News & Current Affairs

November 4, 2008

No apathy as US election day looms

No apathy as US election day looms

After nearly two years of digesting speeches and slogans, of being bombarded with adverts and requests for money, of coming to terms with the possibility of the first non-white or female president, Americans are nearly there.

Pedestrians walk along a pavement that is lined with dozens of election signs

One thing is certain: Americans are ready for this election

They voted in record numbers in the primary elections and now look poised to do the same in the general election. In fact, they already have been.

In more than 30 states, early voting began several weeks ago. It has not been uncommon to see large lines snaking around entrances to libraries, community centres and other voting locations.

If there is one thing that can confidently be said, it is that Americans are ready for this election.

At a time of economic crisis, with opinion polls consistently showing that large numbers of people are unhappy with the direction their country is taking, there is little sense of apathy.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

And, after eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican presidency, the advantage is with the Democratic Party – and the party’s candidate, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio

Mr Obama has mustered a record-breaking fundraising operation

He has raised mind-boggling amounts of cash – far in excess of even the most generous estimates – enabling him to compete across the country and to afford extravagant amounts of advertising in these final few weeks, culminating in the half hour “infomercial” which aired at prime time on several US networks last week.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Throughout the months that I’ve covered this election, the levels of excitement and enthusiasm at Obama rallies have consistently outstripped those of his opponents, both Democratic and Republican.

Only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – both historic candidates, in their differing ways, have managed to inspire crowds, in a similar fashion.

Transformational

But the question is: Will this enthusiasm, enhanced voter registration and substantial financial advantage be carried over into the polling stations?

If it is, Sen Obama has a real chance of winning many of the states, which have crossed from safe Republican territory into the “toss up” column; places like Indiana and Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate when the current one was just three years old.

The election could be transformational, not just in terms of bringing a non-white president to the White House, but in re-drawing the electoral map, at the same time.

John McCain campaigns in Florida

Behind in the polls, Mr McCain insists will be the comeback kid

There are plenty of potential obstacles, though. Some are visceral.

When it comes down to it, how many Americans will find it hard to put a cross next to a man with an exotic name and mixed-race background?

Will Mr Obama, for all his inspiring rhetoric and calm demeanour be seen as too aloof and professorial?

Will Americans prefer the earthier, more “familiar-looking”, Mr McCain; a feature of public life for several decades, with an inspiring story of war time heroism – and reputation for bridging partisan divides?

And what of the polls, which have shown a fairly consistent Obama lead for the past few weeks? Will that keep Democratic voters away, through a sense of complacency, or, perhaps, discourage Republicans?

Palin effect

Certainly, the McCain campaign has made much of the tightening numbers in recent days and in places, such as Pennsylvania – a must win state for the Republican candidate.

There, the Arizona senator’s argument that Mr Obama is too inexperienced in foreign affairs and too left-wing in his economic views is gaining traction.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
Householders with a repossession notice denied right to vote

Another big unknown is the Palin effect. Mr McCain’s running mate has inspired and disappointed in equal measure. She is likely to be a reason for many on both sides to turn out.

So, will the pro or anti forces be the most energised?

And whose get out the vote efforts will be the most successful? The Republicans have a good track record in this and the McCain camp seems to have kept cash aside for the final push, but the Obama campaign has broken new ground in its organisational powers.

The experience of the long primary campaign is likely to come in very handy.

Undecided voters

And what of those undecided voters? The sense I get, is that many are people who voted for President Bush four years ago, but are still unconvinced by Mr McCain – either for reasons of ideology or temperament.

If that’s the case, Mr Obama doesn’t need to win them over. He’d be happy if they simply stayed at home.

At this point, the odds remain in favour of an Obama win. But it’s not the bookmakers who will decide the result of the election; it’s the American people.

And after the longest, most expensive – and, according to many veteran observers – most inspiring election campaign in living memory, they are about to make that decision.

Rarely can their choice have seemed so consequential for the country, or the world.

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September 14, 2008

Record donations month for Obama

Record donations month for Obama

Barack Obama campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire, on 12 September

Barack Obama’s previous best monthly total was in February

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised $66m (£37m) in August, making it his best month in terms of election fund raising.

The amount raised makes it likely Mr Obama will have more to spend than Republican rival John McCain in the final two months before the vote.

Donations were lifted by half a million new donors signing up, an aide said.

The record figure contradicts suggestions that Mr Obama’s fund raising appeal had been slipping.

His previous record, of $55m, was set in February.

The fund raising details are expected to be announced in the coming week when the rival campaigns file their monthly financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

The public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken
Barack Obama
speaking in June

Mr Obama earlier decided not to accept public financing for the rest of his campaign and now has no spending limit.

He is the first candidate not to take public financing since the system was introduced in the mid-1970s.

Mr McCain did accept public financing, which limits his direct spending to about $84m after 1 September.

Recent opinion polls suggest Mr McCain has a lead of, on average, about 3% over Mr Obama, ahead of the 4 November vote.

Breaking the mould

Correspondents say Mr Obama raised more money than the Republican candidate partly because of the excitement generated by the Democratic nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, which ended on 7 June.

John McCain greets supporters at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia, on 10 September

Mr McCain currently leads Mr Obama in opinion polls

Mr McCain, by contrast, wrapped up the Republican nomination back in March.

The only donations he is accepting are those to his compliance fund – money to pay for lawyers, accountants and other expenses involved in maintaining compliance with federal election laws.

The Republican National Committee, however, can still raise money to support the McCain campaign.

The Obama campaign has also broken the mould of US election finance by making big efforts to attract small donors.

Mr Obama explained his decision to shun public finance in June by saying the system was “broken”.

“It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections,” Mr Obama said then in a video message to supporters.

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