Adam Boulton's US election diary
Written by Opinionon 19 November 2012 in
This article is from the December 2012 issue of Total Politics
Economists have written whole theses on ‘shoe shine’ and ‘no shoe shine’ economies. The argument goes that America is the former, where grafters are willing to take on any task no matter how menial and end up president or a billionaire one day, and that Britain is not.
The moralistic argument, made by those on the Republican right fearing an Obama re-election, was essentially that he is putting America’s shoe-shiner status in peril, transforming the country into a cossetted, socialised, European-style dystopia.
Whatever, a highlight of the US nation’s capital is the African–American-run Union Station bootblack stand. It leaves my shoes so shiny that I don’t need to touch them between visits in a campaign year. “Hey, did you know West Virginia Ku Klux Klan voted for Obama?”, my attendant broadcasts to anyone passing by on the concourse. “Got the pictures here on my iPhone to prove it. Hell, if the Klan vote for Barack, so can I!”
In fact, this voter alliance was not as unlikely as it sounded. When the exhaustive exit polling data came in, it turned out that a clear majority of rural dwellers voted for the president. So did lower income groups. The poverty, which divided the races in the old confederate states, may just be bringing them together.
For while the block which voted for Mitt Romney can be crudely summed up as ‘white guys’, Obama prevailed because his campaign turned out the same coalition which put him in the Oval Office in the first place.
Hefty majorities of women, young voters and black, Latino and Asian ethnic minorities backed the Democrat. Whites are still the majority, but the fall in the percentage they made up of the 2012 electorate – from 74 per cent to 72 per cent – almost exactly mirrors the shift in the US population that demographers reckon is now taking place in the four-year period between successive elections.
This was behind the typically brutal explanation of the election outcome given by the most rated Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “The demographics have changed”, he declared, “it’s not a traditional America any more. The white establishment is now the minority”.
Just as Romney had done in his famous off-the-record remarks about the unreachable 47 per cent of the electorate, O’Reilly linked the statistics to a political argument: “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”
Twenty four hours earlier, O’Reilly – in common with most on Fox News but not their excellent senior political man Brit Hume – had confidently predicted a Romney victory, but in the event, there was neither the wave of enthusiasm for Romney which they had foreseen, nor were Obama voters and independents as disillusioned with his record as they had anticipated.
There was a modest swing against the president of about two per cent compared to his performance against John McCain in 2008, but he still ended with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.
As the picture of an Obama victory firmed up, there were unprecedented scenes of disarray on Fox News. Their leading expert commentator Karl Rove, the master tactician for George W Bush-turned-dispenser of billions of dollars as head of a pro-Romney super PAC, denounced the channel’s statisticians on air when they “called” Ohio for the Obama, effectively declaring him president.
However, it didn’t take long for O’Reilly & Co to get over their shock. Within hours of the Romney concession speech, commentators were on air opining that the president did not have a mandate.
In the view of Democrat activists, the Tea Party-friendly right are trying to build an alternative reality, which, in their view, also involves distortion of the facts on such matters as climate change and abortion. Fired up, these Democrats fight back with equal viciousness. For example, confident of victory as the polls closed, the pollster Stan Greenberg and ex-Clinton aide James Carville sent out an extraordinary memo, ending, “The ass-whupping cometh”.
They also claimed that the Republicans’ denial of reality extended to their rejection of opinion polls pointing to a narrow Obama win: “Instead of learning from experience, the Republicans continue their war on science and facts.“
Greenberg and Carville noted that a particular focus of Republican spite had been Nate Silver, who blogged on the polls for the New York Times at the FiveThirtyEight site (there are a total of 538 electoral college votes).
Silver is a ‘quant’; he uses quantitative analysis techniques developed for sport statistics to produce probability statistics on election outcomes drawn from opinion polls. By the time the polls closed, Silver had an Obama victory at well above 80 per cent, leaving his Republican critics fit to tie. And on the night, Silver triumphed, with his predictions reflected in the actual results with remarkable detail.
Silver-style statistical analysis is certain to journey across the Atlantic in time for the next general election, but it may not take root simply because there is not enough poll data in Britain. The big money in American politics ensures that there are plentiful national and local polls from diverse sources as an election approaches. We do not produce data with anything like the same quality or regularity needed to be successful. Silver’s method depends on comparison and track records because he includes algorithms about the accuracy of his sources in his model.
But ultimately this election outcome was easily explained. It was a stand-still election, a phenomenon which we are becoming familiar with in Britain too following the 1997 and 2001 identikit Blair landslides.
Collectively, voters know how to do it. The same sorts of people vote in the same way in roughly the same numbers and you get the same result. Obama fatigue meant that the overall turnout was slightly down on 2008, but it was down across the board, not just for Democratic voters.
So with the same president, the same narrow Democrat majority in the Senate, and Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, does a stand-still election mean the same stasis – political gridlock between the White House and Congress? I suspect not. Republicans in Congress may claim they have the same mandate to block as before, but they have failed in the number one task their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, set for the past four years – preventing an Obama second term.
Obama’s popularity and approval ratings are high, especially following his rapid response to Hurricane Sandy, while feelings about congressional politicians are still in the pits. Both sides also have the prospect of a new year’s plunge off ‘the fiscal cliff’ to concentrate their minds. Absent of an alternative agreement between the president and the legislators, by law, taxes will go up automatically and spending will be cut to such an extent that America’s economic recovery could turn into recession.
My feeling is that a second-term presidency will suit Obama even though it has proved frustrating for most of his predecessors. As the president made painfully clear in the first 2012 TV debate, he has a distaste for many of the competitive aspects of politics. He is a deliberator and a doer rather than a debater. Seldom emotional, he likes to have his own way in the end. Never having to fight another election because of term limits will play to his strengths.
Obama is also calculating that he has most of the people on his side in an increasingly diverse United States, even if the political pros are belabouring each other with slapstick fervour.
As he told the thousands packed into his victory rally in Chicago: “We are not as divided as our politics suggest. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”
From shoe-shine boys to the Ku Klux Klan, Americans had better hope President Obama has got that right.
Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News