Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama Will Win and Win Big

I wear my political heart on my sleeve. I naively cling to a faith in people power, and trust that political and social movements (abolitionism, the women’s suffrage campaign, the anti-Vietnam War crusade, etc.) can transform society or, at the very least, nudge public policy in a profoundly different and saner direction.

Furthermore, I know that elections matter and that the world we live in today would be profoundly different if all of Al Gore’s votes had been properly counted in Florida in 2000. I know that most Americans remember the Florida debacle and they have viewed the last eight years under George W. Bush with horror and anger and deeply desire change.

Because of my emotional investment in my political beliefs, over the years I have been an exceedingly poor electoral prophet. I so wanted to bring down the curtain on the Bush administration that this time four years ago I spent Election Day speculating on John Kerry’s first year in the White House. This year is profoundly different. Outside of wish fulfillment, there are solid mathematical, political and social reasons why Obama will not only win, but claim a solid mandate. Here are the reasons:

1. Statistical probabilities and group dynamics favor Obama. Mathematicians discovered a while back that if they place a jar in front of a group of test subjects and asked them to guess the number of pennies or marbles in the container, that the average of all the guesses would fall remarkably close to an accurate estimate.

This presidential race has seen the rise of the internet presidential prediction markets where participants trade candidate “futures.” Except for a lightening-quick two-week period during and after the Republican National Convention, these presidential election betting pools have overwhelmingly favored Obama. The RealClearPolitics website “Intrade Market Odds” as of 4:32 p.m. CST, Monday, November 3, set Obama’s odds of winning at 90.5 percent. Mathematical probability suggests that the possibility of that many people being that wrong about the election results is virtually impossible.

2. Once again, it’s the economy stupid. Economic issues always trump cultural issues. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, a governor of a small Southern state widely believed to have been a serial adulterer who had opposed the Vietnam War and who was accused of lying to dodge the draft. The Republicans nominated an incumbent president with limited political skills who nevertheless had commanded an impressive global coalition in a lightening quick victory in Iraq that resulted in fewer than 200 American deaths.

Nevertheless, the country slid into a recession by the 1992 election (one much less severe than the current economic meltdown destroying savings accounts and 401Ks from coast to coast.) Americans looked at their bottom lines, overcame their cultural prejudices, and opted for the skirt-chasing, dope-smoking, draft-dodging unknown redneck governor rather than the more familiar, more socially conservative, more experienced sitting President. The economic crisis today is far more frightening. Obama (unlike Clinton) is a steady, calming presence with national political experience. In contrast to Clinton, Obama has not allowed his campaign to wallow in melodrama and has focused the electorate on issues, not personalities.

As late as this year’s GOP convention, conservative voters suspicion of Obama’s race and uncomfortable with Obama’s alleged relationships with Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and other aging radicals sought an excuse to vote for McCain. McCain lost those nervous voters, first when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, and secondly with his erratic behavior as American banks tumbled in October. Palin completely negated any argument Team McCain had that they possessed the experience needed to deal simultaneously with two wars, the mortgage crisis and a looming global recession. Palin has only appealed to a dwindling GOP base, and has alienated key swing voters.

Then McCain lost his mantle as the cool, knowledgeable economic commander-in-chief with his erratic behavior during the bank bailout debate. First, he supposedly suspended his campaign so he could deal with the crisis. Then during this “suspension” McCain spent most of his time with network interviews and fundraisers. When he finally assumed “command” of the crisis in Washington, he offered nothing positive during Congressional negotiations with the White House (negotiations that fell apart.) After pledging to focus on the economic crisis until the issue was resolved, McCain limped back to his campaign with nothing to show for his efforts.

He was debating Obama only two days after the campaign suspension for no better reason than appearing as a grumpy, sour old man before millions. By contrast, Obama appeared like a cool customer. Obama’s performance as a prospective commander-in-chief trumped his race, his association with 1960s radicals or any other supposed baggage. Obama’s calm has appealed just as Franklin Roosevelt’s confidence proved irresistibly attractive to voters during the Great Depression in 1932. That year, northern states that had voted Republican since the Civil War were able to take a leap and jumped on the Democratic bandwagon. A similar dynamic exists this year and supposedly reluctant white voters will back Obama in large enough numbers to carry him to victory.

3. Personality, charisma and eloquence matter. Throughout this year, my Democratic friends have had nightmare flashbacks to Jimmy Carter’s, Walter Mondale’s, Michael Dukakis’s, Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s campaigns. I voted for those Democratic failures, I placed hope in those losers and I was seriously disappointed by them. And Obama is no Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale/Michael Dukakis/Al Gore/John Kerry. Obama is not an animated corpse. He enjoys not just the gift of poetic flair, but an easy smile and an authenticity that places him miles ahead of his Democratic Party predecessors.

4. The Republicans are so 2004. It’s not just that the economy, terrorism, the quagmire in Iraq and the real possibility of failure in Afghanistan have reduced social issues like gay marriage and abortion to footnotes. The GOP, in one sense, is a victim of their past successes, and in another sense of their hyperbole. Gay marriage has been banned so often in so many ways that it remains a relevant issue only in bicoastal outposts like Massachusetts, Vermont and California. In spite of gay marriages and civil unions in those three states, the skies have not torn asunder, the seas have not turned red, and dogs are not cohabitating with cats. The republic has survived in spite of the mythical insidious gay agenda.

In face of the Bush administration’s mountain of failures and the multiple scary threats looming on the country’s horizon, social issues carry salience only for the 30 percent or so of voters who have remained loyal to the current administration no matter how badly it has performed. Obama could never win those voters anyway and, fortunately for the Democratic nominee, that bloc is not large enough to carry an election.

5. The election night clock favors Obama. Tomorrow’s election will be over by 7:30 p.m. EST. One of the earliest states to close polls will be Indiana, a traditional Republican stronghold where polls in most of the state close by 6 p.m. Eastern. The results will be too close to call and the networks will have to wait another hour anyway because Gary, a heavily Democratic and black part of the state, is in the Central Time Zone. Polls will not close there until 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

McCain will not be able to claim normally reliably red Indiana in his column and by then he will have lost New Hampshire (where Bush won in 2004.) Obama will have taken away Virginia away from the red column (results are reported very quickly there) and even if McCain pulls off a miracle and takes Pennsylvania away from the Democrats, the network will not be able to call it for McCain for several hours.

More likely is that Obama will have a five-point or more spread in Pennsylvania from the start. McCain bet the election on Pennsylvania and if it becomes likely that this gamble failed, the GOP nominee has no chance of winning the election. The question at this point becomes how McCain and the networks react.

Look out for the “Jimmy Carter echo.” In his 1980 debacle against Ronald Reagan, Carter conceded defeat an hour after polls closed on the East Coast. Depressed, Democrats stopped showing up at the polls in the Central Time Zone and numerous progressive Democratic Senators, such as George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh lost as the election moved toward the heartland and beyond.

A similar effect could happen in two different ways tomorrow night. Cable and broadcast networks will bend over backwards to not call the election too early. However, they will not be able to conceal reality. If McCain is consistently behind by five or more points in Pennsylvania, and as Obama racks up wins across New England and New York by large margins and holds narrower margins in Virginia and North Carolina, followed by a series of big victories in the upper Midwest, even the most cautious network will have to admit the impossibility of a McCain victory.

The on-air conversation will turn from who will win to how big Obama’s margin will be and whether the Democrats will win 60-plus seats in the Senate. At that point, marginal Republicans and GOP-leaning independents west of the Mississippi will conclude it’s not worth their time to vote for a losing ticket and the Democrats will surge towards winning 60 or 61 Senate seats.

The other possibility is that the crazy, angry side of John McCain’s personality will win over his calmer, better nature. By 7:30 Eastern, McCain will be seething. He will be blaming his loss on Sarah Palin and on the GOP hacks he will blame for talking him out of naming Joe Leiberman or Tom Ridge as his running mate. As the prospects of a truly humiliating defeat looms large, McCain might decide to make a last-minute bid to salvage his reputation as a straight shooter. A consummate narcissist (don’t take my partisan word for it, check out this devastating “Rolling Stone” profile at, the Arizona Senator might at the same time surrender to his dark side.

See if McCain by about 8:30 p.m. EST decides to acknowledge reality and makes a charming and self-effacing speech congratulating Obama for his victory. This concession speech will be hailed as a return to the “Straight Talk Express,” but it will also give McCain a chance to stick a knife in the side of a Republican Party that rejected him in 2000 and forced him too far to the right this year. He’s going to be the GOP equivalent of Jimmy Carter for a couple of decades anyway, and will have lost his last chance at the White House. He might decide that if he’s going to be a goat he might as well flame out in epic fashion. If the election results are tipped off by either news anchors or by McCain himself, expect devastating consequences for GOP turnout across the country.

So here’s my prediction. Obama wins big, getting between 54-55 percent of the popular vote and carrying and winning in the Electoral College 350-185. (McCain will carry the following states: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Alaska. Obama will carry the other 27 states (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico) as well as the District of Columbia.

The early collapse of McCain’s chances will carry down-ballot Democratic candidates, including Minnesota Senate nominee Al Franken, and the Democrats will end up with a minimum of 59 seats and a maximum of 61.

I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Remember that I am an historian, not a psychic. But that’s how it looks to me on Election Eve. And unlike professional pundits such as Dick Morris of Farce News, I will stand by my predictions. I’ll be back on Wednesday night.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.