Archive for category 2008 Election

A New Era

Last night Barack Obama won an historic victory in the 2008 Presidential contest, defeating John McCain in a decisive fashion.  Obama didn’t win by quite as large a margin as I predicted.  I thought early voting would carry Georgia, and I was wrong about the Dakotas and Montana (and I knew that Arizona was a stretch).  Still, Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina still haven’t been called and Obama leads in two of them, so I’m not too far off.  It wasn’t as big a wave as I expected, but it was a wave, and the country showed that it wants a change in direction.

Now comes the hard part.  How do we deal with the financial crisis, globalization, continuing terror threats and the on going “war” in Iraq?  For all the joy some of us feel that the country has chosen a very different path forward, the reason for making this choice — real, intense and difficult problems facing the country — remains.  The challenge the Obama Administration will face is great.

Moreover, this is not a challenge that can be met just by having new policies, or through governmental action.  Our problems are deeper, and engrained in our very culture.  We seriously need a new way of thinking if we are to deal with a very different world.  The bad news is that changing how we think and shifting a culture is not easy, and is usually a generational process.  The good news is that the Obama election is a sign that this shift is underway.

One thing Obama tapped in to during the campaign is the desire of Americans to be involved in their country and its politics.  I have been amazed by the level of knowledge and action that young people have engaged in during this campaign, and that includes Republicans and McCain supporters.   Obama has to take that and use it positively to create a sense that the solution to our problems first has to come from our own actions, not just waiting for government to provide a fix.   There must be a shift from interest groups expecting government to do things to support them, to a cooperative effort where interest groups work together to solving their own and the nation’s problems.  The idea isn’t new.  George H.W. Bush called it “1000 points of light,” and Republicans have consistently called for more community action rather than government policy.  Obama might be able to make that a reality.

Internationally the time of American fancying itself as the ‘guarantor of global stability,’ above the rules other states play by, is over.  In Iraq and Afghanistan the US has learned humility, and recognized our limited capacity to shape world events.   George W. Bush has already acknowledged this and altered foreign policy greatly from his first term.  As President, Obama must build partnerships and chart a new identity for American foreign policy.  The Cold War created the notion that the US was the “leader of the West,” and thus had both superpower privileges and superpower responsibilities.  Unfortunately this became a rationalization to act too much the bully, and be too quick to reject international agreements or engage in military action.

George H.W. Bush tried with his notion of a “new world order” and emphasis on the UN approving military action in Iraq to counter aggression.  But with Kosovo, Afghanistan and then Iraq again, there was a sense that the US still saw itself as able to do whatever it wants, without regard for international law or the concerns of other states.  The problem is that the Cold War conception of American foreign policy is obsolete.  Policy makers have been slow to grasp that their way of perceiving and acting in the world no longer could work.   The illusion of economic vigor that the stock bubble followed by the property bubble gave made it possible for many to cling to the view that the US was a “unipolar power” or the “new Rome.”  Now, reality has brought home undeniably and very starkly the fact that the world will be very different in the 21st Century.  If we don’t adapt and change, we’ll fall farther and faster.

Later today or tomorrow I’ll write about what the election means in political terms — the GOP, the Democrats, and the balance of power.  But over the coming weeks this blog is going to switch attention from the blatantly political to the complex linkage between culture, politics and economics, and how the US can renew its ideals and meet the challenges we face.   The crisis is not just material, it’s also spiritual.  As a society and a culture, we have to examine ourselves and where we are going.   It’s a new era, yet undefined, and one we have the power to shape.

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Pre-Election Predictions and Analysis

Time for pre-election predictions and analysis! Below I outline three scenarios about how election night could wind down, and what to look for early on to determine how the night is going to develop. I then offer my prediction about how the election will go, explain the basis for that prediction, and provide a state by state breakdown, organized according to poll closing times on Tuesday. Enjoy!

Three Scenarios

1. McCain Comeback: Senator McCain faces a difficult map, and his supporters have to hope for a lot of things to happen if he is to come back: the undecideds must break decisively for McCain, many “soft” Obama supporters have to have second thoughts at the last minute, and the Republican get out of the vote effort has to over-perform, while the Obama effort – massive in scale – fails to motivate new voters. A tall order.

It is possible. Barack Obama is black, and while I do not believe in the so-called “Bradley effect” whereby someone of color loses 5% of votes between the opinion polls and the actual electoral poll, nobody knows for sure. We don’t know the role race will play, or if the intense robo-calling and negative campaigning will work against a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.

There are a few scenarios where McCain can come back. Most likely he would have to flip Pennsylvania, and then run the table with the toss up states Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. If he could pick up Colorado, Nevada and/or New Hampshire as well, that would give him a few additional options in his quest for 270 electoral votes..

Good news for McCain: the toss up states are all ones everyone thought he would get a couple months ago, and the polls in Pennsylvania appear to be tightening. Obama’s leads are tiny in the toss up states he holds the lead in, and the undecideds are mostly white, and could go heavily for McCain. If that happens, it is quite conceivable that his intense focus on these states – with a blitz of anti-Obama ads designed to cause concern about who Obama is – could pay off with a narrow victory Tuesday. Bad news for McCain: He has no margin for error. He has to win all of these. He can’t be surprised by an Obama win a state considered safe, like Arizona. Worse news for McCain: early voting has led to massive Democratic turnout in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. If Obama gets any of those, McCain’s chances are very low. If Obama gets two of them, he’s got the election.

If you want to see a McCain comeback look for very close races in the states listed above, most of whom have early poll closing times. If McCain appears competitive in all of them, especially Pennsylvania, he may be ready for the comeback of the century.

2. Obama Landslide: Conversely, there is the chance that Barack Obama could be ready to ring up upward of 350 or even more than 400 electoral votes, especially if he can hold on to his popular vote lead and score a 10% victory (most polls have his lead slightly less than that).

To truly get a landslide, he’d have to have a massively successful get out the vote effort and actually bring to the polls the new voters and minorities that have under voted in the past. If he can do that, plus pull a majority of the undecideds his way, he could ring up victories in states like Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and even be competitive in Arizona. The states to watch early are Georgia and Virginia. If Virginia seems solidly for Obama, and Georgia remains very close as the night goes on, it could be a landslide. If North Carolina goes early for Obama, things are looking very good.

3. A narrow Obama victory. Another scenario is that we’ll get neither a comeback nor a landslide. McCain will surge late and cut into Obama’s large lead, and whether it’s undecideds or the Bradley effect, a lot of the red states that now tilt blue will stay with the Republicans by the end of the night. In this scenario, Obama will win against McCain much like he won against Clinton – appearing invincible, but ending up looking like he was lucky the contest didn’t go on much longer. If McCain looks very strong in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, but weaker in Pennsylvania or Ohio, then it looks good for Obama, but will not be the kind of victory some Obama supporters hope for. Given the closeness of the races, the “narrow” victory could ultimately be over 300 electoral votes if he wins a few of those toss ups, but nothing like the dream some have of a landslide.

My prediction and analysis: Going out on a limb

I do not believe this election is going to be close. I think Obama will win by 53% to 44% in the popular vote, and by 410 – 128 in the electoral college. I am basing this prediction on a theory that is yet untested: the ground game Barack Obama has put together to get out the vote, expand early voter numbers and generate enthusiasm amongst minorities and youth voters will yield an unexpected surge of Democratic support. Moreover, the decision the GOP made to cut their ground game’s budget in favor of last minute advertising will hurt them. They are going to spend half of what they spent in 2004 on election day get out the vote efforts.

In almost every factor political scientists consider important for an election, Obama has the upper hand. He has spent far more money, has the most sophisticated get out the vote effort, has run a disciplined campaign, and is far more attractive than McCain, who has appeared old and often angry. Also, Obama has been able to mix positive with negative campaigning in a way that has made it appear all the negativity has come from McCain. McCain’s been intensely negative, and rarely does that win a national election. McCain also was supposed to win on stature and leadership, but Obama has appeared to be the cool and steady one. Obama’s supporters are far more enthusiastic (and that usually means more likely to vote) than McCain’s, according to an AP poll. Finally, the strongest determiner of an electoral outcome is the economy. Almost never can a nominee whose party has the Presidency in a time of economic crisis and pessimism win. It’s hard to be more pessimistic than now.

Objectively, taking all these factors into account and looking at the polls, I find it almost incomprehensible that Obama could lose; McCain would have to have everything go his way on Tuesday. However, Barack Obama is a unique candidate, with unique strengths and vulnerabilities. If fear of Obama as black, different, un-American or “far left” works for McCain, Obama could lose. I would think we’d have seen a backlash against Obama by now if that were true, so I’m going to make my prediction that the desire for change and Obama’s ground game will trump the GOP attack strategy.

Moreover, I believe this will be a realigning election like that of 1980 – another election which took place on November 4th. A bit of trivia: 1980 was the last year (before this one) that the Phillies won the world series. In that election people thought Carter could pull it out up until the end, but once the electorate decided they really wanted change, they moved strongly to Reagan. I sense the same thing is happening here. Things broke Obama’s way a couple weeks earlier this cycle than in 1980 because in that year it was the late debate that pushed people to vote Reagan. Therefore, I am expecting a landslide victory for the Democrats, with a pick up of 7 or 8 Senate seats and at least 30 house seats.

State by State Analysis:

States are listed in order of closing time, rather than in alphabetical order.

Closing time State (electoral vote)

6:00/7:00 Kentucky (8)

Prediction: McCain

Kentucky should be a safe Republican state, as the demographics favor McCain, and he holds a double digit lead in the polls. However, if you want to see whether or not there is an “Obama effect” bringing out Democratic voters, watch the Senate race. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a tight race with Bruce Lunsford. McConnell should pull it off; if he doesn’t that’s a sign of Obama coattails.

6:00/7:00 Indiana (11)

Prediction: Obama

If anyone suggested two months ago that Indiana would be in play, I’d have said they were crazy. Polling suggests McCain should hold on to this Republican state, but it’s officially now a toss up. Given my belief in the efficacy of the Obama ground game, I’m giving it to Obama. If Obama wins it, it’s an early sign of a potential Obama landslide.

7:00 Virginia (13)

Prediction: Obama

Those looking for a McCain comeback will get evidence for it if McCain wins Virginia, or the results look very close early on. The polls have been tilting Obama, some significantly; if McCain does well in Virginia, that’s strong reason to doubt the polls and get ready for a long, tense night. Very late polls showed the race tightening. Mark Warner should easily win his Senate race, a pick up for the Democrats.

7:00 Georgia (15)

Prediction: Obama

Georgia has had a phenomenal amount of early voting, and voter turnout had a significantly larger than usual black rate. McCain needs this state. If Obama wins, it’s an early indicator of a potential Obama landslide. Another indication of the strength of the Obama ground game would be if Jim Martin defeats Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss for Senate. If Chambliss loses, it’s the Obama effect. However, Georgia law requires a Senate candidate to get 50% + 1 vote to win; it’s likely Martin could outpoll Chambliss but not reach 50%. In case of a runoff, there would be fewer voters and Chambliss would likely win.

7:00 South Carolina (8)

Prediction: McCain

There are some who think that South Carolina might be in play. His lead has shrunk here, as it has in Kentucky. It should remain safe McCain. If not, then it’s a wow-za landslide for Obama!

7:00 Vermont (3)

Prediction: Obama

This should be called early; there’s no real race here.

7:30 Ohio (20)

Prediction: Obama

This is another state McCain really needs. If he can’t hold Ohio, he probably can’t make his way to 270 votes. There are reasons to think McCain will hold on – late polls showed an Obama lead, but McCain could pick up late deciders, and Ohio is one place where race might become a factor. The McCain campaign has put a lot of money and time into this state in the last week. My prediction is again predicated on my belief in the Obama ground game, and the fact Ohio has early voting (though not as extensive as Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Nevada).

7:30 West Virginia (5)

Prediction: McCain

This is a state that some people think might tilt Obama.. Maybe Obama could surprise, but I have my doubts that the Obama ground game will be as strong here as elsewhere. Race could matter here as well. An Obama win in West Virginia would signal a blowout.

7:00/8:00 Florida (27)

Prediction: Obama

This is a state McCain should win. He’s spent a lot of time and money here, and the demographics, while better for the Democrats than they were in the last two elections, favor McCain. I think, though, early voting will make a big difference, and Obama could win by a surprisingly comfortable margin. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but…Also, this is a must win for McCain. If he loses Florida, it’s really hard for him to reach 270.

8:00 Alabama (9)

Prediction: McCain

The Republican version of Vermont: this will be an easy McCain victory. (Think of Alabama as the anti-Vermont in just about every way).

8:00 Connecticut (7)

Prediction: Obama

Another easy one to call. At one point McCain thought his Lieberman ties would help him here. It won’t happen.

8:00 Delaware (3)

Prediction: Obama

Biden will also win re-election, so whatever happens, Biden will win something tonight.

8:00 District of Columbia (3)

Prediction: Obama

No contest.

8:00 Illinois (21)

Prediction: Obama

Easy victory in his home state – and if he wins the election, the site of a raucous election party (though I wouldn’t want to be there if he loses…)

8:00 Maine (4)*

Prediction: Obama

A solid blue state but the 2nd District (home to UMF) could go to McCain. Maine is one of two states that disperses electoral votes based on district — whoever wins the state gets two, then one each is awarded for who wins in each district. If it’s a tight race a McCain victory in ME-2 could mean a tie, or even put McCain at 270. Incumbent Republican Susan Collins should win re-election, but since the 2nd district is competitive the Democrats have made an effort to expand the ground game here. If TomAllen wins it will be due to the Obama effect.

8:00 Maryland (10)

Prediction: Obama

We’re zipping through the blue states here, no contest.

8:00 Massachusetts (12)

Prediction: Obama

No contest, easy Obama win.

8:00 Mississippi (6)

Prediction: McCain

Believe it or not, Mississippi could go Obama if it’s a tsunami landslide (talk about mixed metaphors). Recent polls show the race in single digits. Still, I question whether or not Obama’s ground game is as strong here as elsewhere, so I think McCain will hold on. Wicker will likely hold on to his Senate seat, though the Democrat Ronnie Musgrove has a slight chance if the Democratic turn out is extremely strong.

8:00 Missouri (11)

Prediction: Obama

This is all about Obama’s ground game. Missouri should go McCain, but recent polls show a toss up, and I think the ground game breaks it to Obama. It’s not a must win state for McCain, but losing here would diminish his paths to 270.

8:00 New Hampshire (4)

Prediction: Obama

New Hampshire kept Al Gore from the Presidency in 2000. It’s unlikely to do the same to Obama, recent polls give Obama very large leads. Still, this is a state where McCain has some real popularity, and Obama lost to Hillary here. McCain visited New Hampshire on the last weekend of the campaign. If McCain wins in New Hampshire, he could be on a path to 270. Look for Shaheen to defeat Sununu, a pick up for the Democrats in the Senate.

8:00 New Jersey (15)

Prediction: Obama

McCain once thought he’d have a chance here, but not any more. Not as deep blue as some others, but a McCain victory here would signal disaster for Obama.

8:00 Oklahoma (7)

Prediction: McCain

As “red” as they come, one of the few states where McCain may hit 60%.

8:00 Pennsylvania (21)

Prediction: Obama

McCain claims he has the chance to take Pennsylvania. If he does, then victory isn’t guaranteed, but it looks very good for McCain. I can’t see him taking it, the polls show solid Obama leads (though some late polls do show tightening). McCain is helped by the fact there isn’t early voting in Pennsylvania, and his campaign has spent a lot of time here.

8:30 Arkansas (6)

Prediction: McCain

Bill Clinton and the top state Democrats toured Arkansas recently, trying to turn an almost certain McCain state to a toss up. Does Clinton still have Arkansas magic? If Obama is enjoying a landslide, it’s possible, but this should be safe McCain.

8:30 North Carolina (15)

Prediction: Obama

This is a shock to a lot of people, North Carolina was strong for Bush, and should be an easy McCain victory. Early voting plus a large black population cause me to see this as a place where the Obama ground game could pull off an upset. It’s a must win for McCain. Also, look for a loss for Elizabeth Dole, the incumbent, to the Democrat Kay Hagan, especially after Dole’s “Godless” commercial. Note that North Carolina’s screwy election process could become a controversy if it’s really close – if you vote straight ticket, you still have to vote separately for the President. A lot of new voters might just vote straight Democrat and forget to vote for Obama too (some Republicans will no doubt make the same error).

8:00/9:00 Michigan (17)

Prediction: Obama

Remember the days when McCain thought that he could win here, and Hillary’s supporters were mad about the primary? McCain pulled out of Michigan early, it should be an easy victory for Obama.

8:00/9:00 Nebraska (5)*

Prediction: McCain 4 Obama 1

Nebraska allocates its electoral votes like Maine, and in this case I think Obama’s ground game will take the Omaha district, and split the vote. If so, and if McCain is running a tight race, this could give the victory to Obama, or perhaps cause a tie. Though most Americans don’t understand the intricacies of the electoral college, the campaigns do!

8:00/9:00 South Dakota (3)

Prediction: Obama

South Dakota is as Republican as Nebraska, but more independent. Both Dakotas have a history of choosing Democratic Senators, SD has given us McGovern, Daschle and currently Tim Johnson. My sources on the ground there tell me that Obama is running a credible campaign, and getting support from quite a few Republicans. So I’ll go on a limb here.

8:00/9:00 Tennessee (11)

Prediction: McCain

This state once had promise for the Democrats, though even Al Gore couldn’t carry it in 2000. Even a strong Obama ground game won’t win this one, it goes McCain.

8:00/9:00 Texas (34)

Prediction: McCain

There are signs that early voting, and popularity for Obama from Hispanics might make this closer than people expect. But McCain’s got a large lead, and should carry it easily.

9:00 Arizona (10)

Prediction: Obama

Polls in Arizona have tightened, so even though it’s John McCain’s home state, I’m going to predict Obama. This is the pick I’m the most uncertain about.

9:00 Colorado (9)

Prediction: Obama

If my analysis is way off, and McCain wins enough in the East to make 270 possible, Colorado is one state that could become crucial. Recent polls have tilted to Obama, so I expect him to win, but it’s not a sure thing. Mark Udall should easily win his Senate race, a pick up for the Democrats.

9:00 Louisiana (9)

Prediction: McCain

Although Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu should easily win re-election, McCain’s got this one won.

9:00 Minnesota (10)

Prediction: Obama

If McCain had chosen Pawlenty instead of Palin, this state could be shifting red. But it looks like Obama has this one pretty easily. This is one state where I suspect his coattails may not be enough for Al Franken, and Norm Coleman should win re-election (this Senate race is why I predicted 7 or 8 Democratic pick ups). That’s been a really nasty race, though, so anything can happen. Minnesota has always had very high turnout, the ground game may not effect the Senate race as much here.

9:00 New Mexico (5)

Prediction: Obama

McCain had high hopes for New Mexico, and it was early on a battleground state. Now it looks to be pretty safe for Obama. Still, if McCain wins enough out east to stay in contention, New Mexico is a state where a resurgent McCain could pull off an upset. If it’s still interesting late in the evening, watch New Mexico! Tom Udall’s Senate victory will be a Democratic pickup.

9:00 New York (31)

Prediction: Obama

Hillary’s supporters have forgiven him. The Pumas are dead.

9:00 Rhode Island (4)

Prediction: Obama

Even the “Family Guy” will vote Democratic this year.

9:00 Wisconsin (10)

Prediction: Obama

McCain really hoped to fight hard for Wisconsin, but Obama has pulled away. He also has a strong ground game here.

9:00 Wyoming (3)

Prediction: McCain

Wyoming is Dick Cheney’s state. Nuff said.

9:00/10:00 Kansas (6)

Prediction: McCain

Even in an Obama landslide it’s hard to imagine McCain losing here, where he has a double digit lead.

10:00 Iowa (7)

Prediction: Obama

Late campaigning here suggests that perhaps internal polls show a tightening race. I doubt it. Obama got his start here, it borders Illinois. McCain hoped early to have a chance, but it should go Obama. McCain did make a big push here. A state to watch if at this time of the night it looks tight.

10:00 Montana (3)

Prediction: Obama

It will make the map actually look more blue than red if this large state goes for Obama. Not many electoral votes, but a popular governor who channeled Louis Black at the Democratic convention and independent voters give Obama a real shot to pull an upset here.

10:00 Nevada (5)

Prediction: Obama

Polls show things breaking to Obama, and early voting has been heavily Democratic. As with New Mexico and Colorado, if the race is still interesting and McCain looks like he’s pulling off an upset, this could be a state that McCain could need to pull him to 270.

10:00 Utah (5)

Prediction: McCain

Even if Joseph Smith rose from the dead and endorsed Obama, McCain has this deep red state wrapped up.

10:00/11:00 Idaho (4)

Prediction: McCain

Another massive victory for McCain.

10:00/11:00 North Dakota (3)

Prediction: Obama

The Dakotas are independent, and if things do tilt Obama, North Dakota could see an upset. If McCain mounts a surprisingly successful night, he can’t let ND slip through his fingers.

10:00/11:00 Oregon (7)

Prediction: Obama
Republicans used to think Oregon was in reach. It’s safe for Obama. Look for Jeff Merkley to knock off incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, a pick up for the Democrats.

11:00 California (55)

Prediction: Obama

This hasn’t always been a deep blue state, but Obama has an easy path to victory here.

11:00 Hawaii (4)

Prediction: Obama

They love Obama.

11:00 Washington (11)

Prediction: Obama

Obama is holding the Pacific Northwest.

12:00/1:00 Alaska (3)

Prediction: McCain

But Ted Stevens is gone. Mark Begich will win a Senate seat, another Democratic pickup.

Final: Obama 410 McCain 128.

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Is McCain Surging?

To look at the Drudge Report, you’d think McCain has been steadily inching closer to Barack Obama, and is within striking distance of taking the popular vote lead and running the sweep of toss up states necessary to come from behind and win the election.  Last week it was a “shock Gallup poll” which showed the two within two points using the ‘traditional model’ for likely voters.  By Sunday it was a ten point race in that group again.  But no matter, Rasmussen showed it narrow to three points, so that was cited — well within the margin of error!  Alas, it expanded back to five points, and Rasmussen declares the race “remarkably stable” with Obama at about an 85% chance for victory.

Then it was the IBD/TIPP poll which has always showed a tighter race.  And finally on early Saturday morning Drudge screamed out that “McCain leads in overnight polling!”  Wow!  He must be zooming back.  For the Obama fans, this is their worst case scenario, another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, an unexpected comeback.  For the McCain faithful this plus slightly tightening polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio shows that their come back scenario is on track — they can do it!

Of course, let’s get real.   The Zogby tracking poll surveys 1200 people over three days.  Gallup and Rasmussen survey 3000.  That means that the one day poll is of 400 people, a sample size that suggests a margin of error of 5%, rather than the tracking poll 3% (or 2% for Rasmussen and Gallup, who sample 1000 a night over three nights).  Remember, on average one in twenty polls will be outside the margin of errror.   Zogby could be detecting a trend, but unless it’s mirrored in other polls, it could also be Drudge and Zogby trying to drum up interest — why else leak one day’s numbers?

Back in 1996 near the election Zogby had a closer race than the others, and a late shock poll put Dole and Clinton even — but only for a day.  Moreover, the three night average for Zogby has Obama with a five point lead.  That means that the two nights before must have shown a significant Obama lead.  Gallup had gone from 5 to 7 to a 10 point lead in the traditional model in the last three days, suggesting they are not observing the trend Zogby claims exists.  Given they have 1000 interviews to Zogby’s 400, there is little reason to believe there is a national McCain surge.

Drudge used to be “king of the hill” for online news, but now Huffington Post gets double the traffic, and the blogosphere is leaning leftward, sort of a mirror image of how the right dominated talk radio in the 1990s.  Perhaps these kinds of teasers are a rather desperate effort to get hits.  I’ve also noticed that Drudge cherry picks only the McCain friendly polls.  To be sure, one of the best political websites, Realclearpolitics.com has a conservative bias, but unlike Drudge, you get the sense they are about giving the conservative perspective than promoting propaganda.

In Pennsylvania there is more reason to believe the race is tightening.  All polls show it going from double digit to single digit, and Pennsylvania politicians who know the state have said that they could not believe the 12 – 15% point leads polls had been giving them.   It now looks like the polls are putting Obama’s lead at about 5, probably still enough to hold the traditionally Democratic state, but definitely tightening.  Compared to the polls of 2004, it doesn’t seem particularly ominous.

In fact, looking at the early voting numbers, the widening of the polls in most cases, and the general tenor of the last days of the campaign, things are looking very, very good for Barack Obama.  Tomorrow I’ll have my prediction on the outcome (electoral votes, popular vote, and analysis of why I make that call), and then late Monday evening I’ll post my state by state predictions, with a bit about each state on what to watch for, and where one might see signs of either an Obama landslide or a McCain come from behind victory.  I’m going to post it in order of poll closing time, which may or may not be easier than alphabetical.  And, I’ll blog more if anything else warrants it.

But time is running short, the election is almost here!   I think the state of the election is clear.  Obama and Biden are buying time in states like Arizona, Montana, Georgia and North Dakota, and traveling a wide variety of states to try to pick up as many states as they can.  McCain and Palin are focusing on keeping the core they need: Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana, while they try to flip Pennsylvania and hope enough red states resist the Obama onslaught and go for McCain.  (Do they really think they can win Pennsylvania, or do they just want to do whatever they can to keep the Democrats from expanding the map — goad them into making Pennsylvania a ‘battleground)?

This long, strange trip that started in 2006 was dominated in 2007 by the immigration issue, making McCain look defeated early.   Hillary was seen as the preemptive nominee, earning Time magazine cover stories and a large mass of early money and superdelegates.   Guiliani was the presumed Republican nominee.  Then Obama and McCain came on, McCain cinched early, and Obama and Clinton became locked in an historic struggle — either the first woman or the first black nominee from one of the two major parties would emerge.  The entire year has been exciting, hardly a week without some twist and turn.  And we near the end of this historic, exciting, and intensely emotional but fascinating campaign.

OK, time to start working on my final analysis and predictions…

Update: Obama has a 10 point edge in one night of polling the day after McCain’s one point edge.   Simply: there is no surge for McCain.

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Desperation Breeds Stupidity

Rarely in an election year does one ad stand out as being so utterly contemptible and rotten that all the other mud and slime out there glistens in comparison.  If all I knew about Elizabeth Dole was the ad that she ran in her North Carolina Senate race against Kay Hagan, I’d conclude that she was a mean spirited dishonest politician who would do anything for power.  Luckily, I know enough about Elizabeth Dole to know she’s a good person.  But her ad, which she continues to defend, is not.

In the ad a tough narrator notes that Kay Hagan held a fundraiser that was “hosted by the Godless Americans PAC,” showing clips of people from that group calling for God to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and from money, and in general dissing religion.  “What did she promise them” in exchange for the fundraising, the ad asks.  It ends with a close up of Kay Hagan and a voice saying “There is no God!”

Kay Hagan is a  Presbyterian elder in her church and Sunday School teacher.  The fundraiser was hosted by a number of different people, including Roman Catholic John Kerry, and did involve one member from the Godless Americans PAC.  It did not include anyone shown in the clips.   Moreover, it wasn’t a secret fundraiser, as the ad contends, and the voice saying “there is no God” is definitely not Kay Hagan’s, despite the way the film makes it appear.  Dole lamely defended her ad, saying that Hagan critized her for having a Bush sponsored fundraiser, and ‘being in the pocket of big oil.’

Well, I think questioning someone’s faith, and dishonestly making them appear to be atheist in a very Christian part of the country, is worse than accusing them of being led by “big oil.”  And is Dole saying it’s just as bad to be associated with President Bush, who is from her own party, as  with the ‘Godless Americans PAC?’

After the campaign, I expect that Dole will regret the ad, and realize that she crossed a line when she decided it was fair game to try to bring her opponent’s faith into question.  It was a very stupid thing to do.  It not only makes it more likely that a backlash against Dole will lead to her defeat, but her entire reputation of being a strong and effective leader will be tainted by this dirty last minute ad.   Top Republican strategists are roundly criticizing it, saying it reeks of desperation and that she should have known better.

I have a theory that 90% of human actions that do harm to oneself or others are because of evil intent or even anger.  Rather, I think stupidity born of desperation leads people to make bad, even horrible decisions.  For Dole, it probably appeared a necessary, rational step to take.  She’s down in the polls, her political career is on the line, she has plans and priorities she thought until recently were pretty secure — she’s a very respected Senator, not one who one would think would be at risk of losing.  She has staff who count on her, and a life style she no doubt enjoys.  Suddenly, unexpectedly, that’s all in danger — under threat from a political candidate who she believes is distorting her record and engaging in unfair arguments (every candidate does that to some extent, so every candidate is convinced the other candidate is unfair).  She has to fight back.  Time is running out.  All could be lost.  She needs to do something…but what?  “This might work.”  It’s repulsive, yet somehow it doesn’t seem so bad in the context of the moment.  She approves the ad, a stupid act which seemed at a time of desperation to be rational and necessary.

John McCain’s campaign is also one which is getting intense criticism for not only its negativity, but its personal ad hominems against Barack Obama.  Whether the socialist label, or robocalls making it sounds like Obama hangs around terrorist networks, or mailers that try to scare people with subtle messages that subtly appeal to racism, McCain is running an intensely negative campaign.   Many have expressed dismay that he is putting is solid reputation on the line, and might be remembered as a petty, meanspirited politician after this election.  Rather than the positive war hero maverick, he has become the robocall politician whose tone is mocking and sarcastic.

Obama supporters are increasingly incensed at McCain, and even in the press there is a strong sense that “this is not the McCain we know.”  I suspect, the same thing is happening to him.  He sees himself outspent by a guy who he doesn’t considered experienced enough to qualify for a job he is absolutely convinced he deserves (I’m sure Hillary can empathize).  Soon it makes sense that the “only way” to counter this “unfair advantage,” the fact that the media is “in the tank” for Obama, is to go negative.   Anything that will work.  The robocalls, ties to Ayres, socialism, falsely interpreting a 2001 interview…it’s necessary to stop someone with an unfair advantage from getting a job that McCain deserves and doesn’t think Obama is qualified for.  In the heat of the campaign, such negativity, even ad hominems, seems rational and necessary.

Yet, afterwards, if it works, his job to mend the country will be enormous, and he might ask if that campaign style did more harm than good, even if it gets him to 270.  If, as appears very likely, he loses, then his reputation will be defined less as being the Vietnam hero maverick of the Senate than having run a bitter, negative campaign.   He may regret not living up to the kind of standards he stood for in 2000.  In retrospect, this negative campaign may end up being seen as well as a stupid choice done out of desperation.

This isn’t limited to politics of course.  We read constantly of embezzlers and bankers who rob or cook the books in ways certain to be discovered someday because they are desperate, they don’t want to deal with whatever mess they find themselves in.  Students with a paper due the next day suddenly find plagiarism not such a bad thing.  Instead of a bad grade they may fail a course, and have a black mark on their record.  A driver with an invalid license out of desperation speeds away from a cop pulling him over for a burnt out taillight.  The result is a high speed chase, ending either in death or injury, or a massively increased amount of jail time.  In my First Year Seminar we watched the Italian movie The Bicycle Thief in which the father out of desperation about losing his job and the ability to feed his family tries to steal a bicycle to replace the one stolen from him, only to get caught and find out his son observed him becoming a thief himself.

Desperation breeds stupidity.  The best we can do is learn from that, and try to keep our heads on straight when we feel that desperation.  It’s also a cultural problem.  In a society where there are supports, one can admit being in trouble, having made a mistake, or needing help.  In our success-oriented individualist society, the support network isn’t as clear and strong, and people feel more of a need to take care of their problems completely on their own.   Someone with money problems who, say, is part of a close knit church where people look out for each other might be able to reach out for support.  But those kinds of groups are fewer and farther between; more than ever, we’re on our own.

Politicians are human.  What looks to us like a Machiavellian or cold hearted quest for power, often is just the sign of desperation and the kind of confused rationalizations it inspires.  Elizabeth Dole is a good woman, her career proves it.  John McCain is not nasty, mean or petty, even if the campaign sometimes sounds that way.  So perhaps the biggest lesson of this is one of forgiveness.  Desperate people do stupid things, and since we are all human, we need to understand and forgive when that happens.   Dole’s ad is one of the most despicable I’ve ever seen; but Elisabeth Dole is not.

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Tug McGraw for President

“Tug McGraw for President,” was the sign on my dorm room door back in 1980, the last time the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.  McGraw was a hero in that series, with relief pitching that helped the Phillies defeat the Kansas City Royals 4 games to 2.

1980 was also the last year an election felt quite like this one.   The election looked very close, but there was a sense that the Republican Ronald Reagan had momentum on his side as he seemed hopeful, optimistic and positive about the future, compared to Jimmy Carter, the incumbent.  Carter had won in 1976 as an outsider, riding a wave of anti-Washington feelings.  Yet, despite some accomplishments like the Camp David Accords, he had to deal with major crises towards the end of his term, especially the Iranian hostage crisis and a recession that included stagflation — inflation during a recession.

Still, Carter was pleased that Reagan bested George Bush in the 1980 primary.  Reagan was seen as too far to the right, and too inexperienced.  Given the more liberal mode of the country in the 70s, many Democrats thought that simply painting Reagan as “too conservative” and “on the right wing of his party” would be enough to get Americans to avoid voting for the California ex-Governor.  Up until the two debated in late October the polls were close.  Yet Reagan performed well in the debate and ultimately won the election, which took place on November 4, 1980, in a landslide.  The electoral vote count was a stunning 489-49.  He won the popular vote by 50 – 41.

Moreover, he had coattails.  The Republicans shocked the Democrats by winning 12 seats and taking control of the Senate 53-46.   The Democrats lost 35 seats in the House and, though retaining control, a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats gave Reagan a working majority in the House.  Later those southern Democrats would disappear, replaced by southern Republicans.  The country, in a word, was realigned.  The liberal era of the 70s gave way to a new conservatism.

Could 2008 be another realigning election year?   (And if so I have another working hypothesis: every time the Phillies win a world series in a year where Presidential elections take place on November 4…).   The signs point that way.    In almost all state polls Obama holds a consistent lead, save for states that are solidly GOP.  He certainly won’t hit 489 electoral votes, but 400 could be within his reach.  A nine point popular vote victory is possible.  And the Democrats, though already in control in the House and Senate, could pick up significant numbers of seats.   We could be on the verge of the second realignment of my lifetime.  If so, I’ve been on the right side of both.

This year I find myself connecting to Barack Obama and his message.  We’re about the same age, and have the same pragmatic view that we need to stop all the name calling and take a “cooperate and compromise” approach to solving real problems.   I find John McCain’s campaign to be mean spirited and devoid of real ideas.

In 1980 I was in Detroit, Michigan, at the Republican National Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan.  I was part of a “youth for Reagan” group, seven of us who came from South Dakota in a van to Ypsilanti, Michigan.   We stayed at the dorms of Eastern Michigan University, bussed into the convention every day.  I saw Reagan, Bush, and Dole close up.   I met Tod Koppel.  Then when Reagan got nominated we were on the floor of the convention.  We didn’t have security clearance, but the Reagan campaign had us “snuck” down there to show a young crowd celebrating Reagan’s nomination.  I was down below the podium with the words “Together a New Beginning” touting Reagan’s message of hope.

It was an amazing experience.  In the dorms at EMU, I met some really pretty girls from Maine.  I don’t recall their names or where they were from, but I traded them a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” button for a little Maine Lobster that I stuck to my camera case.   That camera case with a “Maine” sticker went all over Europe and the US with me over the next 15 years, even though I wouldn’t visit Maine until my job interview at UMF in 1995.   The night of the election I was thrilled by the result, coloring in the map red (even though the red/blue labels were not yet in place — it was by coincidence I chose red) as the results came in, and it was clear that it was an historic, landmark election.

Yet that election was also one where I felt my own political views shifting.  I was excited about Reagan, but I did something odd on election day.  First, I refused to volunteer to help get people to the polls, annoying my very active Republican roommate.  I’d been working a lot that summer on the election for the Abdnor campaign for Senate, but now distanced myself.  I got in the voting booth, and voted not for Abdnor, but for Senator McGovern, who would lose that day.

Over the next decades my political views would shift.  Living for awhile in Italy and learning about the world outside of South Dakota convinced me that I’d been a bit naive in thinking we didn’t need government programs and that everyone could succeed if they just worked hard.  I came to understand the power of structural barriers, and the complexity of the issues.   Yet I couldn’t be comfortable with the Democrats, who seemed too wedded to big government solutions and deficit spending.  Ralph Nader became my favorite politician, he at least seemed to stand on principles.

Principles.  That’s why drew people to Ronald Reagan in 1980.  The country was in a bad place, and needed a change.  Reagan seemed to have something that appealed to people.  The Democrats dismissed it as learned lines by an actor.  Carter had experience and substance, Reagan was simply a ‘great communicator.’

Now, in 2008, we seem on the verge of another realigning election.  The Obama candidacy feels to me a lot like how the Reagan campaign felt in 2008.   The Republicans are throwing everything they can at Obama: Wright, Ayres, too liberal, etc.  But just as Reagan was the “teflon President,” these attacks seem to slide off Obama.  He’s enunciated some core principles and proposals and sticks to his message.  People sense in Obama the same thing they sensed in Reagan in 1980: a candidate who looks able to deliver a change the country needs.  They sense optimism, pragmatism, and hope.

Of course, I may be wrong.   The Republicans say McCain still has a chance to come back, and the polls are close enough that things could change.   But just four days before the election this has the feel of something big.  I have no idea where Tug McGraw ended up — relief pitchers fade away.  But when I heard the Phillies won the series I had a flashback to 1980.  Somehow, it feels like we’re in for a big change next Tuesday.

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Early Voting and Obama’s Ground Game

On October 29th Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean came here to UMF to talk to a packed room of students (not just a room, but the largest lecture hall on campus — and many couldn’t enter because the room was filled to capacity) about the importance of getting out the vote.   It was a really inspiring talk, I like Howard Dean.  The fact that Dean would come here — and was earlier in Orono — shows the importance they place on getting young people not only to vote, but to be enthusiastic.  It also shows that they are not taking the second district of Maine for granted — Maine is one of two states that split it’s electoral vote by district, and our district is more conservative than southern Maine.  Dean’s visit highlights what I think is Obama’s secret weapon: his ground game.

As a football fan I’ve always thought that a strong ground game wins championships.  In politics, it’s absolutely essential.   While some people vote all the time as a matter of course, many decide it’s not worth it.  If lines are two or three hours long, like they often are, one can make a strong argument that it’s not rational to spend so much time in line when one vote isn’t really going to make or break the election.    But if a lot of people make that decision, which is rational at the individual level (one person not voting doesn’t mean others won’t vote too), then low turnout can swing an election.   This is known as the ‘collective action’ problem — actions that have negative collective consequences might be rational at the individual level.  I get NPR on my radio, it’s not rational for me to pay, the service will be there anyway.  But if a lot of people choose not to become members, programming will suffer.

There are two ways out of this bind for voting.  First, though, one has to avoid trying to make the argument that it actually is rational at the individual level.  Those arguments fail.  “What if everyone does that”  Answer: My actions don’t affect what others do.  “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”  Answer: the First Amendment says I can complain whenever I want.  “If you don’t vote, you can’t be part of the decision making progress.”  Answer: what is the probability anything I vote on will be decided by one vote?  The bottom line: at the level of individual choice, voting is irrational.

The first way out is to emphasize one’s duty.  Yes, you’re sacrificing time, but it’s part of being an American.  It is how this great country works.  This builds a sense of community, ethics, and belonging.   If you don’t vote, you’re not really doing what Americans need to do to preserve this great democracy over time.  The second way out is to focus on making voting an event.  Bus a group to the polls, go with friends, enjoy talking to the people there, have voting be fun.  I voted early, but for many of my friends or colleagues, going and voting is a joy.

Both of these methods have traditionally worked better for Republican voters than Democrats, and for older voters rather than younger.   There is a huge chunk of the population — rural poor minorities, inner city minorities especially — who feel alienated from the country and its culture.  They don’t see a lot of hope in their lives, so standing in long lines to vote makes no sense.  They don’t feel that duty, they don’t feel America has earned it from them.  Younger voters tend to focus on personal gratification over duty anyway, and generally make the “rational” (in an individual sense) choice.  They also aren’t as connected to the ritual and community aspect of voting, so that doesn’t draw them.  Pollsters know this, and thus limit their likely voter sample by weighting for age, ethnicity, and voting history.

Back in early September when the polls were suggesting a slight lead for McCain, my view was that Obama was likely to outperform the polls, thanks to his ground game.   Although some of the national polls show signs of a slight tightening, the state polls seem to suggest real Obama strength.  Given that the contest is really about the states, not overall popular vote, that’s good news for Obama.  Yet state polls are far less reliable than national polls, and have shown real fluctuation.  For instance, New Hampshire had within a week a poll that showed a 4% Obama lead and a 25% lead (others showed 11% and 18%).    So if the national polls tighten more, one can’t take the state polls for granted.   How will Obama’s ground game impact the result?

Obama’s ground game looks amazing on paper.  He has offices all over the country, an army of volunteers mounting an effort that has Democratic insiders saying they’ve never seen or even imagined anything like this before.  He has taken the skills and methods of community organizing and built a national campaign.  The long primary fight helped him do it, as it brought him to states where he organized and built alliances while McCain was sitting back and watching Clinton and Obama duke it out.  He also has the money due to his record setting fundraising to build a real infrastructure for the get out the vote (GOTV) effort.  It has not been tested.    But neither was Karl Rove’s targeted and well structured GOTV plan in 2000, and ultimately that’s what won it for George W. Bush — both in 2000 and especially in 2004.  This goes far beyond what Rove built, and McCain seems to have a less solid organization that what Rove gave Bush in 2004.

Add to that early voting.  Early voting allows your GOTV effort to span weeks rather than to focus it in one day.   That creates an advantage for the team with the best GOTV plan.  Places like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia are seeing surges of early voters, and these are states McCain must win to have a chance.   Georgia, which had over 3 million voters in 2004, about a quarter of them black, have seen as of the morning of October 29th over 1.4 million early voters, 35% of them black.  They are likely to hit a mark that is 2/3 of their total 2004 vote even before election day, meaning lines will be shorter for those who wait.  In Florida Republican governor Crist has expanded early voting due to long lines to continue on Sunday, and go from 7 to 7.  One Republican grumbled that this kills McCain — a sign that that GOP knows that early voting creates a structural advantage for Obama.

What is striking too is how many voters are waiting hours to vote early.  Voting early was designed as a way to reduce election day congestion, but large masses of people are going out and standing in line in a way that completely defies the “individual rationality” point made above.  The reason seems to be that voters have a strong sense of enthusiasm to vote.  It appears there are a lot more early Democratic voters than Republican, suggesting that Obama has succeeded in making this election feel like an historic event people want to be part of.  That means they will be more likely than not to stand in line, and take the time to vote.  That means that voter turnout may break records.  Moreover, if McCain voters are not as enthused, they might not be as willing to stand in long lines — especially if they feel McCain is going to lose anyway.

This gets me to believe that despite my warnings in the last week that McCain could still pull it off (and he could!), I’d place my bets on an Obama landslide.  Gallup has an interesting poll which measures the “traditional likely voter” and an “expanded likely voter.”  The traditional likely voter model shows a pretty tight race (Obama up three as of October 29).  But given all the early voting and youth voting likely to take place (young people like to be part of something historic), I would bet that the expanded likely voter (Obama up by seven) might actually itself be under representing Obama’s support.

This is only an hypothesis.  A race where McCain outperforms the polls will disprove my hypothesis.  If Obama performs about as the polls expect (especially the expanded likely voter model from Gallup), then I’ll need to look at whether or not the Democrats picked up a surprising number of Congressional seats to see if voter turn out was a major factor.  The Georgia Senate race, for instance, could be telling.   I’ve always believed that if the Democrats could find a way to get especially young and minority voters to go to the polls at the same rate or near the same as other demographic groups, it would render major electoral shifts.  Obama has done about all anyone can do to try to make it a reality.   That makes this election fascinating — it’s the first real test of an hypothesis I’ve held for over 20 years.

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Obama a Socialist?

…or a friend of terrorists, or a Muslim, or a believer in radical black theology, or a killer of babies…

Whew.  Those are just some of the attacks being made by either John McCain or groups supporting John McCain in the last week of the election.  It is the kitchen sink of fear, trying to do all they can to assure that when voters go into the voting booth they decide, “you know, I’m just not sure about Obama…I don’t really like McCain, but he’s safer.”  Will it work?  We’ll know in less than a week.

First, though, the “socialist” attack is obviously fatally flawed.  Socialism as an ideology is for the government to control the means of production, and plan how the economy operates.  No candidate advocates that, and even so-called Social Democrats in Europe have abandoned that approach.    McCain’s argument seems to be that any government involvement in the economy is socialism.  Yet, of course, he’s voted himself for large budgets and a bailout of the US financial system, a piece of legislation that directly gives government ownership and the ability to control to some extent banks and financial institutions.

Both McCain and Obama are fundamentally “liberal” in economics — believers in capitalism, markets, and individual rights.   They do differ on what amount of government involvement is necessary to make the system work in a way that provides real opportunity to all Americans, and what kind of governmental programs should exist.   That difference is minor; the fight is over about to allocate a relatively small percentage of US government spending.

In some cases, both candidates are extremely free market.  Both health care proposals are far more “capitalist” then most of the rest of the industrialized world.  Hard core conservatives in Europe almost always support their “socialized” medical systems, seeing it as a part of what should be socialized.  In America we’ve socialized protection (police), education (public schools), emergency relief (FEMA), protection of the homeland (military spending), transportation (roads and interstates), and a large variety of other things that the public thinks needs to be provided to all.   Europeans, left and right, tend to put health care in that list, Americans resist.  But this does not make the system socialist.

Socialism is NOT about government spending, it’s about the way in which the economy functions. If goods are allocated and prices set primarily by markets, then you have a market economy.   Go to a local shopping mall and it’s clear markets dominate.   Government involvement in fundamental economic activity is rare, and usually involves things like health regulations (e.g., the market is pretty bad at protecting people from unsafe products or dangerous foodstuffs), the environment, and other areas where the market is not considered able to achieve the public good.

One can argue for or against the level and type of regulation on some market activities.  Should food have labels disclosing its nutritional content?  Many believe that regulation helps the market function better, because it increases consumer information, and one of the reasons free markets don’t work on their own is that information is not only imperfect, but often pretty bad.  It’s not just that people don’t take the work to know, but on many factors they can’t know, the information isn’t out there.   The level and sort of regulation is a political issue.  But regulations are not socialist, they simply set ground rules for how markets operate.

But, of course, this is an election year, and the McCain campaign is losing.  They also see that they are not outside striking distance, if they can only find a way to move the polls a few points.  At this point, it’s too late to make a positive case for McCain and Palin.  Palin has dragged the ticket, and news within the GOP is a story of division and disagreement.  Therefore, there is only one strategy possible: go negative hard.

The robo-calls make claims like “Obama has a domestic terrorist as an associate” or follow scripts so bad that people working at telemarketers (in states that don’t allow recorded calls) making these calls often walk off the job.  Also, many sabotage the calls by talking in a way that is hardly understandable and clearly without enthusiasm.   In states where recorded versions are allowed, they sound nasty and scary.  Almost everyone says they don’t like these calls, but they are used because the goal is not to create a message where someone says “gee, that call is right, I’ll vote McCain.”  Rather, they want to plant a seed of doubt in peoples’ mind that might push them away from Obama once they get in the voting booth.

Nothing is off limits.  A 2001 interview about the civil rights movement is twisted to make it sound like Obama wanted the Supreme Court to “redistribute the wealth.”  That’s absurd, the McCain camp knows it, but the lawyer speak Obama used in that interview can be framed in a way that McCain can interpret it as he wants.   A quip about “spread the wealth” gets grabbed to create the narrative that Obama wants to “redistribute” to “spread the wealth” and is thus “socialist.”

All of this is trash.  It’s dishonest.  It ties into subthemes of race and questions about how “American” Obama really is.  It competes with viral e-mails accusing Obama of ties to Hamas and other radical groups.  But that’s American politics these days.  Whether Obama wins or loses, the McCain campaign will be remembered as one of the most nasty and negative of all campaigns in recent history.  That is a bit unfair, in that Obama has vastly outspent McCain, meaning he could mix a positive and negative message.  But McCain’s recent robo-calls and scare ads slip into the gutter.  And it may work.

I tend to think, though, McCain may end up doing the GOP more harm than good.  Not only does negative campaigning usually not work unless combined with a strong positive message, but given the distrust Americans have in the Republican ability to run the economy, charging “socialism” may not sound so bad to a lot of people.  The Cold War is in the distant past, and the idea that there are “communists” out there wanting to take over the country is a fear from an earlier age.  That was a mid-20th century fear, one that doesn’t resonate well today.  Also, the time to effectively define an opponent is early in the campaign; it’s a bit late to change a lot of minds.

But we really don’t know.    For the next six days we’ll see a steady assault on Obama with one goal: ignite fear that Obama is a risky choice.   It could backfire on McCain by looking his campaign look desperate and shrill.  It could win enough votes to get McCain to 270 electoral votes.  It will be a very ugly week.  If Obama wins as expected, he will have to work quickly to convince those who oppose him and believe the attacks that they have nothing to fear from an Obama administration.  If McCain wins, he’ll have to work hard for reconciliation because Democrats and Obama supporters will have a hard time forgiving such tactics and, to be blunt, campaign dishonesty.   In each case, the next President will face severe challenges.  Not only will he have to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan and the world’s financial crisis, but also with the fallout from an historic, but intensely emotional, campaign.

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Election Addiction

My purpose for blogging is to write about politics, culture and society, with an emphasis on international affairs.  However, lately I’ve drifted into the realm of American electoral politics, and for the next week I’m just going to go with it.  I’m addicted to reading polls, playing with scenarios, and following fervently the horserace side of this campaign.

I can’t work, I find myself heading over to politico.com (Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin have must-read blogs) or realclearpolitics.com (especially their poll page) to get the latest.  I’ll look at the left side from the Huffington Post and Rawstory, while the right is represented by Drudge and Q&O. And if I want a “crazy anarchist” take, I’ll go to 2-4.   And, of course, there’s the mainstream media reports…the latest gaffe, rumor or prediction, I’m there!  This is truly addictive behavior, and my solace is after November 4th I will no longer be able to feed my addiction, and thus will have to return to a more balanced focus on the world and its situation.

I’m also not at all into the issues.  I’m about the horserace now.   After the election I’ll look at the issues and grapple again with problems like, oh, how do we avoid a world wide depression that could ignite wars and cause misery.  But being a true addict, those big issues seem trivial compared to the latest poll from Missouri.

Lest this sound like I’m treating this like a sporting event, this addiction is driven by how much the horse race says about our culture, and about the nature of American politics in an era of “crisis and transformation.”  From a political science stand point, it’s full of new variables and uncertainties, meaning that regardless who wins, there is going to be a lot to observe and interpret after the election.  All of this combines to make me an addict.

First, the political science: never before has a candidate for President so outspent another major candidate.  The amount of money being spent by Obama is mind boggling.   That means he should be a shoo-in if the hypothesis that money works in politics is true.  On the other hand, never before has a black male with a name like ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ run for President.  That, along with the fear mongering of the GOP (Ayres, Wright, socialist labels, etc.) should make McCain a shoo-in.    And if Obama wins, how much of it is the money, how much is the message, or the possibility that in 21st century America people are getting beyond the kind of Atwater style attacks that have served the GOP well in past.

I have always been a believer that the ground game is where elections are won.  While Kerry was attacked in 2004 by motley groups like the “swiftboaters,” he could have still won if not for the way that Karl Rove built the strongest ground game ever seen in terms of getting out the vote, and targetting where to put resources to get out the vote.  Now Obama has a ground game that looks even more formidble, and could bring to the polls demographics that usually vote Democratic, but often don’t vote — the youth, minorities, etc.  Will it work?  If so, the Democrats could ride a Tsunami of greater electoral gains down the ballot than anyone could have dreamed of even a few months ago.  If not, it will join John Kerry’s much vaunted GOTV effort as more proof that the youth and minorities won’t show up, no matter how hard one tries.

I’ll be right back.  I need to get my “fix.”…OK, I’m back…no new polls, but I did go read that Obama is within five of McCain in Arizona, though his favorability rating there is 49 and unfavorable rating is 50.   That is an example of how odd this race is.  McCain has a 59% favorability rating, and in his home state should be much farther ahead.  And, since the same people answered each question that means that a lot of people who like McCain are still voting Obama…or perhaps it means Obama has softer support and McCain has more of possibility to move up…see this race is full of little tidbits like that!

Societally, this race could potentially be more of the same — a narrow GOP victory disappointing Democrats who thought they’d win this time — or it could be a major realignment, much like Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory.  When Jimmy Carter won in 1976 it was cool to be liberal, being conservative was looked down on, and in general the Republicans were seen as out of touch.  Then after 1980 conservatism took hold, liberal became ‘the L word,’ talk radio took off, and by the 90s some Republicans were talking about a permanent majority in Congress.  If Obama pulls off a huge victory, the pendulum could swing back, and conservatism and ‘free markets’ will be seen as dangerous, having brought us a decade of war and financial turmoil.  Given that even President Bush has embraced nationalizing parts of the financial market in at least the short term, people may be more ready than ever for an activist government.  If that’s the case, McCain’s message is way out of touch for this election.

Of course, if the re-alignment talk is wrong, McCain has the best strategy available.  How big the margin is on Tuesday, should Obama win, will give a huge indication of where the country is at.  If the Democrats pull massive gains in the Senate and House, the world will be turned up side down in Washington.  It’ll be a completely different ball game in 2009 (and a lot of staffers and personnel with political jobs will move in or out of the city).  If, however, people still stick to opposing taxes, fearing ‘big government,’ and worry about the Pelosi-Reid-Obama combination that defines McCain’s late campaign warning, then the race will tighten considerably.  If McCain wins, that’s a sign that the world isn’t so different after all.  If Obama wins, but the Republicans do better than currently expected in the Senate and House races, that’s a sign that McCain’s message still resonates, people aren’t ready to embrace change across the board.

As the election nears I’ll be posting some ‘election tools’: Senate races to watch, a state by state guide (with poll closing times), and a list of ‘early signs’ of whether it’ll be a late night, or if we’ll know early who will win.  Of course for those of us interested in the bigger questions about what the election means, it’ll be a late night anyway — I need to have a sense of where the House and Senate will be before I’ll be able to fall asleep without getting up and running back to the TV or the computer.

So this election horse race is a focal point for a lot of interesting questions about American politics and American society.  I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy and be fascinated by it.  But any addict would say that, wouldn’t they?

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Democratic Gloom and Angst

Even as the news appears as good as it could possibly be for the Democrats and Barack Obama, every Democrat I talk to is nervous and afraid that this one will slip away.   They point to 2000 and 2004, noting that a mixture of negative attacks and a tried and tested get out of the vote effort have been enough to motivate voters in red states to reach, even if barely, the magic number of 270 electoral votes.

Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be racheted up, perhaps with new video from Rev. Wright, or some false but yet believable rumor that will be pushed out at the end of the campaign, without Obama having time to effectively respond.  It doesn’t have to change the whole dynamic, just win enough votes to win the “red” states they need on November 4th.  Indeed, some are convinced that the faked attack on a McCain worker, who claimed a black man attacked her and carved a “B” in her face, was part of some kind of dirty trick.  She’s from Pennsylvania, the state McCain hopes to flip by scaring those in the western part of the state to think Obama is too strange and risky.  Even if they don’t like McCain, perhaps they can be persuaded not to vote for Obama.

McCain could pull it off.  Enough states are close, and enough time is left that anything can happen.   Should gloom and angst pervade the Democratic soul in the wake of all the good news that’s been coming?  No.  But that doesn’t mean they can count on a win.  The GOP turn out the vote machine is tried and true, Obama’s is not, despite the early voting turnout.  It’s good reason to be optimistic that it will perform on E-day, but not proof.

Moreover, as progressives write stories about how the country has changed — that conservatives don’t understand the sweeping change in both American demographics and political culture — deep down they wonder if it might not be wishful thinking.  Has the country really moved beyond the ability of Willie Horton ads or race bating to swing an election?   Is the country truly beyond being worried about the more radical statements by someone’s minister — statements which are normal and in fact quite understandable within the context of the black movement?   I think yes, though it’s still not sure how far we’ve come on that path.  In many ways the Wright-Obama comparison shows the difference a generation can make.

The generation of Reverend Wright was fighting against oppressive and exploitive inequities.  It needed anger to give its movement power, to convince a population to overcome numbing oppression and fight a system that appeared invulnerable.   It worked, their anger and drive led them to heroic acts that destroyed the foundations of the old America.  Obama’s generation recognizes the debt they owe people like Wright, even as they reject the radicalism.  That’s true of the Obama generation overall — the children of the sixties were radicals like William Ayres or the hippies.  They were breaking through an old culture that needed to be pushed aside, and as usually happens in such cases, went far to extreme in the opposite direction.

They won.  The sixties generation changed the world forever.  Their radical agenda was not fulfilled; it was never realistic.  But it gave them courage to fight on.  Now the second step beyond breaking down the old “Leave it to Beaver” world before 1968 is to create a pragmatic, inclusive, and problem-solving approach to achieving the goals that motivated the previous generation.  The generation of the seventies — those who came of political age at the end of or just after the Vietnam war — don’t read from the sayings of Mao, or really get into protests.   Obama is a completely different kind of person than those “associations” that McCain talks about.  Indeed, McCain’s obsession about being compared to George Wallace — a politician most Americans under age 45 have hardly heard of — speaks to his age, and how his mind is still a product of that sixties era.

In other words, stepping back from the intensity of this campaign one sees a country in a long term transition.  From the embedded racism, class division, and cultural homogeniety of the fifties to a modern, diverse, progressive and expressive country of the early 21st century.  Just twenty years ago someone like Barack Obama would not have had a chance to be at this level.  Now he’s raised more money than any candidate in history, has an army of supporters, and could well become the 44th President of the United States.  This campaign, win or lose, is a symbol of the fact that the United States is not the country it was a generation ago.   This campaign is historically significant in any event.

But if in nine days John McCain comes back, Obama supporters should not give in to rage about the system, or the ignorant/bigotted voters (and there are many — though most McCain supporters don’t fit into those categories), or McCain’s dirty tricks.  Yeah, complain about them, build counter arguments, prepare for the next fight.  But American democracy has always had such tactics, and that comes with the territory.  Life is to full of friends, family and every day events to let large political battles lead to anger or bitterness.  If McCain wins, put his feet to the fire to undue the damage of a divisive campaign, and push him on policy.  But life goes on, and in two years we go to the polls again.

Ultimately, the progressives are winning the struggle to remake American political culture.   Conservatives who don’t understand how the country has changed are shocked and amazed that someone they consider so utterly flawed could have made it this far — they believe it must be a media conspiracy or some kind of con job whereby Obama has hypnotised the masses with his images and words so they don’t see him for what he really is.  Win or lose, this election cycle shows that the country continues to move in a progressive direction.  Note how absent issues like gay marriage or abortion are from being even close to the top of peoples’ list of top issues — social conservatism is increasingly on the outs.

Other conservatives, recognizing the changing nature of the world and American thinking realize that their is a place for conservatism, especially to resist changes too sudden, or out of touch with the culture as it exists today.   The worst forms of progressive thinking took the form of ideological certainty: the French revolution or various forms of Communism.  Conservatives can keep progressives from putting their ideology ahead of America’s cultural norms, and keep a focus on keeping the government from becoming too powerful.  Progressives without a conservative counter balance will go too far too fast.  The two sides need each other.   Many on the right get that — I notice that my old boss, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, actually voted for and contributed to Obama.

A last reason Obama supporters should not give in to gloom and angst is pragmatic.  If it is to go wrong, then I say enjoy how it feels for the next nine days to imagine that kind of historic victory.  J.K. Galbraith wrote once that perhaps the crash of 1929 was worth it to give people at least a short period of believing they were truly wealthy.  If this illusion is to crash, one may as well enjoy it before it does.  That’s why I always reject the idea of “expect the worst, hope for the best.”  I want to expect the best, and accept whatever comes.  Gloom and angst are never fun, and there is reason now to have some fun.  We live in the present, not in the past or the future.

And, of course, all the optimistic news may be right and Obama might zoom to an historic victory.  Of course, looking at the state of the economy and the world today, that might end up creating a different kind of gloom and angst!

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Why I Endorse Obama

I’ve felt out of place with American politics for a long time.   I find the nationalism, militarism, and religious attitudes of the Republican party out of touch with my own ideals.  Don’t get me wrong — I have the highest respect for religious folk — my thinking is closer to theirs on a variety of personal and spiritual issues than the dominant thought in our secular, materialist culture.  I also believe that the United States represents ideals that are great and worthy — freedom, individual rights, and optimism.  I have respect for those who serve in the military with the desire to defend their country from attack.  But in my opinion too many in the Republican party have embraced a narrow view of religion, an ease in using military power without regard to its human impact, and a view of America that is less patriotism than nationalism.

On the Democratic side, I find too much faith in large bureaucracy and serving special interest groups.  The result has been large government programs which have been mostly ineffective and expensive, financed by high budget deficits which have rendered our country almost helpless in the current financial mess.  A lack of fiscal responsibility and a lack of trust in local and regional governance has been evident with the Democrats.

And to make matters worse, while the Democrats talk a good game on foreign policy and social issues, they’ve often supported the Republicans, as they did in granting President Bush the power to go to war, and continuing to fund the wars.   While the Republicans talk a good game on individual responsibility and fiscal conservatism, they spend like wildmen when they are in power — look at how deficits and debt skyrocketed in the terms of Reagan and Bush the Younger.

Though I am known for my optimism, in politics I’ve had a strong cynical thread.   Only Ralph Nader has really seemed worthy of my vote in recent years.

Yet now I endorse Barack Obama for the Presidency.  I do so noting first his faults:  his campaign is spending massive amounts of money, treating the campaign as being less about politics than marketing.   Second, he is relatively inexperienced — though, to be sure, no more so than George W. Bush.  Yes, Bush was Governor of Texas, but the Texas governor is one of the least powerful governors in the Republic in terms of how much power that institution has.  Indeed, in terms of ‘resume’ qualifications, Obama shares company with people like Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush the Younger whose experiences were generally outside the realm of what we look for in Presidents.

I also recognize that a lot of what the Democrats are talking about now seems to sound like more government spending and more centralization.   How can that really be “change,” and how can we afford that given our massive debt and the current credit crisis?   Given that, how can I support Obama?

First, I do not believe John McCain is up for the job.  He seems intellectually lazy, a gambler, and prone to anger.   He’s also over 70 and I’m sorry, but as a voter I can engage in age discrimination!  Second, I do not believe Sarah Palin is at all ready to be President.  Today I’ve been reading about how the McCain campaign considers her to be “looking out only for herself,” untrusted by the McCain people.  That sounds at the very least like a dysfunctional ticket.  Finally, I don’t think McCain is ready to do what needs to be done to change our country and its foreign policy.   That leads me to the positive reasons to vote for Barack Obama.

1.  Obama’s inspired a lot of people, particularly young people and minorities who previously have been outside the political realm.  To solve America’s problems, we need a national effort based on real people making contributions to the good of the country, not just bureaucrats in Washington throwing money at problems.  Perhaps Obama can parlay this national movement into something positive for dealing with the nation’s problems, not just electing Barack Obama.  He’s hinted at this, and frankly — no one else has come close to this kind of possibility in unifying the country and inspiring us not to look to government to change things, but to work on it ourselves.  He’s said he’ll call for sacrifice and service.  Perhaps that’s exactly what the country needs.

2.  Barack Hussein Obama can fundamentally refocus our foreign policy.  I like mentioning his middle name because if we elect someone with a name like that, we in one bold stroke prove to the world that Americans are not a bunch of red neck yokels who love war.   By electing an urbane black man with such a name, we’d be showing that we can think, and we are willing to embrace people who don’t fit the cowboy stereotype.  That would help us in shifting our policy from one based on simply trying to get others to do things our way, to working with others to develop a common approach.  We’ll still of course have a strong voice and a lot of influence, but through compromise and the use of soft power, we can lead without appearing arrogant.   Ironically, President Bush has moved in that direction since 2005, apparently having learned the hard way that “with us or against us” doesn’t work in a globalized world.  Given our economic crisis and the military fiascos of recent years, we need friends, and we need to work well with others.

3.  Health care.  The American health care system is irrational, and while many are without insurance, those who do often have insurance are covered by profit hungry HMOs and similar plans that try to deny people basic coverage, or seek excuses to reject claims (unreported pre-existing conditions, etc.)  McCain’s idea of taxing health care benefits and giving $5000 of tax credit is a scam.  Most families pay far, far more than that, and his plan, in essence, benefits primarily the HMOs and insurance companies, who won’t be challenged a bit.  I’m not sure if Obama’s plan is right; I’d prefer something more focused on helping states develop their own approach.   But I think Obama and the Democrats are more likely to try to fix a broken system, and to do so in a way that does not focus on the profit motive, but rather sees health care as a fundamental right for people in such a wealthy society.

4.  A change is needed.  McCain and the advisors around him are from the ‘old school,’ politics as has been practiced for the last 50 years.  That doesn’t work in an era of globalization, or in an America that has become a fundamentally different country culturally and sociallly than it was even 30 years ago.  Our economy is extremely vulnerable, and this crisis will get worse before it gets better — it may take over a decade to correct the imbalances of the last 30 years.   Terrorism remains a threat, yet “war” as a solution has failed.  We need to come together, focus on our values, work with others, and take a very different approach to the future.

Barack Obama is the first candidate I’ve seen in a long time that inspires hope that we can accomplish what it will take to deal with these difficult challenges.

I know many friends, fellow bloggers, and students at UMF who are very strongly either in favor of McCain or against Obama.  I respect that, and am thankful that in Maine we can disagree on politics without it becoming something angry or hateful.   The biggest compliment students pay me is when they disagree with me in class or in papers, showing they trust that I’ll respect their opinion and not punish them by grading their work down because they don’t share my opinion.   It is good that people disagree, our system couldn’t work without disagreement.

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