Friday, November 07, 2008

US Election Postmortem: Why Obama Won

With the United States presidential elections over, and Democratic candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama crushing Republican opponent Arizona Senator John McCain, there has been no end to the post-mortem dissection of what happened in what has been the longest and costliest election in American history. Pundits have been going over the whole campaign with a fine tooth comb, analyzing the elections to no end.

I thought I’d try to summarize the main points, and share my own thoughts about the elections.

Why Obama Won

1. Massive grassroots campaign

Obama has his political roots in being a community organizer, and it was the skills learned in this role that helped him turn out the vote for this elections. This, and the fact that he had quite a campaign war chest that allowed him to fund community volunteers all across the nation. By reaching out to as many voters as possible, he managed to ‘flip’ various states which had been traditionally Republican, and get the majority in these states to switch over to the Democratic side.

The massive funding also allowed him to buy as much advertising space and time as he needed, as evidenced by the 30-minute infomercial released a few days before Election Day.

Obama and his campaign also utilized unconventional means to get their message out. By using social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and video sites such as YouTube, Obama probably managed to reach majority of Americans and convince them that he was the candidate to vote for.

By disdaining public funding for his campaign, and by using the power of information technology, Barack Obama and his team rewrote the book for presidential campaigns, organizing a massive machine unlike any other, and this more than anything helped him win.


2. Intense dislike of Bush administration policies

In a large way, this particular election was a referendum on the eight-year Bush administration, particularly in the way it handled the economy. People who voted Democratic and for Obama demonstrated that they were tired of the type of government Bush brought to the U.S., and were willing to give the untested newcomer Obama a chance to prove his mettle. That they did so in such large numbers that it created a landslide victory for Obama is an indication of how fed up Americans were with the Republicans and George W. Bush.

The dislike filtered into the Congressional races, as the Democratic Party gained 20 more seats in the House, and about 5 more in the Senate. Although the Democratic Party looks like it isn’t going to get the obstruction-proof 60 seats in the Senate, it still has control of both the White House and Congress, and that will make it easier to push policies through, for better or for worse.

3. Sheer charisma of Obama

Obama’s speaking skills helped electrify crowds and attracted voters to his side. The man projects an image that is likeable, and inspiring, and this helped him. His acceptance speech at Chicago’s Grant Park last Tuesday was a grand appeal to the American people to embrace change and national unity. Hopefully, this will help him push through with the promises he made during the campaign.

Obama's appeal based on the election results transcended race, and attracted a lot of young voters to his side. This year's elections had a record turnout of voters, and a lot of those voters were for Obama.

On the other hand, Senator John McCain made a few missteps that probably cost him the election.

1. Association with Bush

This, of course, cannot be helped, as both men belong to the same political party. However, no matter how hard McCain tried to distance himself from Bush, by naming himself as a ‘maverick’, it didn’t work. The general dislike of the Bush administration filtered into McCain’s campaign, and stuck.

One analyst noted that it might have helped if McCain didn’t embrace the bailout for an ailing Wall Street, as this plan was greatly disliked by a Republican base which eschewed government intervention.

2. Choice of Palin

Any way one looks at it, the choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin was a costly mistake the McCain campaign couldn’t shake. While it was true that Palin’s selection initially helped energize the Republican base, it was also clear that choosing her was bowing to the wishes of the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican, and this turned off moderate Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who threw his support behind Obama.

It was also clear that after two disastrous interviews, Palin was even less ready for the national stage than Obama was supposed to be. Considering that McCain is 72, the thought of Palin rising to the presidency probably scared off more moderate Republican voters.

The selection of Palin also called into question McCain’s judgment, considering that one of his fighting points against Obama was the latter’s lack of experience. Since Palin was so inexperienced, that fighting point was taken off the table, and probably weakened McCain’s argument against Obama.

Still, what I liked about McCain is that, when it was clear that he had lost the election, he immediately conceded defeat, and, in his closing speech, exhorted his supporters to support the newly elected President. That was such a classy move, considering that our own politicians, when they lose, always raise cries of fraud and cheating. Our politicians have a lot to learn from the actions of Senator John McCain.

And now, President-elect Barack Obama must now buckle down and meet with his transition team, to prepare for the arduous task ahead of them once he officially assumes office next year on January 20, 2009. And the task before him is monumental; I’ll take a look at the main ones in the next post.

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