Politics, Race and Money


It’s just a few hours to the end of the race, but Race isn’t going to end anytime soon. It was pretty ugly in the 2008 presidential poll, too. Yet, 2012 makes that year seem benign. On the last lap, Mitt Romney is running as the Great White Hope, a Captain America against the illegal immigrant from Kenya (which is how many Republicans paint Mr. Obama). Earlier, Mr. Romney’s campaign co-chair John Sununu accused Gen. Colin Powell of choosing race over country. He claimed Gen. Powell had endorsed Mr. Obama’s re-election bid on the basis of colour. Right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and his crew have described Mr. Obama’s health care plans as “reparations” (compensation to the descendants of slaves). Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has freely used racist slang in attacking the President.

White Voters

No surprise, then. Mitt Romney has more White voters, especially males, with him than the last challenger did. But this unfolds in an electorate that is increasingly less White. And the Republican Party is poised to do worse than it ever has amongst Black and Hispanic voters. Race remains a major factor in the U.S. presidential election.

In 2008, when he ran and won against John McCain, the powerful Fox News Network sought to expose the “real” Barack Obama. It dug up some deadly sins. Mr. Obama, it turned out, had personally known a couple of Pakistanis in his younger days. Worse still, he had once visited Pakistan. (That’s passé now, with Mr. Obama’s drones making those visits daily). The other 2008 tack, that he is a foreigner himself, is more in favour. Never mind the man’s been President of the country for four years.

Barack Obama’s stunning 2008 victory makes it easy to forget two things. First, in September that year, his rival John McCain had in fact moved ahead in several of the national polls. Race played a role then, too. Then came the financial meltdown. Wall Street did its thing and drowned the Republicans. The second is that Mr. Obama’s great win in the electoral college vote — 365 to 173 — was not matched by his showing in the popular vote. There, his margin was much narrower. Just around 7 per cent. Even though voter turnout was at its highest — at 57.48 per cent — in perhaps 40 years. Again, race played a role in that. Yet, Mr. Obama got more White male votes then, than he is likely to get now.

There have been worse popular vote margins. George W. Bush actually lost the popular vote (-0.51 per cent) in 2000. He still beat Al Gore on the electoral college count in the dubious election that year. But Mr. Obama’s 2008 popular vote margin was far lower than his emphatic win in the electoral college count. This time, it will be hard to improve on it. To see it fall further — quite possible, even likely — would be an embarrassment.

The kind of polarisation that’s emerging, with race so major an element in it, will haunt the United States in elections to come. In the South, it draws on legacies of hatred going back to slavery and the Civil War. It is not that White people as a whole are opposed to Mr. Obama. He couldn’t win if they were. But Mr. Romney has been clearly able to draw a lot more White voters in his corner in a racially-charged situation. On this trend, things can and will get worse.

At the same time, while Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 was a huge symbolic moment for African-Americans, it’s not as if he brought them all on board. Or that all of them agree with him. Voices within the community critical of Mr. Obama have been growing. African-Americans will indeed vote massively in his favour. Yet, most of those who will vote for him were always Democratic Party supporters. That Mr. Obama is one of them (in a limited sense) might give him an edge. But a huge number of them have voted overwhelmingly for other Democratic presidential candidates (like Mr. Clinton) in the past. The sharp polarisation promises another thing. If the result is close — CNN’s poll suggests a photo-finish — that result will be bitterly disputed. There will be demands and fights over recounts. Get ready for endless lawyering. This is a nation where, anyway, that profession chokes the major institutions. Well over a third of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives are lawyers. In the Senate, that’s more than half. Yet other members of both houses may have a law degree but have not declared themselves lawyers. There is also a huge overlap between the legal world and that of lobbyists, making their domination worse.

Impact of Hurricane Sandy

In 2008, the Wall Street meltdown destroyed John McCain. Many believe Hurricane Sandy will do that to Mr. Romney. And indeed, his television presence during the crisis has helped and will help Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney, as one analyst put it, “simply found no way to work himself into the news cycle during those days.” This was true. But what lies beyond is not quite simple. Hurricane Sandy can have an adverse effect on voter turnout. And there is also growing anger amongst the affected — after the cameras have left. Long lines for, and panic buying of, gasoline continue. There are thousands whose homes were simply blown away. As many as 40,000 people may have been left homeless in New York alone. Wrecked neighbourhoods face a crime wave and looting.

Costliest and Most Cynical

Meanwhile, we’re just hours from the conclusion of what has been the costliest and most cynical U.S. presidential election campaign in history. The two main rivals have spent half a billion dollars in just three “battleground States” — Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And nearly thrice as much in the remaining States. (Counting spending by the candidates, their parties and Political Action Committees).

The country was subjected to its greatest barrage ever of political commercials. Over a million ads ran on broadcast and national television through October. More than ever before. Some 40 per cent more ran in the same month in 2008. It’s worth remembering that in 2008, Mr. Obama hugely outspent Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama out-advertised his rival by a ratio of four to one. This time, though, his rival has given him something of a run for his money, overall. If you’ve raised a billion dollars (as incumbent President) as Mr. Obama has but are still struggling, things aren’t too bright. But Mr. Obama still held the edge in the ads race. Anything goes in that race, from innuendo to outright lies.

Congressional Contests

Then there are the Congressional races. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs. The Center for Responsive Politics — the country’s foremost poll-spending tracker — had reckoned total costs closing in on $6 billion (The Hindu, Oct. 18, 2012). That mark will be met and breached. Indeed, of this, the presidential race alone might have seen spending close to $3 billion. The trends are also reflected in the composition of the U.S. Congress. As “Occupy DC” had pointed out quite some time ago: 1 per cent of Americans are millionaires. But over 47 per cent of members of the House of Representatives are millionaires. So are 56 per cent of Senators. (the median wealth of a Senator, says the CRP, is $2.38 million).

Mr. Obama has had a fight on his hands at all stages, this time around. Two features have been constant for a while. Bad unemployment figures. And a lack of relish and enthusiasm. The zest for the action seemed to be far more in the media. (Which is also the biggest beneficiary of the wild spending). The raw enthusiasm and energy we saw in 2008, spurred in part by the meltdown, has been missing. The kind of blunders that Mr. Romney made — take his infamous 47 per cent comment — should have sunk him. They didn’t. He’s stayed in the fight despite them.

There are also those from all communities who cannot recapture the magic of 2008. They could never vote Mr. Romney. And some could go with the logic put out by one writer: ‘My enemy’s enemy is my President.’ But some might not vote at all. They have seen a Corporate-World-Rules-as-Usual regime for four years. They have wearied of the wars and their costs. They know firsthand that most of the jobs coming up in the ‘recovery’ are low-skill, low-wage ones.

Mr. Obama has only gained after he gave up playing to a right-wing Democrat gallery and returned to the populism of 2008. That came very late in the campaign, yet, helped him out of a hole. Mitt Romney could find himself in one, that he might blame on Hurricane Sandy. He did have Mr. Obama on the mat, more than once. And while important pollsters speak of a dead heat and say correctly that either can win, it’s harder for Mr. Romney to do so. Beating an incumbent U.S. President would be quite a feat.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.
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