With the results of the most intriguing presidential contest almost upon us, Michael Clark reflects on why this election has enticed the world’s attention.

As you read this, the sometimes, creaky machinery of the US electoral system is cranking into action as the most expensive political contest in history comes to a conclusion.

Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have criss-crossed the 50 states and delivered thousands of speeches in front of rallies ranging in size from a few hundred hardy partisans to a hundred thousand frenzied zealots. The candidates have aged before our very eyes as this punishing marathon reaches the finish line.

Unlike the elections of 2000 and 2004, whose outcome was very much in doubt until election-day itself, it is widely accepted that Senator Obama will win a clear victory over his rival John McCain. Opinion polling is not an exact science but there has not been a single national poll for six weeks that has shown McCain to be ahead nor is the picture on a state-level any rosier for the Republican.

The states of Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado look certain to flip from red to blue and as long as the Democrats can hold the line in the states they won in 2004, victory is all but assured. Were John McCain to win at this late stage, it would undermine every tenet of political science. Obama leads in the polls, he has a huge fundraising advantage and his troops on the ground are remarkably enthused and efficient. The Obama juggernaut has seemingly breached the once impregnable defences of the Republicans.

This election was not always so clear-cut. At the conclusion of the conventions in early September, a tight race that would be decided by a handful of votes in a few swing states was likely. If anything, John McCain looked to be in the ascendancy after he pleased his party’s base by choosing the exotic Sarah Palin as his running mate. Whatever is said about Governor Palin, positive or negative, no one can deny that she has served to electrify the electoral process and raised the stakes involved for both conservatives and liberals alike.

McCain’s elevation of Palin to a Vice-Presidential candidate was one of two major turning points in the campaign. It is generally the case that running mates have little tangible impact on the campaign. Not so this year, as polls indicate that Sarah Palin has become a real drag on the Republican ticket.
She started well; delivering a stirring address to the Republican convention in Minneapolis and her conservative positions on abortion and gun rights prompted a fundraising boom for McCain’s financially strapped operation.

Yet a number of scandals have persistently dogged her over the last two months. Most notably, she was censured by the Alaska legislature for ethics violations for actively seeking the dismissal of her estranged brother-in-law from the state police. Her subsequent firing of the police chief was her prerogative as Governor but appeared to be a naked act of personal punishment. Almost all politicians have skeletons in their respective cupboards (including Barack Obama and Joe Biden) but Palin was primarily chosen as a reformer who would complement John McCain’s image as a maverick railing against the corrupt Washington DC establishment.

Even worse for Palin, it soon became apparent that she was simply not ready for even the Vice-Presidency, let the alone the Presidency. John McCain is a vibrant 72 year-old but it would be reckless in the extreme to neglect the possibility that some misfortune may befall him over the next four years.
This ignoble thought, however unpleasant, made it all the more important that McCain chose a plausible President to be his running mate.

Even some hardened Democrats found Sarah Palin’s pained efforts to respond to interviewers’ questions difficult to watch.

Charlie Gibson of NBC and Katie Couric of CBS are not in the same journalistic mode as Pat Kenny or Jeremy Paxman. They asked their questions in a deferential manner and were hardly forensic in their follow-ups. There was no excuse for an allegedly well-informed, charming and telegenic politician to produce such poor performances.

In the Gibson interview, Palin floundered when asked to describe the Bush doctrine and then proceeded to threaten to declare war on Russia. The Couric interview was a total car-crash; Palin was so overawed that she was unable to communicate like a normal human being. When asked to name her favourite media sources, she couldn’t name a single newspaper or magazine. When asked to describe John McCain’s economic record, she produced some gibberish before telling Couric that she would get back to her with details of McCain’s record later.

The overriding feeling from most commentators was that her elevation to political superstar was too much too soon.

Her ordeal was an unmitigated disaster and undermined the entire Republican ticket. Needless to say, the McCain campaign rushed into damage control mode and sought to remove her from any further mishaps.
Relations with her running mate appear to have become icy as the election approaches. Many have concluded that Palin is preparing herself for the top job in four years time. Get ready for glamour, drama and excitement. She’ll either secure the nomination or destroy the party of Lincoln in the process.

The other turning point over the last two months has been the precipitous and potentially catastrophic collapse in the world economy. The hapless leadership of President George W. Bush has been a millstone around the neck of the Republican Party and John McCain’s grasp of economics has been less than impressive.

The farcical suspension of McCain’s campaign as Congress negotiated the details of the massive banking bailout only served to underline his discomfort on the economy. While Obama offered calm reassurance and a tax cut for 95 per cent of working Americans, John McCain continued to insist that the fundamentals of the economy were strong and decried Obama’s tax plans as a socialist conspiracy.

This angry rhetoric, almost redolent of the Cold War, reached its zenith as John McCain embraced the perceived economic plight of Joe Wurzelbacher, or ‘Joe the Plumber’ as he was later hailed. The unfortunate Joe had clashed publicly with Obama, claiming that his plumbing business would suffer as the result of the Democrat’s tax changes. Were it not for the fact that Joe is not a registered plumber, that he owes considerable back-taxes and that he is a relative of one of America’s most notorious convicted fraudsters, one could almost have taken John McCain’s cause celebre seriously.

Unfortunately for him, as long as the economy remains on the centre stage, the Democrats win. The Republican Party and its credo of unbridled capitalism is an enduring combination and will one day come back into fashion. However, the voter of 2008 will likely seek to tame the cruelties of the market.

John McCain’s likely demise is unfortunate and sad to see. A true American hero deserves a better fate. Ridicule and opprobrium will be heaped upon him from liberals and conservatives alike. While he has run a sometimes, nasty campaign it must be remembered that it could have been much, much worse.

He did not choose to whip the United States into a racially charged frenzy as he might have done. For that, the American people should be grateful. John McCain probably deserved to be President in 2000; the challenges of 2008 require a different kind of leader.

My focus on the McCain campaign’s failings should not in any way detract from the achievements of Barack Obama. If and when he wins this week’s election he will have completed a political odyssey that seemed, and still seems ,almost impossible. He defeated the seemingly unstoppable Clinton electoral machine with an almost perfectly executed campaign to win the Democratic nomination.

It appears that Obama has transcended the racial divides that have plagued the United States since its foundation. If we were asked five years ago whether there would be a black president in our lifetimes, how many of us would have answered in the affirmative? His likely victory is a blow to sceptics and cynics everywhere.

A President Obama could rehabilitate America’s image in a way that a President McCain or a Vice-President Palin could not. Never again can the critics of the United States lambaste it as a bastion of poorly-educated, racially prejudiced and religiously bigoted white people.

Finally, the unfortunate continent of Africa has borne the brunt of civilisation’s excesses. The cradle of humanity itself has been subjected to unspeakable aspects of human cruelty as the white man’s lust for cheap labour and plentiful natural resources overcame his moral instincts. Now, at last, a man of black African descent stands poised to become the world’s most powerful person for the first time in recorded history.

Mass rejoicing will follow his victory. Great and impossible expectations will be heaped on his shoulders. However well he serves as the 44th President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has earned his place in history.


Electoral College Projection

The US President is elected by 538 individual citizens who comprise an Electoral College that submits its vote to the United States Senate on 6th January. Voters across the country theoretically do not vote for a particular candidate directly but rather for a slate of electors who are pledged to vote for a particular candidate.

Each state has the same number of electors as it does members of Congress. Thus the least populous state, Wyoming, which has one Representative and two Senators has 3 electoral college votes. California, with 52 Representatives and two Senators has 54 votes and so on.

Thus, as Al Gore, Grover Cleveland, Samuel Tilden and Andrew Jackson have found to their detriment, winning the most votes nationwide does not guarantee victory. There are 51 individual contests.

In all but two states, the candidate with a plurality of votes cast takes all the electoral-college votes. Maine and Nebraska can split their delegations but rarely do so and it is unlikely that either state will play a pivotal role this year.

State or constituency-based electoral predictions generally fail to take into account the overall national picture and most projections are inherently conservative. Some national polls show Barack Obama to be up by over ten percentage points. If his national margin is that large on Election Day, he could win states that seemed to be completely unwinnable in advance. As Obama is currently heavily favoured to win this week’s election, it should come as no surprise that he enjoys a sizeable Electoral College advantage.

The overall tally reveals that Barack Obama has 291 electoral votes. The number needed for victory is 270.
Obama has seemingly shored up the Democratic baseline states that Al Gore and John Kerry won over the past two election cycles. McCain still believes he has a chance in Pennsylvania but most recent opinion polls give the Democrats a clear advantage.

The Republicans also felt they had realistic chances to compete successfully in Michigan, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Wisconsin but they have since given up on those states entirely. This retreat, coupled with Obama’s strength in Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico (states that narrowly voted for Bush in 2004) makes McCain’s task almost impossible.

The old reliable swing states of Ohio, Florida and Missouri continue to soak up millions of dollars of advertising and numerous candidate visits. All three states eluded the Democrats in 2000 and 2004, thus sinking the Gore and Kerry campaigns. This year, however, the three states are by no means as pivotal because Obama’s strength in the Mid-West and South means that he can win the election without the blue-collared voters who dominate those states.

Obama’s huge money advantage allowed him to throw resources at traditionally Republican states in the Mountain West and Deep South. If anything, Obama was initially too optimistic and wasted resources on a number of long-shot states such as the Dakotas and Alaska.

Clearly, his appeal has struck a chord a chord of the ‘empty’ states that have always delivered for the Republican Party. Whether this appeal will be channelled into extra electoral votes is questionable but his decision to expand the map will likely reap dividends for the Democratic Party in future election cycles.
It is truly remarkable that a black man is competitive in southern states like Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. These bastions of the Confederacy have not voted Democratic in over thirty years but a perfect storm of economic hardship, demographic changes and increased enthusiasm among black voters has given Obama an edge that a generic white Democrat could not match.

Anecdotal evidence (via early voting) suggests that young people, as well as ethnic minorities are turning out to vote in truly exceptional numbers. This wave of previously untapped support has been difficult to capture in most surveys and suggests that Obama may well out-perform his polling numbers.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he quipped that the Democrats had lost the South for forty years. That extended period in the political wilderness may well be coming to an abrupt end. If you’re looking for a surprise this week, wait for the results from the sovereign state of Mississippi. 37 per cent of the state’s population is black, meaning Obama will only need to capture one quarter of the white population to strike an indelible blue blow to the heart of the Confederacy.

If Mississippi falls, John McCain faces into an abyss of embarrassment of humiliation. Barack Obama looks set to ascend to the Presidency in an Electoral College landslide.

Certain Obama (98 Electoral Votes):
Vermont, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington DC, Maryland, Hawaii, Delaware
Likely Obama (129 EVs): California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Jersey, Maine
Lean Obama (64 EVs): New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia

Certain McCain (58 EVs): Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, Nebraska
Likely McCain (63 EVs): Texas, Louisiana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Tennessee
Lean McCain (35 EVs): Arizona, Indiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia

No Clear Favourite (91 EVs): Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri, Montana, Georgia