Wednesday, October 22, 2008

US presidential race could be tighter than polls show

Business Times - 22 Oct 2008

FIRST, it was the hockey mom from Alaska who was going to help Senator John McCain get his groove back as he was trying to slow the momentum of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Mr McCain and his aides had hoped that being an attractive and young female politician and a working mother, Sarah Palin would be able to draw support from Hillary Clinton Democrats, while her conservative social views would help energise the Republican political base.

Ms Palin did deliver a great convention speech, helped rally the conservative Republican activists and ignited the interest of many voters. But then following her dreadful performance in several television interviews which helped turn her into the butt of jokes and late-night television comedians, Ms Palin's approval rating started plunging.

So then came the 'washed out terrorist', which is the way that Mr McCain described Bill Ayers, a former political activist and professor of education who was a member of the radical Weatherman movement that participated in planting a bomb in Chicago in 1969 - when Mr Obama was eight years old.

But, hey, Mr Obama had served with Mr Ayers and several other figures on a board of directors of a commission in overseeing the distribution of grants in Chicago, and that, according to Mr McCain and Ms Palin, demonstrated that the Democratic candidate was 'paling with terrorists'.

They demanded to know 'Who is the real Barack Obama?' Some supporters responded to the question with these answers: 'A terrorist' and 'Kill him'.

Hence, the strategy that was supposed to raise doubts about Mr Obama's identity as an American among white middle-class voters and imply that the bi-racial candidate Barack Hussein Obama was not 'one of us' seemed to be creating instead an anti-McCain backlash, especially as Americans confronted the shocking reality of the Wall Street crash.

The attempt by Mr McCain to engage in a cultural war at a time when the economy was on everyone's mind wasn't going to work. When you don't have enough money to support your family, you won't have any problem voting for a black man whose middle name was 'Hussein', if you conclude that he could help you put food on your table.

At the same time, Mr McCain, to put it bluntly, looked old on television, as someone who seemed unfocused and irritated.

Indeed, as Mr McCain was getting ready for his third and final debate with Mr Obama - described by pundits as 'McCain's last stand' - bad news kept coming for the Republican candidate, with The New York Times/CBS News opinion polls indicating that if the presidential election were to take place on Oct 14, as many as 53 per cent of likely voters would go for Mr Obama and only 39 per cent would vote for Mr McCain.

Moreover, not only did Bill Ayers fail to convince Americans that Mr Obama was 'not one of us', the poll found that Mr Obama was now supported by majorities of men and independents, two groups that he has been fighting to win over. And the poll also found that for the first time, white voters were just about evenly divided between Mr McCain and Mr Obama.

But that wasn't the whole electoral story. When it came to the Electoral College - the 538 popularly elected representatives from the states who formally select the president - Mr Obama has been able to establish a huge lead in the 'blue states' that Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry had won in 2004 as well as in the 'purple' or 'swing' states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

He also started challenging Mr McCain in traditionally 'red states' such as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, West Virginia and New Mexico, leading some pollsters to use the 'L' word, speculating that Mr Obama could end up with a landslide win on Nov 4 and that with the huge victories that the Democrats are expected to win in the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Democrats would have a clear mandate for change.

Mr McCain had hoped that the last televised presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York in which he would mount personal and political attacks on his Democratic rival would amount to a 'game changer' and help to halt Mr Obama's drive towards the White House.

Warning that Mr Obama was stealthy socialist engaged in 'class warfare', Mr McCain mentioned several times a Toledo plumber, Samuel J Wurzelbacher aka Joe the Plumber, who criticised the tax proposals of Mr Obama, expressing concerns that they would hurt owners of small businesses. But then it was discovered that Joe the Plumber wasn't actually registered as a plumber in Ohio, that he owed back taxes and that he would actually fare better under Mr Obama's tax proposals.

And in any case, members of the middle class are not in a mood these days to support the free-market-oriented policies of the Republican McCain. In short, the debate hasn't produced a change of game.

But the presidential race is far from over. Unexpected news - for example, Osama bin Laden releasing a video calling on Americans to vote for Mr Obama - could help Mr McCain change some of the numbers, especially in states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia, where the race remains close.

Most importantly, a large number of older white voters may be lying to the pollsters when they tell them that they are undecided or that they are prepared to vote for Mr Obama. The race may be actually tighter than the current polls show.

Two weeks are a lifetime in politics.

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

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