Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Obama turns America’s tribal voting pattern on its head

By Macharia Gaitho

American politics is tribal.

Not in the sense of Kikuyu and Luo and Kalenjin and Kamba and all our competing ethnic groups, but racial and ethnic components do account for the differences in this richly diverse country. At the most basic level in the nation of 305.3 million people, it is Black and White. Obama Versus McCain.

Then there are the Hispanics, a sizebable group with about 14 per cent of the population compared to about 13.3 per cent that is black. There are the Asians, who are a distinct minority at five per cent, and the largely forgotten and ignored Native Americans, who make up about 1.5 per cent of the population.

Among the whites, things get very complicated, depending on how people chose to classify themselves in the census. There are the majority White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. There are Catholics. There are Hispanic whites. There are religious or ethnic groups like the Jews; and there are the various white ethnicities – Italian, Greek, German, Dutch, Irish and many more that went into the original melting pot.

Within the white community, for instance, political pollsters look not just at the above distinctions but also at sub-genres like education, sexual orientation, region, occupation, rural or urban, farming or industrial, new industry (IT) or old industry (mining, motorplants) and so on. These are the Tribes of America for whose votes Barack Obama and John McCain are competing to win one of the most compelling presidential campaigns in US history.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, the latest stop on a whirlwind tour between last Tuesday’s second presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee and the final debate set for New York on Wednesday. Before Philadelphia, Mr Obama made several stops in Ohio while his running mate Senator Joe Biden campaigned in Florida, another key state whose electoral vote could determine the outcome of the election. Republican candidate John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have been equally busy in the week or so between the two debates, covering, sometimes together and sometimes separately, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Winsconsin.

National opinion polls show Mr Obama increasing his lead over Mr McCain, reaching double-digit 11 percentage points — 52 percent to 41 per cent — according to the latest Gallup daily tracking poll at the end of the week. The margin was mirrored in the latest Newsweek poll. But outside the major national events like the presidential debates, the campaign is being fought at the grassroots level, block by block, town by town and state by state.

What matters in the American political system is not the national popular vote, but the state-by-state popular vote which determines the number of electoral votes through which the electoral college elects the president. The outcome in some states can already be predicted — New York generally votes Democratic — so the candidates are concentrating their efforts on the so-called battleground states where the outcome is still uncertain. There is no need, for instance, for Mr Obama to spend too much in California where he already commands nearly 54 per cent of the popular vote to Mr McCain’s 39 per cent. The Republican candidate would not bother too much about the state’s 55 electoral votes because he has little chance of overturning Mr Obama’s majority. The reverse holds true in another large state like Texas with its 34 electoral votes where Mr McCain holds an unassailable 51 per cent advantage over Mr Obama’s 38 per cent. So the campaigns are almost over in California and Texas and in a large number of other states where solid red indicates support for the Republican candidate while solid blue shows support for the Democrat.

But then there are the states where the outcome is still too close to call; they are coloured light blue or pink depending which way they lean. And there are some states where the candidates are virtually tied; they are marked with blue and red checks. Almost all the polls now indicate that if the certain states for either candidate are counted, Mr Obama has a clear lead. If he also captures the states leaning strongly towards him — those where he has more than a five per cent margin — then all the key pollsters including Reuters, Newsweek, Zogby, Gallup, give him an unassailable victory over Mr McCain in electoral votes. Some estimates already give Mr Obama just over the 270 electoral votes needed to secure victory; most give him a clear margin of between 330 and 350 electoral votes compared to Mr McCain’s 190 to 210.

Mr Obama’s tremendous surge is being attributed to the way in which he has steadily eaten into the regional and demographic groups that have been supportive of McCain or of the Republican party in general. States like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri and quite a few others were just weeks ago solidly for McCain. Now they are seen as leaning towards Mr Obama or are too close to call. According to the conventional wisdom of electoral demographics, Mr Obama’s key support comes from non-white groups including blacks and Hispanics; the youthful 18-29 age group; those with postgraduate educations; women; the urban poor, mostly black; and groups that are ambivalent towards religion.

Mr McCain’s strengths have been among whites other than Hispanic; senior citizens over 65 years; the traditional white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) and whites who attend church frequently or for whom religion is important. On the demographic map, therefore, Mr McCain’s support base has been in the traditional Republican strongholds, the middle and central United States that are largely agricultural bastions of conservatism; while Mr Obama’s support has been in the big cities on the densely populated East and West coasts.

His support among whites has been limited, as described above, to young, modern, well-educated urbanites.

That is what has changed. I was at an Obama campaign march in Nashville, Tennessee, last Tuesday on the same day the two presidential candidates had their second debate. Nashville is the home of country music. Tennessee as a whole is a very white and conservative state; guns, church and ranching are the defining characteristics. It is a solid red state where the 11 electoral votes are all but assured for Mr McCain.

But observing the Obama march around Belmont University, one could hardly have believed it. The participants were mostly white, as would be expected of Nashville. But they were not just the young, educated and modern white generation generally seen to side with Mr Obama. The chanting crowd included middle-aged to elderly white men and women of the type that instinctively would be fearful of and hostile to the prospects of an Obama presidency. That is the demographic that Obama is stealing from McCain in states around the country and the one that might secure him victory.

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