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How to influence people and win voters

Despite oodles more charisma, heftier moneybags and three times more Time magazine covers he couldn’t get more than 49 per cent of voters to declare for him, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2008, 13:45 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

A thin white line separates Barack Obama from the US presidency. Before last week’s Democratic Party convention, Obama had run into a ceiling in the opinion polls. Despite oodles more charisma, heftier moneybags and three times more Time magazine covers he couldn’t get more than 49 per cent of voters to declare for him. Obama was consistently ahead of the Republican contender, John McCain, but by a statistically meaningless two or three percentage points.

This was odd. Fed up with eight years of George W. Bush, almost 25 per cent more Americans called themselves Democrat than Republican. Split the independent voters between the two, if Obama got only his own party vote he would have had a double-digit lead. But he did not.

This was, and may still be, Obama’s Achilles heel. Somewhere between 7 and 10 per cent of the electorate was stubbornly undecided. And the bulk of them were Democrats of White working-class backgrounds. These were the voters who gave Hillary Clinton her late surge in the Democratic primaries. This may not sound like too much, but they are disproportionately strong in the states pollsters believe will swing the US election: Ohio, Montana, Missouri and the like.

The assumption is that these voters are being swayed by Obama's skin colour. That is a factor, but even Obama advisors admit it’s more complicated. These voters are concerned about the Democratic candidate’s ‘Americanness’. Explains Craig Charney, a former pollster for Bill Clinton, “Many of these voters find it difficult to identify with Obama. Look at his life story: assassinated Kenyan politician as a father, an Indonesian stepfather and then his Harvard education. It’s too weird.” Senator Obama might be acceptable, but Oval Office Obama makes them uneasy. His Arabic name doesn’t help. “That the first serious African-American candidate for the presidency should have a Muslim name is a cruel twist of fate,” said an Obama advisor. An internal Republican Party poll some months ago showed a fifth of US workers actually believed Obama was a Muslim.

Nor does Obama’s own ivory tower aloofness help. He is a physical fitness freak who declines the apple pie slices laid out for him in small towns while he campaigns. He put every single ball in the gutter when he tried his hand at bowling, a common weekend pastime for hardhats.

Obama has done his damnedest to plug this sociological hole. He moderated his opposition to surveillance and offshore oil drilling. His convention speech was bereft of references to his cosmopolitan background. Instead it was about how he was as all-American as they came. Obama kept his Hollywood fans far from the podium — blue collars don’t like being preached to by glam dolls. He chose Joe Biden to be his vice-president in part because he was a working-class Irishman done good. Right after the convention ended, Obama and Biden began touring rustbelt and farming towns, the places that inspire Bruce Springsteen songs.

Will it work? Any presidential candidate normally receives a 10 per cent bounce in the polls after a party convention. After a slight delay, probably because of the shock effect of McCain’s choice for running mate, Obama seems to have risen accordingly. Polls have him leading by between five and eight percentage points, touching 50 per cent for the first time in the election.

But post-convention bounces peter out after a few weeks. Obama will also have to contend with the ‘counterbounce’ that should come as the Republican convention comes to a close. A few US presidents have sustained their poll bounce all the way to election day — Bill Clinton in 1992 did, but then his bounce was a humongous 30 points. Nothing indicates Obama is that much of a phenom.

Nonetheless, it’s still advantage Obama. He continues to raise more money, attract more media and wow the crowds more than McCain. If he can hold on to even half the bounce he earned this week, he will be in very good shape. Most analyses of electoral-college vote distribution put him well ahead of McCain.

Obama has a remarkable ability to charm even diehard opponents once he focuses on them. For example, Hispanics were dyed-in-the-bandana Clintonites and historically hostile to Blacks. Today, over 60 per cent of Hispanics are on the Obama bandwagon. Can the rednecks of Appalachia and the Rocky Mountains resist?

What is clear is that Obama’s lead remains fragile. A small scandal, a big mis-statement, an abortive terror attack or an economic uptick could swing a few percentage points of voters into the Republican camp. Even a persistent undecided vote is a negative for Obama. Pew Foundation surveys have shown a quarter of conservative Democrats are prepared to vote for McCain over Obama. If by election day they are still sitting on the fence, many are likely to mark an X for McCain. “If we go into election day with only a one or two point advantage, we will probably lose,” said an Obama advisor. McCain advisors echo this line: 20 per cent of the blue collar vote adds up to 100 per cent of the White House.

Watch the next 60 days. Multi-million dollar ad campaigns are being prepared solely for America’s White underclass. Who will become the world’s most powerful man is a decision completely in the hands of the US proletariat. There would have been a certain poetry in this US election being held on May Day and its patron saint being Karl Marx.

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