Borne in the USA

A big heavy mirror is borne by US presidential elections. It does not just reflect the state of the country. Given the increasing Americanisation of European and national politics – the presidentialism, the growing simplification of a wide range of political positions into liberal and conservative poles – the mirror tends to catch our reflection, too.

Political parties that wish to be parties of government need to direct their policies to where people are
- Ranier Fsadni

So, as the pundits pore over the entrails of Barack Obama’s re-election victory, getting the diagnosis right is not just a matter of academic interest, even for Maltese spectators. In the campaigns, the results and the post-election bitterness there are insights directly relevant to us.

Before I get to the two themes I consider most relevant, we need to dispel the idea that this race went right down to the wire. It was close for a while after the first debate, after a period in which Obama enjoyed comfortable leads in key states. But, for the past three to four weeks, all the poll indicators showed that, if precedent was anything to go by, Mitt Romney had less than a 10 per cent chance of winning. Admittedly you were unlikely to come across that information if you simply skimmed the headlines, although it was there in the detailed print of the better statisticians. However, that has more to do with the nature of the media, with a vested interest in keeping viewers and readers hooked and dangling for the next instalment, plus a general underestimation of the likely turnout for Obama.

The point needs to be underlined. For if one believes the election was fluid and volatile to the end, then it would seem that it was last-minute tactical issues that trumped more strategic factors to do with political party positioning. Whereas I believe that the two key themes reflect strategic matters.

The first theme concerns the political orientation of US society. As the results came in, some pundits declared they showed a polarised society. I am myself sceptical, although, obviously, I haven’t seen the detailed numbers.

It is one thing to say that the machinery of government is gridlocked, between a Democrat President and Senate, on the one hand, and a Republican House (which made gains) on the other. However, apart from the striking dichotomy between heavily Republican rural areas and Democrat urban centres, I believe the relatively close popular vote (as it seemed based on exit polls on early Wednesday morning) calls for a different explanation.

A politically-polarised society usually rewards ideologues. Yet, as the Senate race results came in, it seemed that the Republicans lost ground precisely because of certain over-the-top ideologues, whether associated with the Tea Party or with extreme social conservatism.

Democrat losses in the House are more complicated but many candidates have been reported to be angry with Obama for remaining remote from their personal campaigns (unusual with presidential candidates). If this was really a factor, it suggests Obama calculated he was better off under-emphasising his partisan identity: a sign that he didn’t think the crucial audience responded to partisan appeals.

My guess is the popular vote was close not because the country is divided in two ideological halves but because enough individual voters were of two minds: ambivalent between a President ending his term with a high rate of unemployment and a Republican Party that seemed to have drifted far from the US mainstream – on sexual politics, immigration and race.

And given that choice, the majority in the moderate swing states preferred to stick with mainstream – meaning what counts as ‘moderate’ in US politics. Voters can believe that someone who mismanages can improve but someone who seems completely cut off from where one stands cannot begin to manage your concerns.

The second theme concerns the political party machines. On victory morning, there was a lot of talk of the movement – the coalition of progressives – that Obama has built. His support certainly came from a set of groups – such as Afro-Americans and the lesbian and gay demographic – not often paired together in the past. But Obama would not be sitting in the Oval Office today without a formidable party machine. Today’s politics have made such machines more significant than ever – whether it is in collecting donations, or manning the district offices and getting out the vote, after having gathered the necessary strategic expertise to target finely segmented niche groups.

Obama’s machine in 2012 was, by all accounts, a considerably more sophisticated, larger machine than it was in 2008. In the all-important Ohio, Obama staff outnumbered the Romney machine by three to one. In case the election did go down to the wire, there were, literally, thousands of lawyers (on both sides) ready to issue legal challenges on behalf of particular voters.

In the Republican case, the dysfunctional party machine is an important element in Romney’s failure. To earn its nomination, Romney had, notoriously, to make policy statements that made him unpalatable to groups, like Hispanics, who were ready to switch away from Obama.

In all this, there are at least two morals for Maltese politics, antidotes to illusion.

First, political parties that wish to be parties of government need to direct their policies to where people are, not some miles away, where the party wishes them to be. Second, if you’re a voter, remember that behind most effective political movements, there is, in the end, a party machine.

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