expect a large victory for Barack Obama, in one sense the election already has reflected well on the American people.  Even the choice of John McCain, who rose from the ashes and was considered all but dead by the GOP because his maverick status and stance on immigration made him persona non grata for a large chunk of conservatives, is positive.  Of all the Republican candidates, McCain was probably the best.  And if he becomes President, he would be an improvement on what we have now (and Palin would be an improvement on Cheney).

To be sure, it’s sad that such intense and mostly quite dishonest negative fear mongering could even have a chance to succeed.  Yet if this kind of ‘gutter politics’ fails to stop Obama, that will show that the American public is becoming immune to those kind of fear tactics.

The bottom line is no matter how this is decided on November 4th, this has been a fascinating, historic election.