The American Presidential Election

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Obama or McCain - what is the difference and what is at stake?

 

A panel of acclaimed experts will discuss the issues related to the American Presidential Election, which is to take place on the 4th of November. The panel includes:

 

* Adam Boulton, the Political Editor and the presenter for Sky News. He is also a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines such as The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Spectator and The New Statesman.

 

* Peter Kellner, the President of the opinion polling organisation,YouGov. He has over thirty years of journalist experience, including work for the BBC, The Sunday Times, The Independent, New Statesman and The Evening Standard.

 

* Catherine Mayer, the London Bureau Chief of Time Magazine. Formerly she was the President of the Foreign Press Association in London.

 

* Stryker McGuire, the Contributing Editor of Newsweek since 1996. Prior to that he was the American West Coast Editor and the Chief of Correspondents forNewsweek.

 

* Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law.

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THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

 

Professor Vernon Bogdanor

 

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.  My name is Vernon Bogdanor, and I have been giving a series of lectures on American Presidents from Roosevelt to Bush, and I recognise some people it the audience who have been to some of these, but perhaps some of you have not, but at any rate, we thought it would be valuable to have some sort of session on the forthcoming Election.  I thought the best way to do this was to get four experts to take part in a panel discussion.  So I have collected together four experts, two Brits and two Americans, and I would like to begin by introducing them to you.

The two Americans are Catherine Mayer, who is the London Bureau Chief of Time Magazine, and Stryker McGuire, the Contributing Editor ofNewsweek.  And the two British people are Adam Boulton, the Political Editor and presenter of Sky News, and Peter Kellner, best known I think for his contributions to The Evening Standard, and he is the President of YouGov, which is a leading opinion polling organisation in this country.  So we have got four experts, and it is going to be a Question Time format, with just one exception, that, as Chairman, I am going to have the privilege of the first question, but then I am going to call for questions from the audience.

But the first question that I would like to pose to the panel derives from something I heard an American career diplomat say at Chatham House some months ago.  He was talking about foreign policy and the Election, and he said, "The trouble with you people in Europe is that you overestimate the extent of change that occurs after an American Election."  He said, "After an American Election, the Administration may change, but nothing else changes." I want to ask the four whether that is or is not true.  Can I begin with you, Stryker McGuire?

Stryker McGuire

I think it depends on the election.  In this Election, if we know one thing for certain, it is that the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate will grow even larger than it already is, and there will probably, although by no means yet a certainty, there will probably be a Democratic President.  That allows for a certain amount of change under normal circumstances.  It could even be a significant amount of change under normal circumstances.  The problem is that circumstances are not normal this time around, and whatever any President wants to do will be severely constrained, mostly by the economy.  Therefore, the fiscal crisis has basically left the cupboard empty, and not only empty, but raised the prospect of hiking taxes, no matter who the next President is.  So change becomes quite limited, quite narrowly focused, and therefore you could have, depending on who is the next President, really significant change on the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court is now finally balanced; it is really four on one side, four on the other side, and then one judge in the middle, who basically casts a deciding vote again and again, and he has gone in both directions.  The next President will name at least one new Supreme Court Justice, and possibly three, and that is something that obviously lasts for the better part of a generation often, so that would be terribly significant.  So, in summary, I would say that whether there will be change or not depends on the election and the circumstances.

Peter Kellner

I hesitate to say anything about domestic American politics with Catherine and Stryker here, so let me make two international points.  The first, especially if Obama wins, is that I think America's reputation in the rest of the world will change.  What we, at YouGov, have found pretty consistently over the last few years is that the Brits quite like Americans but hate Bush.  This gulf between the country and its people, on the one hand, and its political leadership, on the other, will certainly change if Obama wins, as I think he will.

The second point I would make is that, probably irrespective of who wins, I think it looks as if America's stance on climate change will be different.  I think it is more likely to change more if Obama is President, but McCain himself has taken a different view - he has not sought to deny the evidence, as Bush did until relatively recently.  So I think, whoever is President, there will at least be a greater engagement with the rest of the world on the kind of policies that might be needed to avert global climate change.

Catherine Mayer

I agree, Vernon, with the premise of your Chatham House discussion; change is always limited.  So, to that extent, I had always seen this Election, until recently, as a question of disappointment now or disappointment deferred.  This is because I think that the world, as Peter says, is expecting an Obama victory, and all sorts of things are predicated on that outcome, but I also think that there has been a mismanagement, not surprisingly, on the Democrat side, of expectations of exactly how much Obama can do once he gets into power.  However, I said "once he gets into power", I would say - and I'm sure Peter will say more about this later - that I am not feeling as confident as the polls suggest I should be, and I actually have begun to think about what would actually happen if we wake up on the 5th, or in the unlikely event that the results are actually there on the 5th, to a McCain presidency.  As Stryker just said, the Upper and Lower Houses are likely to have a Democrat majority.  If you have a Republican President, you have this spectre of stalemate in Washington, just at the point where you are actually needing decisive action.  You also have a world that is going to be incredibly disappointed in the outcome, you have various interest groups in the States who will be very disappointed, people who will believe that they have been cheated, and there is also a kind of stock market bounce that a lot of people are expecting on the back of an Obama victory.  So I have begun to get increasingly nervous and pessimistic about what the world will actually look like if we get a reversal of what the polls are predicting.

Vernon Bogdanor

Adam, are you nervous and pessimistic?

Adam Boulton

Never nervous and pessimistic!

I think I can understand why Chatham House drew that particular conclusion, because I think they are talking about the history of our times, and my feeling is that, if you look at the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush sequence, there probably wasn't a great deal of change.  Obviously, it was Republican dominated, but much of Clinton's New Democracy accepted quite a lot of the nostrums of the Republicans or the centre Right, as indeed we saw with Tony Blair at a similar period in this country.  My feeling is, however, that that whole mindset has been shattered - bookended, if you like - by the two main events of Bush's Presidency: the Iraq War and 9/11, at one end, and then, at the other end, the economic crunch which has now taken place.  So my feeling is that it will be farewell to all that, whether McCain or Obama were to win.  I think we are now in the beginning, if you like, of 21st Century politics, as far as ideas are concerned.  I am not necessarily sure that we have seen a great deal of evidence from either candidate or campaign of those fresh ideas, but I think they will be required to make a fresh approach. 

The one word of caution I would make, bearing in mind the enthusiasm for particularly Barack Obama in this country and across Europe, is that I suspect that in foreign policy, in practical terms, there may be the least change of all.  It doesn't seem to me that there is very much in anything that Barack Obama has said if he wins that leads one to suspect that he would take a new multi-lateralist approach to most of the world's problems.  I think he believes in America first, and uses that rhetoric throughout the debates just as much as John McCain has done.

Vernon Bogdanor

I think that we should now throw it open to the audience ...

Audience Question

Twenty-six years on, how relevant is what used to be called "the Bradley effect?"

Vernon Bogdanor

Catherine, will you tell us what the Bradley effect is?  I'm not sure I know myself, I have to admit.

Catherine Mayer

I actually think it's Peter who should be answering this because he has just come up with a new phrase, the "Reverse Bradley", which I'm really enjoying.  However, the Bradley effect is named for the unfortunate politician of that name, who was ahead in the polls and then, when the results were tallied, found to be the loser because of the idea that people, in the privacy of a polling booth, will go in there and will not vote for a black man even though they have said they would.  That is something that I think could play a role in this Election, but I think much more significant will be the number of people who think that they might be voting for a Muslim.  I don't know what you have seen of the exchanges recently about Barack Obama's Muslim heritage or not, but there was a fascinating exchange where McCain tried to quieten down somebody in a crowd who said, "He's an Arab!  I'm not going to vote for an Arab!" and he said, "No, he's not - he's a good family man!" which I think really tells you everything you need to know about quite how potent that issue is.  It is an issue that Obama has also not addressed this head-on, and perhaps should have done.  Obama has done too much to actually disassociate himself from his Muslim roots, and in that way - and I'm now saying "Muslim roots" as if I am believing these things (clearly he has members of his family who are Muslim and he spent time in countries where it was the majority religion, but he is himself a practising Christian) - but the point is the eagerness with which he disassociated himself from that has actually muddied the waters still further.  Therefore, on Election Day, if there are a large number of people who still believe that he is Muslim, they may, in the privacy of the polling booth, choose to vote against him.

Vernon Bogdanor

Peter, what is the "Reverse Bradley" effect?

Peter Kellner

Let me just go back and give a little bit of history.  In 1982, Tom Bradley was standing for Governor of California, some of the polls put him ahead but in the end he lost.  In fact, the term "Bradley Effect" was devised by a pollster who simply got it wrong, a man called Fields, who showed Bradley leading by seven points.  The actual, more reliable poll, by a man called Tarrance, showed Bradley's leads diminishing, and if you simply followed the line of Tarrance's polls, his final poll showed Bradley one point ahead, and I think he lost by one point, and so it looks as if it is just a bum poll by Fields.  However, the most recent study of Harvard's political scientists, who looked at I think around twenty Senate and Governor races over the last quarter of a century, came to the conclusion that up to 1996, there was a Bradley effect, as Catherine says, of people telling the polls they were going to vote for a black candidate and either voting for the white candidate or not voting at all, and it was worth, on average, about three points; the support in the polls for black candidates, for Senate or for State Governor, overstated the candidate's support by about three points.  But since 1996, this seems to have disappeared.  There are various reasons why this might be so- and this is just pure speculation, as I'm reporting the speculation of the political scientists who've explored this - but it might be that crime became much less of an issue, with a falling crime rate in the cities, and crime, rightly or wrongly, is linked in many people's minds with, as it were, black wrongdoing more than white wrongdoing.  So, as crime ceased to be an issue, there became less of an aversion to black candidates.  It might also simply be just a long-term trend.  I think Pew have asked the question over the last forty years about whether, all things being equal, you would elect a black candidate to Congress, I think the question was, and about 1970, something like 30% of people said they wouldn't, and it's now come down to about two or three percent.  But regardless, the evidence from 2006 at the last round of Senate and Governor races shows that there is no sign of a Bradley effect.  But when I was in America last week, I just found Obama supporters simply divided.  When I say "Obama supporters", this is at Stanford University.  These are people who follow it very closely, and they're simply divided between those who say the Bradley effect has gone and those who say "but we've never been in the position before of having a black candidate for President and the dynamics may be different", and some are cautious and quite worried.

The Reverse Bradley Effect is where there appeared to be some signs in the Primaries earlier this year that, in states with a large black population, Obama's support was understated by the polls, and it appears to be that what they were under-predicting was the turnout among black voters.  It wasn't that people were voting for somebody different from what they told the pollsters, but that the turnout calculation was wrong, and that you've got a real enthusiasm among black electors for Obama that the polls didn't quite capture.  Now, two of the states where this occurred were Virginia and North Carolina, which are of course two of the battleground states now but are traditionally Republican states, and were Obama to take them, and he's in the lead in the current polls, and should what you find is that in white America, there's a Bradley Effect, but in more ethnically mixed America, there's a Reverse Effect, it could be, in the end, that Obama does better than the current polls in terms of electoral college votes because the really white states are Republican states.  It doesn't really matter whether McCain wins Utah by 25 points or by 30 points - he's going to win Utah and other states like that, but places like Virginia and North Carolina, which are important here. It's something we'll know in two weeks' time, and it might be that Obama will do slightly better than the polls are saying.

Vernon Bogdanor

Adam?

Adam Boulton

Well, one white veteran Chicago reporter who knows Obama well, and I suspect is a supporter of his even though he does work for Fox, said to me that he believed that, for Obama to win narrowly, he'd want to see him about 10% ahead in the polls.  That was his estimate and he covers these things much more than I do.  I think the interesting thing of course is that Obama's lead is opening up, and the reason why I think it's opening up is because I think the McCain Campaign has failed to give people an alibi for voting for McCain if they're inclined to take into account race. 

However, I would say a couple of things about race which I think are worth noting.  My judgement would be that there is quite a lot of truth in the suggestion from Hillary Clinton supporters that Obama would not currently be the nominee were he not black.  I think that if he were a white first-time Senator from Illinois, it would be very unlikely that he would have had the narrative strength.  The other, more complicated, thing about Obama is that he is not an African American in the sense that he is a descendent of slaves.  He doesn't send out those racial signifiers which people pick up.  His wife, Michelle, does and the children do, but he doesn't.  Finally, I will just make the point that it is being said that he is suspending his campaign to visit his ailing grandmother.  I'm sure his grandmother is ill, and I'm sure family feeling comes into it, but I think the fact that she's white probably won't do him any disservice either.

Vernon Bogdanor

There is a book, is there not, by an American conservative called Shelby Steele - I think it's called "A Bound Man" isn't it? - saying that Obama is not actually a very good representative of the African American.

Adam Boulton

He's not; he's not a descendent of slaves, which is the fundamental issue.

Vernon Bogdanor

Stryker...?

Stryker McGuire

Of course, race will be an issue, but we just don't know how big an issue.  In fact, in the last two days, the race has begun to narrow just a little bit.  Over the weekend, there was an eight point difference, and now it's 5.8.  I think you can go on and on about this, but I do think that race matters, and it matters especially in America, certainly more so than it does here, but we really don't know exactly how much it matters, which is why the Obama Campaign is being very careful not to get at all complacent, because they know that there's probably a margin of error there that they will have to deal with on the final day.

Audience Member

How far do you think that the candidates for Vice-President, the running mates, might possibly be of more importance this time than in many occasions in the past?  For instance, one idea going around, if McCain wins, is: "He's a bit old - he might get too sick or even die," and of course, with Obama, "Oh, he's going to get assassinated."  So do you think people in the US are taking into account the Vice-Presidential candidates more for those reasons, or doesn't it really matter?

Vernon Bogdanor


Adam, is there a Palin Effect, or Reverse Palin Effect?!

Adam Boulton

Well, I certainly think it's the case that Biden doesn't matter.  In effect, he's a reasonably distinguished political hack.  I think what's significant about him is that he's not a woman, and therefore, that doesn't answer those questions raised for those Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton.  I've read a lot about Palin, looked at a lot of the polling evidence and I'm sure Peter Kellner knows it in more detail than me, she has put off a high percentage of swing voters, but she's energised almost a similar percentage of disillusioned Republicans, who didn't like McCain.  It's important to remember, in this race, that the Republican activists have never liked McCain, and she answered those questions.  She also, obviously, rings some bells with those people for whom gender is important.  I think people will look back on this and say was it the right thing or the wrong thing for McCain to choose Sarah Palin.  I would say, indisputably, it was the right thing for him to do: it energised his campaign; it had an impact in the polls.  I think she's an extremely interesting politician.  I don't think we've heard the last of Sarah Palin, even if she doesn't become Vice-President.

Vernon Bogdanor

Stryker, is this right?  Was McCain right to seek to shore up his base rather than to win over the centre ground?

Stryker McGuire

I think he was right for about two weeks, when it worked.  There was a period, from September 7th to September 17th, when in fact McCain pulled ahead for the first time, which was important this year because a Democrat was always going to be in a stronger position in the polls.  In terms of what killed her relates to the fact that I said September 17th as the end date of her nomination working.  That was the Monday that immediately followed the weekend where the various decisions were made that allowed Lehman Brothers to collapse, which was announced on the morning of September 17th.  I think it's the financial crisis that really killed the Palin Effect, because suddenly, it was all about seriousness, and for all the qualities that Sarah Palin may or may not have, seriousness is not one of them, and I think that since that time, it's not only hurt her, but it's also raised questions among, not only most people outside of the United States, but in many people inside the United States, about McCain's judgement, including Colin Powell, as far as that goes.

Vernon Bogdanor

Peter, what do the polls tell us about this?

Peter Kellner

I think slightly more on Stryker's side than Adam's, in that there was a positive effect and it's gone.  Let me add just a couple of points.  One of the things I became more aware of, being in America for a week, is what one might call the Tina Fey effect.  On Saturday Night Live, a bit like "That was the Week that was" from many years ago, an actress who looks startlingly like Sarah Palin has satirised her mercilessly, and I think it is a bit like "Spitting Image" and the way David Steel was defined by the "Spitting Image" puppet of him being in David Owen's top pocket?  I think something similar has happened to the image of Sarah Palin through the Tina Fey impersonations.  Now, does this affect the Republican base?  Certainly not, and I'm sure they have been energised, but in as far as this Election is concerned, it is worth remembering that American elections are always about two things: they're about getting your base out; and then winning over the independents.  I think, as Stryker says, since the financial crisis and with what we've come to see about Sarah Palin, she's lost heavily.  I think this is how McCain's has lost heavily among the independents.

The second point I would like to make is a counter-factual.  What if Sarah Palin had not been such an idiot and a disaster?  In other words, had there been a serious, right wing, Republican base loving woman candidate in her forties, I think we might now be seeing a different race.  So, as it were, I think the net effect is probably pretty small, one way or the other - I think the positives and negatives cancel out - but it might have been, in slightly different circumstances, a strong positive for McCain which hasn't now happened.

Vernon Bogdanor

But presumably the credit crunch would cast doubt in any case on the right wing Republican philosophy of leaving it to the bankers to get on with things, to put it crudely?  Is that right, Catherine?

Catherine Mayer

Yes, but back also to the Palin point and seriousness, I totally agree with what Stryker said; it was a good choice for two weeks, and it was that Katie Couric interview that really did for her, where she was unable to explain anything about the crisis that was going on or how this would feed through.  But actually one of the consistent criticisms of both candidates, and Obama has been weak on this too, is about articulating what what's going on on Wall Street has to do with Main Street.  This is also why Biden, going back to your original question, does actually play a bit more of a role in this race than you would normally see a VP playing: it's because he's the person on the Democrat side who can kind of feel the pain of people in Main Street.  One of the consistent criticisms of Obama is that, not that he's black, not that he's an outsider, but quite the opposite, that he belongs to the elite.

Stryker McGuire

If I may I say one final thing about Sarah Palin before we go on: another part of the Palin effect is that, during the month of September, Obama raised $150 million, in a single month, twice as much as he had ever raised before.  The previous record was the month before, which was August, and I think that he can thank Sarah Palin for a lot of that money.

Adam Boulton

Okay, well I want to say one thing more, which is actually quite significant about this.  There is absolutely no doubt that the "liberal" or "established" media - or whatever you want to call them - have played a very significant part in this campaign.  There is also absolutely no doubt that they've been biased; that they have favoured Democratic candidates.  They favoured Obama over Clinton, and - Saturday Night Live is one example - they've gone in a big way for Palin.  Now, the mistake which the McCain Campaign made, and it has not been a particularly well or bright campaign, was that they allowed Palin to get defined in terms of "Can she go on the networks and do the Sunday interviews?", and she failed.  I would put it to you actually, okay, you could say you're not worried for a Vice-President, but if you get into a quiz with questions like "Who's the President of Pakistan?  What's this policy mean?" and all that, most of us would fail.  After they had got this initial bounce, they allowed her to be defined in that way.  She did interviews, she was put out, and she failed.  Had they used her on the talk shows, had they used her in meetings in Philadelphia and all that, I suspect they would have managed to get that effect going, and one of the factors about this, whether people like it or not, is that the Obama Campaign has been extremely well run throughout.  It was better run than Clinton's.  It was quite cynical in terms of what it targeted, and if Obama wins this Election, one of the messages will be that machine politics still works.

Audience Question

I wanted to ask about what the panel thinks on the effects of changing demographics on the Election, and two developments in particular.  One is the major relative population growth in the Deep South and in the Mid-West.  You used to have the entire population more or less centred around the North-Eastern Seaboard.  For example, the states that John Kerry won last time round, up until 1988, those states alone could have won him the Presidency, but because it's now dispersed much more across the US, that's one major change.  The other is the greater population diversity in these states as a result.  I wondered what the panel's thoughts on the effects this might have were, either on this Election or in future elections.

Vernon Bogdanor

Peter, are the demographically growing states the Republican ones or the Democrat ones?

Peter Kellner

Yes, they're broadly Democrat ones.  It's a bit like in Britain; that the growing areas of the country and population tend to be Conservative areas, so they are the outer suburbs and small towns, whereas the Labour inner cities and industrial areas decline.  Something similar is going on in America, which I would say consists of two things.  One is that, as it shifts, of course some of these places become less Republican.  New Mexico, for example, or extraordinarily North Dakota, which was Bush by a mile in 2004, are both in play now.  So the demographic shifts, to some extent, make some of the Republican areas a bit less Republican, and some of this may certainly be happening in Virginia and North Carolina.  But in terms of this Election, I think these quite slow long-term shifts, though in the long run very important, in the short run are trumped by the registration battle and the ground war.  To pick up what Adam was just saying, Obama is simply winning this hands-down.  I saw this morning that in Florida, for example, in 2004, there were 350,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats; now, there are 600,000 more registered Democrats than registered Republicans.  It's one of the reasons why I think that, even if there is a Bradley effect, and even if the popular vote nationally is very close, I think Obama will win, in a sense as Bush won in 2000, because he wins the ground war, and the resources they're putting in will be very influential in the end - and it's not just television adverts.  I suspect that's actually the less important part.  It's the staff on the ground, the people going round town after town, street after street, getting people registered, getting those who are registered to vote early, which is now, a lot of what's going on now, and Obama, it appears on the early indications, is about twenty points ahead, on the early votes that are now being cast.  That ground war, that registration war, getting the turnout among young voters and black voters up, that could well be what shifts it, in the short run, and that demographic is much more important than even the long-term geographical shifts.

Stryker McGuire

As Peter's suggesting, I think the youth vote is a really important factor here, especially for Obama.  If you take the state of Ohio, which was won the last time around by Bush, I think by 150,000 votes or something like that, there are, this time around, 750,000 new potential first-time voters, the 750,000 people who are now between the ages of 18 and 22 who couldn't vote last time.  That is a really important number, and it's repeated in state after state.  Ohio is not a particularly young state.  So that will be a very big factor.

Vernon Bogdanor

Catherine, when we talk about the young, are we not in danger of falling into two fallacies: first, of thinking about the young in the elite universities, the more articulate young, as being necessarily representative; and secondly, isn't it the case that the young simply do not vote as much as their elders do?  People say, "well, this time it's going to be different", but they said the same in 2004, and in previous elections.  Are we making a mistake about the young?

Catherine Mayer

That's one of the reasons why I think it's very hard to actually read and trust the polls: surprise news, the young are flaky!  They don't always get out of bed and go and vote, or they do it wrong,  etc.  But there clearly is going to be a more sizable youth vote this time, and I think that one of the things that is interesting about America is that it is a young country.  We're here in "old Europe" in many senses of that phrase.  These countries all have a totally different demographic - an aging demographic.  America is becoming more diverse all the time, and it still has this growing population, and there is this very rapid demographic change.  There's very rapid social change that goes with it, and I think it's one of the things that's given the rather nasty edge to what's been termed "the culture wars".  This is because there is something of an identity confusion going on: there is one block of people who feel that they're in danger of being overwhelmed and subsumed in this new, very fast moving and diverse culture, and that's why, when you listen particularly to the right wing Republicans, there's a kind of nastiness to some of the campaigning.  Virginia, one of the states we're talking about, where there's a notion of "real Virginia" and "rest of Virginia".  The Republican Party has just put out this extraordinary leaflet which has a picture of an aircraft coming towards some people on the front, and it says something like "Terrorists don't listen to you," and next, you open it out, and then there's a picture of Obama, "He says we should listen to terrorists," and there are all these so-called Robo-calls, the auto-generated calls, talking about these things, that are being targeted at exactly those people, in exactly those states, where the demographic shifts are the largest.

Vernon Bogdanor

There are also adverts associating Obama with people who have been involved with terrorism, or trying to associate him with that.  It's a very nasty campaign.

Adam Boulton

Well, he is associated with people who have been associated.  You could say it's a long time ago and it doesn't matter, but it is a matter of fact.  I think it's also true that they are not the only negative ads.  It's not been entirely McCain supporters who've manufactured negative ads.  There have been some pretty negative ads both about Sarah Palin and about John McCain, including ones which basically imply that he's got senile dementia problems.  I would not want everyone to leave this evening with the impression that the baddies are the Republicans and the goodies are the Democrats in all of this.  I would simply say, on the point about demographics, the interesting thing about the young voters is the very successful way that the Obama Campaign have used the internet.  They took people from Mark Warner's Campaign - Mark Warner, the Democrat in Virginia - and it certainly worked in terms of raising small amounts of money from multiple donors.  It may work, possibly, in terms of turnout as well.  It also is important to remember that George Bush was relatively successful at recruiting black voters.  That doesn't appear to be something which McCain is repeating.

There are two unknowns, we've talked about one, which is women, and the other one we haven't talked about yet this evening is Latino voters.  Again, polling seems to suggest that they are not as resistant to voting for Obama as it was suggested that they were, but there are many people who feel that the Republican Party will end up being Latino dominated over the next generation or so.  How that will play into the way that that growing demographic votes, we shall have to wait for the results I think.

Vernon Bogdanor

On the question of the women's vote, it's often forgotten that Hillary Clinton met a tremendous smear campaign really against her being female, which really very nasty indeed.  Will that have any effect on the voting behaviour of women who might otherwise have voted Democrat but will have been put off by that?

Peter Kellner

There are undoubtedly women who, on the basis of the way they feel Hillary Clinton was treated by the Democratic Party, are going to vote for the Republicans this time round.

Catherine Mayer

Although that's where the Reverse Palin effect comes in, because there were women who I talked to who were going to vote for McCain until he chose Palin, and then found themselves so confused that they're probably not going to vote at all!

Audience Question

I was watching Obama, I think it was in the rally in Florida yesterday, when he was urging voters to vote early because you don't know what's going to happen on polling day.  If the Election result is close, is there likely to be a state that plays the role that Florida played in 2000, with the various legal challenges and other strange things going on?

Vernon Bogdanor

Stryker, is that likely?

Stryker McGuire

It's possible, and I will defer to Peter on that, but what I would say is that talking to Democratic and Republican operatives here, the number of lawyers who are fanning out across America is vast!  It's literally tens and tens of thousands of lawyers, particularly in states like Florida and Ohio and the states where it will be close.  They learned their lesson in 2000, and in 2000, the Republicans were much better organised more quickly in Florida, and the Democrats don't want to see that happen again.  But Peter, what state could emerge as the real cliff-hanger?

Peter Kellner

Let's start with the arithmetic point: the reason why a state matters, such as Florida in 2000 and Ohio, to some extent, four years ago, is because you reach the point on the night where it is so finely balanced that one state is left and the victor of that state becomes President.  Let me make an historical point: that is incredibly rare.  What happened in 2000 and 2004, when it came down to a single state in the end, it's decades since that last happened, indeed, it might not have been important since the race of Kennedy and Nixon.  So what we're looking at is something which is highly improbable.  For it to happen three times in a row would be remarkable, but if it were to happen, one is wondering what state would be important.  It could be Florida or Ohio again - 27 electoral college votes in Florida and 20 in Ohio.  If it's going to be, as it were, a new key state, I would offer North Carolina - 15 electoral college votes - as one that might do it, but there are other states.  It could be Washington State, up in the North-West; it could be Minnesota; it could be Missouri.  It just depends, to some extent, on the arithmetical chance of simply how it falls on the night, but my guess is that, although it's terribly exciting for all of us on the night to have a really knife-edge election.  It would be great journalistically but I think improbable politically, for it to happen three times in a row!

Vernon Bogdanor

Catherine, improbably politically?

Catherine Mayer

Well, I'm kind of hoping Peter's right because, damn the journalism here - I'd quite like to know what the result is by, say, four or five in the morning!  I think that there are also concerns about the volume of new voter registration, and about how literally, physically, they're going to cope with the numbers of people who are saying that they're going to turn up and vote.  So that's one of the reasons, as I was saying earlier, that if you do have something where you get a narrow McCain victory, you can see that some people will believe that the Election has been stolen, particularly if there have been technical problems in areas where the vote has been sort of poor inner city vote.

To go back to something Adam said earlier about the good guys and the bad guys, I was not, by the way, suggesting that Obama has run an entirely clean campaign, but it has been a lot cleaner than the McCain Campaign.  My colleague, Joe Klein, says this is the dirtiest campaign he's ever witnessed, and in some areas, they have used techniques that they had repudiated.  The Robo-calls are an example where McCain himself specifically said they would not be using that method, only to later go on and use it.

Vernon Bogdanor

The campaign against Hillary Clinton in the primaries was not very clean, and no Democrat leader defended her except for Barbara Mikulski.  None of them said anything, and it was really a vile campaign of innuendo, and an amount of obscenity on some occasions, about Hillary Clinton.  That wasn't a very clean campaign, and that came from other Democrats - presumably.

Catherine Mayer

I think there was something a little bit different going on there.  I agree that Hillary was very roughly treated in the primaries, though I think that a lot of that had to do with people not actually recognising sexism when they saw it.  People have been so attuned to the race issues and to various other issues, but they effectively completely ignored the fact that they were taking attitudes that had to do with her being a woman.  There was that whole business about whether Hillary cried or not, and whether she was tough enough, and it was very unexamined.  That was the real problem with that.  What made it so insidious, was that nobody actually called it for what it was.  I don't think it was dirty campaigning. 

There was one other thing Adam said I wanted to mention, when he talked about the liberal media and the bias, and undoubtedly, there is a lot in the media, and certainly the comedy media.

Adam Boulton

Oh come on!  The New York Times, The Washington Post and your own publication?

Catherine Mayer

We've been strictly non-partisan so far, but what I was going to say is that you do also have that counterbalanced by not only Fox News, which you mentioned.  Obama made that telling joke at the Alfred E Smith event recently, where he asked whether Fox was actually part of the media, and then went on to say that they seemed to be accusing him of having two African American children in wedlock!  Fox News is by far the most visible, but there are all the right wing radio shows and a lot of the local press, which is very influential in America because of the way the press works there.

Adam Boulton

No, the difference is that, this time round, it seems to me that the national media has come down from its position and joined, if you want to call it, the cables and the radio shows and the rest of it.  I think that is quite a disturbing development in what's happened in terms of the coverage of this election.

Catherine Mayer

There has been some endorsements recently and there have been some moves that way, but it's only been very recent.

Adam Boulton

Endorsements come at the end.  It is what you put in your content that matters.

Stryker McGuire


I think part of the thing is that we deal in stories; that's what we do, at least three of us.  It is all about narratives, and frankly, the Obama narrative is fresher and more exciting narrative.  I also think that it is probably safe to say that the people who are running the newspapers, the elite media that you're talking about, are of a certain age in America.  Many of them grew up in the Sixties, and I think many of them are hoping that this will be a transformational election.  That undoubtedly comes through in one fashion or another, but I think that the Editor ofNewsweek, although Newsweek has been taking a lot of flak recently from Palin people and McCain people, I think our Editor probably would have voted for McCain had it not been for Sarah Palin.  I think he is one of those people who fall into that category.  Certainly, The New York Timeshas become the great villain, except when Sarah Palin quotes The New York Times on Bill Ayres, because they ran a story about him on the front page some time ago.

Vernon Bogdanor

Peter, do you want to come in?

Peter Kellner

Yes, I'm coming half to Adam's side here because I think Adam's description is broadly right.  But I've got two qualifications, and I would add, incidentally, one of the most interesting ones is that The Chicago Tribune has come out for Obama.  This is like the Daily Telegraph coming out for Ken Livingstone!

Stryker McGuire

It's the first time for The Chicago Tribune in its 130-year history.

Peter Kellner

Yes, and so there is something going on, and I don't think The Chicago Tribune is a part of a grand, liberal conspiracy.  But my two qualifications are these:  I watched Fox News on Sunday, following Colin Powell's appearance on Meet the Press, and I couldn't tear myself away!  It was so vitriolic!  Colin Powell, who I assume, if you were to play what Fox Newswas saying four or five years ago, was one of the great heroes of theirs, but yesterday he was dirt, and everybody they interviewed, and all the backchat between the presenters, displayed him as dirt.  They didn't interview a single person who had anything sympathetic or even really interesting.  I think it was the most violent, partisan coverage I could imagine!


My second qualification is this: a bit of history, 1932, when Roosevelt beat Hoover.  Then there was a bit of radio, but it was really a matter of the press; the media was overwhelmingly the press.  The press was massively for Hoover, and Hoover lost.  So did the media have no effect?  On the contrary, what the media was reporting day by day was the slump, the Depression, the rise in unemployment.  The fact that these same papers were saying "Vote Hoover" was completely outweighed because the news was, as it were, anti-Hoover.  The fundamentals were anti-Hoover.  Today I think the news fundamentals comes back to the financial crisis in particular, but also the reputation of the Republicans generally - for instance, the fact that they're heading for a massive defeat in Congress.  The fundamentals of what's going on, and what the media are simply reporting day to day, don't help the Republicans, and I think those fundamentals that underpin the news is anti-McCain.  I don't think it matters very much if the editorials are also anti-McCain.

Audience Question

It's interesting listening to the panel.  I was a journalist with the BBC for 15 years, mainly politics, but I never had the hubris to believe that the media decided the outcome of a democratic election.  One of the things that strikes me in this Election is an assumption that the status quo is that you know what party you support and you go into it and you vote.  Surely, the candidates themselves, in the televised debates, in the way they present themselves, must also be a factor.  I would like to think, in America, as here, that people are actually swayed by who the candidates are and how they speak and their policies.  I actually think that the negativity of the McCain Campaign has backfired because it's very difficult to hear the positives.  I also think that Obama is reminiscent of Kennedy, with all the faults and everything else.  I see a President.  I think that I've nailed my colours to the mast here, but that isn't because I'd decided beforehand; it's because I listen carefully to what the person says, I see how they purport themselves.  So while, of course, you're absolutely right that getting people registered, what sort of campaigning and advertising happens, what the press think, etc. are all very important, my main question is, without being naïve, do members of the panel also feel that the candidates themselves are earning or losing votes by their performance in terms of what they stand for and who they are? 

I also have a little subsidiary question.  I went to a very good lecture about the 2004 Election where there were a lot of reservations about the electronic voting - there were no paper trails with some of them.  Has that been sorted, and are the panel happy that this will be a fair Election?

Vernon Bogdanor

Can I just briefly elaborate on one point in that question?  The question compared Obama with Kennedy.  Now, at the time that Kennedy was elected, people were very worried that he was inexperienced, that he'd been a not very effective Senator, and Khrushchev, when he met Kennedy, thought that he was inexperienced, and was probably more hawkish than he would otherwise have been.  The opposition that Obama will face, if he's elected, is not the Soviet Union but terrorists.  Are they likely to think that he's inexperienced and a soft touch, and should we worry about that?  Adam?

Adam Boulton

Well, I think one of the great joys of the American presidential system is that the President is always inexperienced, unless he's being elected for a second term.  So probably I think we over-exaggerate experience, and then, on top of that, the circumstances which an individual has to deal with.

I would agree with much of what the lady had to say.  I would express the personal view that I think, from the conventions onwards, both the main candidates have actually been disappointments.  In the case of Obama, he basically abandoned his inspirational rhetoric and his change rhetoric, and has presented himself much more as a kind of sober-sides.  This includes the speech at Investco Stadium, which really was pretty much a bread-and-butter Democratic candidate speech which could have been delivered by Kerry or by Al Gore, which was very different from the stuff we saw earlier in the campaign, and I think his main effort since then has been to look presidential - to wear the white shirts, to keep his calm, all the rest of it - which I don't think is particularly exciting, although it may work.   Now, in the case of John McCain, given that Obama was already emerging, as Stryker says, as the inspirational story, he had to give people a very strong reason to vote for him.  It seems to me, beyond the negatives, he hasn't managed to do that, and I would agree with Stryker that that week of the 17th of September, or beginning around the 17th of September, was probably when things began to look like McCain wouldn't come through.  I think that probably the moment, for me, would be the 26th of September, when he suspended his campaign and announced that he wasn't going to take part in the debate. This was back to Washington when George Bush called the candidates into the White House and said, "Right, we're going to discuss the economic crisis," went round the table in the White House, came to McCain and said, "What would you like to say?" and he said, "I defer to my economic adviser."  It wasn't so much necessarily the crisis itself, although clearly one can see how that would play against the incumbent party; it was the fact that he managed to find nothing to say about it.  So I don't think, if he does go down, you should necessarily blame it on Sarah Palin.  I think it will be because of his own mistakes.

Vernon Bogdanor

Stryker, an American friend of mine said, "The trouble is, we've got two unelectable candidates but one of them has to be elected."  Is that fair?

Stryker McGuire

No, I think actually they're both very electable, and I think that, as has been said, I don't think any of us are arguing that the media is making the decision in this whole affair.  If anything, I think we're saying the opposite.  It is about the candidates.  Normally, the argument that we would be having would be whether we're putting too much emphasis on the personalities versus the programmes of the candidates.  I think that we've come to know these particular candidates quite well.  McCain has been around for a long time.  Obama has obviously been somebody we've had to get to know more quickly.  It helps, I have to say, to read his first book, which I think tells some people really all you need to know about Barack Obama, and for some people, that's enough.  Now, Adam's absolutely right, that since the conventions, they - especially Obama - have been cooler, calmer, less inspirational.  It's sad to say, but that's a fact of life in American politics.  If you're an African American running for President and you're concentrating on, say, the 18% of the electorate that is undecided, you can't afford to be too inspirational, too aggressive, as it were, because those qualities, which might be well appreciated in somebody else, are seen as threatening, for better or for worse, and obviously for worse in a black candidate.  But I do think it's very much about them and certainly I don't think anybody's tried to disguise that.

Vernon Bogdanor

Catherine, two good candidates?

Catherine Mayer

Another thing relating back to the Vice-Presidential pick, it would never have happened, but if McCain had picked Lieberman, which of course was something that a lot of people hoped would happen, it would have really put them on their metal as far as actually appealing to the same constituencies, and then they'd have been really fighting for the same people.  They are very interesting in their contrasting styles.  I mean,Newsweek and Time have actually had more or less the same cover, within a few days of each other, about their characters, and part of that is because you get to know them when they aren't in office, but you are still always guessing how they will react when they actually have power, and that's why character seems to be such a key issue here, and because they have such contrasting characters.  McCain is mercurial, he's impulsive; he likes to run a very small campaign team; he's not good at administrative stuff at all, or management; he has always sort of been the maverick, and he's finding it quite hard to adjust to this notion of actually being the head of this large corporation that a campaign team is.  Obama, on the other hand, has been running his campaign like a law firm, in an incredibly slick fashion.  It's not just that they've been so good in terms of voter registration and everything else, but everything about the way that campaign works is smooth and slick, and he himself is very cool and deliberate.  He has seemed more presidential, less high-flown in his rhetoric, but I would disagree that he seemed cooler since this crisis started.  It's one of the criticisms of him is that he's always been cool.  One explanation for that is, because he is black, he can't be angry, because to be angry and black is something that signals a whole new and dangerous area for a lot of Americans, but I don't think that's the way he would have been anyway.  So I think we are faced with two very different but very electable candidates, albeit ideologically less different from each other than many candidates that people might choose between here would be.  But they are very different in their instincts, and obviously, there are key policy differences, but equally obviously, they've been quite careful about what commitments they've made at this stage.

Vernon Bognador

Peter, you have the final word - two unelectable candidates or a striking vindication of the democratic process?

Peter Kellner

Incidentally, your proposition about the two unelectables reminds me of somebody, I think it was in the British General Election of 1987, when the choice was Thatcher, Kinnock or David Owen, who said, "It's a pity the percentages have to add up to 100!" 

Speaking purely personally, I think I'm more worried about Sarah Palin becoming President than John McCain, should he win and then die in office. 

If I could come back to the question, I think you're right, in that it's quite clear that the things which have had the biggest audiences have been the presidential debates.  I actually thought myself that the first two were really boring.  The third was okay, but it did make me wonder - and I say this parenthetically - that in Britain we keep on having these arguments, at some point in every Parliament, about whether should we learn from America and have debates.  I know Adam would love to present it, but I have to say, I think the British electorate is far better served by Adam and John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman interviewing each of the Party Leaders for half an hour or an hour, rigorously, than by having these very tight and artificially structured debates.  I think Americans have learnt far less about their two presidential candidates than an assiduous British viewer learns at our General Election by watching really good, tough, one-on-one interviews.   But I think the effect has been pretty-well, zero.  I reckon there are six daily tracker polls, and if you go back, within each of the six polling series, all of them have fluctuated within a range that can be simply through sampling fluctuation.  It's quite possible nothing net has changed in the last three weeks, since the beginning of October.

The final point I would make, just to make a slightly different point, is this: the question which quite a lot of pollsters are asking but nobody pays much attention to is how are you going to vote for Congress?  The Democrats are miles ahead, around 15 points, as they were in the results in 2006.  All else being equal, the Democrat candidate in this Election ought to win by a mile, at least 400 or 450 electoral college votes.  But I don't think it's going to happen.  So, in a sense, if McCain loses and if Obama wins by the extent which now seems likely, there are two questions: there is "Why did Obama win?"; but the other question is "How is it that he didn't win so much bigger than he's going to win?"  Is it race, is it McCain, is it a bit of both?  The answer to this question will not determine the future of the United States, but analytically, it is interesting that this is still a contest that might be close.  Obama, or the Democratic candidate, ought to be out of sight.

Vernon Bogdanor

I hope you'll all join me in thanking the panel, who've told us a lot not only about American politics but about American public opinion and about American journalism, and we're most grateful to them - thank you!

 

 

 

©Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Gresham College, 21 October 2008

This event was on Tue, 21 Oct 2008

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE

Professor of Law

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law, former Visiting Gresham Professor of Political History, Research Professor at King's College London, a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

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