US Election -- forget the conventional wisdom

Business Times - 02 Jan 2008


IF YOU'VE been following the media coverage of the current US presidential campaign and listened to the many predictions that have been made by the pundits, pollsters and political 'insiders' about which of the Democratic and Republicans candidate was going to win the nomination of his or her party, you may have concluded by now that the 'experts' seem to be always wrong.

Indeed, at the start of the campaign last year, Washington's political professionals, reflecting the Conventional Wisdom (CW), were stating with quite a lot of confidence that Democratic New York Senator (and former first lady) Hillary Clinton and Republican Senator John McCain were going to emerge as the winners in the presidential primaries.

Hence Democratic Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the young and charismatic African-American, was dismissed by the media as nothing more than a brief media sensation, a political upstart that didn't have a chance to beat Mrs Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

The CW was that perhaps if Mr Obama didn't rock the boat too much during the campaign, he could try to run for the White House in 2012 or 2016.

And if you were covering the Republican presidential race, you certainly wouldn't bother to do a lot of research on former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee or Texas Representative Ron Paul. Mr McCain was the front runner and some attention was being focused on his two leading challengers - former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Again, the CW was that neither of the two could win the Republican nomination, not to mention the general race, since Mr Romney is a Mormon - a denomination that many Christians regard as a 'sect' - while Mr Giuliani had supported liberal positions on abortion and gay-marriage and could not win the votes of the conservatives who dominate the Republican party.

As the two parties are preparing for the presidential caucuses that will take this place in Iowa and to New Hampshire's primaries next week, much of the CW that has been perpetuated by the mainstream media has been overrun by events.

First, Mr McCain, who had failed to raise the amount of money he needed to finance his campaign, started losing his political momentum. He has collapsed in the opinion polls and is being transformed from a front runner into a has-been.

The media then concluded that his support for the failing war in Iraq and his relatively old age (70) has doomed his candidacy.

Then Senator Clinton seemed to be losing her position as the 'inevitable' Democratic presidential candidate, who supposedly represented 'experience' and who was expected to restore the Clinton Dynasty in the White House.

Opinion polls indicated that many Democrats just didn't like her. They found her to be too 'choreographed' and lacking spontaneity, someone who belonged to the 'past' as more voters were demanding more 'change' instead of more 'experience'.

At the same time, Mr Obama as well as former senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards were climbing in the polls. Democrats and especially young voters in first primary states told interviewers that they were starting to fall in love with Mr Obama who was described as 'refreshing'.

Celebrity Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned for Mr Obama in both states, clearly helped him gain more visibility, countering the effectiveness of the former president Bill Clinton's efforts to get his wife elected to the White House. Mr Edwards' populist message of class warfare and economic protectionism certainly helped strengthen his position in the races in Iowa and New Hampshire.

At the same time, contrary to the CW, Mr Giuliani, admired by many Americans for his leadership in New York City during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, started rising to the top of the opinion polls. Members of the Christian Right, impressed by the former New York mayor's national security credentials, have indicated that they would vote for the three-times-married Mr Giuliani.

The telegenic Mr Romney, who also happens to be a billionaire and hence has a gigantic war chest, was also showing signs of overcoming the Mormonism 'problem' and gaining support in Iowa and New Hampshire, especially by accentuating his strong opposition to illegal immigration.

But if seeing Mr Giuliani and Mr Romney soar in the polls seemed a surprise, the sudden rise of Mr Huckabee - whose only claim to fame for a while was the fact that he has lost 80 pounds - and of Mr Paul was clearly a huge shock.

Huckabee who? Well, the former preacher and a proud member of the Religious Right, who unlike Mr Romney didn't even have enough money to hire a full-time campaign manager, ignited the imagination of the Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who tend to be more devout in their religious beliefs that Republican voters in, say, California and New York.

Libertarian Mr Paul's anti-war message and anti-Big-Government message helped him mobilise potential primary voters in the two states as well as millions of dollars that he has been able to raise through the Internet.

Mr Huckabee's electoral 'surge' in Iowa and New Hampshire has been at the expense of Mr Romney, which explains why the man from Hope (the same town in Arkansas where another former governor, Bill Clinton, was born) is now leading in the polls with Mr Romney behind, and with some new signs that Mr McCain, who has already been buried by the media, could rise into third place in New Hampshire.

Mr Giuliani, who doesn't expect to do well in these two states, is hoping to regain momentum in states like New York and California which might be antagonised by Mr Huckabee's populism and religiosity.

On the Democratic side, the media is now betting that the succession of Hillary to the throne has been halted by Mr Obama and Mr Edwards who, according to the latest polls, are running neck-to-neck with Senator Clinton. Some experts predict that Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama would cancel out each other's support and allow Mr Edwards to surge to the top.

Others note that with large cash reserves, Mr Obama has enough resources to go after both Mrs Clinton and Mr Edwards, and win the Democratic nomination.

And who knows? If Mr McCain starts regaining his status as a Republican front runner, the earlier CW - Mrs Clinton vs Mr McCain - would prove to be very perceptive.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said…
The US election, viewed from afar, is incomprehensible, airs no facts about economics and foreign affairs, and appears to be nothing short of which candidate has the most bucks to advertise his factless campaign. Wake up, America! Start leading again. Stop copying yesterday's script.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous #1 makes an accurate assessment. It is all an illusion. And sadly, in the U.S., most of us can't hold our political leaders accountable for their failures or incompetancies, since we don't have the facts - before, during or after their tenure. Why not? Because someone would need to gather the facts then publish them - something our liberal media is incapable of doing.
well, at least the guys who won in Iowa were not the establishment's favorites.
btehrani said…
There is a lot of talk about what Clinton did to reverse the two digit lead by Obama shown on the polls. What went wrong on polls. The answer is "the poll effect". it was the polls that made the change not campaigning, not Hillary and not her tears.

From the beginning, we new that Obama's two digit lead on the polls are mainly due to it's support from unaffiliated voters, those independent that many share their support of Obama with McCain. Today many independent in NH accepted the suggestion from the polls that Obama is unstoppable, but McCain needs help. They rushed to republican primary to keep McCain in the race assuming that it will not hurt Obama.

The question is did Obama or McCain prepare for such poll effect. I think McCain did as he got NH vote on 2004 in a similar fashion when unaffiliated voters rushed to republican primary.

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