US Election 2008: Knife-edge race now favours McCain

Professor Dennis Altman

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 September 2008

Perhaps the Obama dream was too good to be true. The vision of a half black, post-Cold War version of John Kennedy leading the United States into a new era of post-partisan politics excited just enough Democrats to win him the party nomination. It looks less certain to win him the Presidency.

Were I betting on the result, I would now cautiously put money on John McCain. This is not primarily because of the Sarah Palin factor, although her nomination has undoubtedly given a boost to his campaign. Nor is it a reaction to the latest polls, which have to be read with considerable caution.

Some observers suggest the campaign is revealing that Obama, as Hillary Clinton claimed, is a great speechmaker with no tangible achievements. Others argue that John McCain is a more plausible leader at a time of international tensions. Polls show that most non-Americans favor Obama, but fear he may not be electable.

It is a platitude to say that the American electorate is conservative: what electorate isn’t? Indeed the United States switches between its two major parties more regularly than do many other western democracies. But there are factors in the American system that favor the more conservative candidate, in particular the absence of a national system of voter registration that means a lower percentage of voters than in other rich countries.

The Palin factor is usually interpreted as cementing rightwing Republican support for McCain, and winning over some of the white working class who distrust Obama. More accurately Palin seems to have humanized McCain, giving him the appearance of representing real change while allowing voters to still vote for a reassuring older white man.   

I use both adjectives deliberately: the American electorate is disproportionately white and elderly. Proportionately more Americans voted in 2004 than in any Presidential election since the tumultuous contest of 1968 [both of which were won by Republicans]. But those who voted were more likely to be of higher income, and while those under thirty are strongly Democratic, they are least likely to vote. Obama estimates that in New Mexico, one of the most marginal states, an estimated 170,000 Hispanics are not registered.

Obama’s campaign places great stress on attracting young and African-American voters, and both groups are most likely to be Obama enthusiasts. But nowhere do they constitute a majority of the electorate, and expectations that disgruntled right wing Christians will stay at home rather than vote for McCain seems less likely now than a month ago.     

Most important, Palin’s nomination gives many voters the excuse they want to not vote for a black candidate. How far this is a factor is unknowable, partly because many voters won’t admit it even to themselves. But it is probable that many of those who are quoted as saying they can identify with Palin are expressing unease at identifying with an African-American.

Unease, too, at voting for someone who promises change and can be painted as ultra-liberal. Uncommitted voters are less likely to be won over by the promise of ‘hope’, more easily scared by the multi-pronged fear campaign that has allowed the Republicans to win most Presidential contests in the past forty years.

There are real parallels with 1960, when Kennedy’s Catholicism was as much a factor in scaring—and attracting—voters as is Obama’s race. But McCain has the advantage over Nixon that he is not part of the current Administration, while being able to claim considerable military and foreign policy expertise.

It is my hunch that large numbers of Americans who distrust both political parties were uneasy with both candidates, but wanted change. By responding to this sentiment, as against his earlier stress on experience, McCain has positioned himself as the leader in the contest.

Of course, much could change. The candidates will engage in four debates, three between the two Presidential nominees. McCain’s greatest weakness is his age, and he could yet be defeated by seeming old and tired when viewed alongside the much younger Obama. Richard Nixon, after all, blamed his defeat on his five o’clock shadow on television.

Since the conventions McCain has positioned himself as simultaneously the candidate of change and experience, a trick not even John Howard managed. The election is now his to lose, and the eventual result may hang on whether McCain is perceived by enough swinging voters as a wise father rather than a potentially doddery grandfather.

Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at LaTrobe University