Takungpao, Hong Kong
How Did ObamaÂ Win
The Presidential Election?
By TAO Wenzhao
Translated By Miles Crew
5 November 2008
Hong Kong - Takungpao - Original Article (Chinese)
A decisive factor in Obama’s victory in the presidential election was the financial tsunami that the United States is currently going through. The arrival of the financial crisis at precisely this moment was of great help to Obama. The old Chinese saying is fitting: the plans of man are no match for the plans of the heavens. What people must now ask is, can Obama become the proverbial “hero made by the times?”
The curtain has fallen on the 2008 U.S. presidential election, with Democratic Party candidate Barack winning by an overwhelming margin, a rare achievement in the history of American presidential elections. What exactly were the reasons?
One decisive factor in Obama’s victory was the current financial tsunami. The financial crisis was not any fault of McCain’s, so why did it have such a significant effect on the election?
Financial Crisis Dragged McCain Down
First, beginning in the Reagan era, the worship of the market has become the Republican philosophy. A market economy also needs discipline, regulation, and oversight. But the Republicans oversold the merits of privatization and the market’s ability to self-correct, believing that the less government intervention the better, as the market could regulate itself better than the government could. Alan Greenspan consistently advocated for the “loosening of regulations.” At the end of the ‘90s, when financial derivatives had just begun to take off in the United States, some pointed out that they lacked transparency, and that they should be more strictly regulated. Greenspan, abusing his authority, remained firmly opposed to regulation, believing that it would hurt the economy.
Under this laissez-faire policy, greed and corruption on Wall Street created a growing bubble, eventually leading to the current crisis. McCain, being a Republican, was naturally unable to shake off his association with Republican economic thinking.
Second, the Bush administration, intending to stimulate the economy, strongly promoted American home ownership. Especially after 9/11, “zero money down” home sales were made without consideration for whether or not the buyers had the ability to make their payments; the Federal Reserve’s twenty-seven consecutive cuts in interest rates also lured home buyers into taking out loans. Greenspan praised sub-prime mortgage loans as having “driven the financial services industry throughout the history of our country,” and his authoritative status led to encourage credit rating organizations such as Standard and Poor’s to give AAA ratings to subprime loans, and insurance organizations like AIG to insure mortage-backed securities, ultimately resulting in the current crisis. This occurred during the Bush administration, and it proved difficult for McCain to clearly differentiate himself from the Bush administration.
Furthermore, the Bush administration underestimated the seriousness of sub-prime debt, as did McCain; two months ago, he followed Henry Paulson in calling the fundamentals of the American economy strong. Immediately after the Bush administration introduced the $700 billion market bailout proposal, McCain temporarily suspended his campaign activities to return to Washington, stating that he would use his influence to help see the proposal passed, and giving the appearance that he was taking the lead on rescuing the market. But in the first Senate vote, 2/3 of Republican senators voted in opposition, laying bare the Republican Party’s difficult position and internal divisions. This was a death-blow for McCain.
Finally, the two candidates introduced their own economic policies, also attacking the policies advocated by their opponents. But traditionally, Republican presidents have been better at handling security issues, while Democratic presidents have been better at dealing with economic problems.
The timing of this financial tsunami (marked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank) was also important. If it had happened six months earlier, Hillary Clinton may have won the Democratic primary; if it were to happen six months later, McCain might have won the general election. In reality, it was precisely after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that the distance between Obama and McCain in public opinion polling began to grow.
Obama’s Election Strategy Was Effective
From the primaries to the general election, Obama’s electoral strategy and tactics were successful.
First, from the very beginning Obama had a good grasp of voters’ mindsets, and clearly ran on the slogan of “change“. “Change we can believe in” and “the change we need” had strong appeal. McCain, in contrast, did not come out with the slogan of “Country First” until the Republican National Convention at the beginning of September. This slogan was relatively nondescript, and lacked the power to move people.
Second, Obama was successful in mobilizing two groups with relatively little enthusiasm for politics: youths and black people. The typical rate of voter participation in the United States is 51%, but young voters’ (29 and under) rate of participation is lower, at only 30%. Black people, especially those with relatively low levels of education, also have a low rate of voter turnout. This time, young people’s enthusiastic support for Obama probably led them to vote in much greater numbers than in past years. In the case of black people, this was even clearer. Although statistics on voter turnout have not yet been released, this writer believes that that the voter turnout rate in this election was undoubtedly higher than that of prior years.
Third, the Democratic Party was generally able to maintain unity. The five months of brutal competition between Obama and Hillary in the Democratic primary was certainly a drain on the party’s vitality, with a number of leading Democratic Party figures continually calling for Hillary to pull out of the race. When Hillary conceded, half of the female voters who had supported her indicated that they would support Obama, while one quarter indicated that they would support McCain and another quarter that they were undecided.
How to maintain Democratic Party unity and guarantee that voters supporting Hillary would not slip away to McCain were questions of great importance to Obama’s winning the election. Unity was the theme of the Democratic National Convention, as Ms. Clinton’s performance at the convention should have made certain. After that, Ms. Clinton campaigned for Obama across the United States, and other major party figures such as Al Gore also contributed to the Democratic Party’s victory.
America Facing Difficult Times
Fourth, Obama’s campaign team was successful in making use of the internet. They established a nation-wide network of volunteers and supporters, and voters were able to make contributions online; they could contribute as little as five or ten dollars, but they could also contribute repeatedly, and the sum of many small donations helped Obama to set a historic fundraising record of over $600 million. Republican candidates have always had more funding than Democratic candidates, but this time the situation was reversed.
Fifth, Obama’s personal charisma. Voting is not an entirely rational behavior, and is sometimes also guided by emotion, with candidates’ personal charisma having an important effect. Obama, young at only 47, radiates charisma on stage, just as Kennedy did in his time. McCain, unable to measure up in this area, spoofed Obama as “a celebrity, not a leader.” But there is no contradiction between being a celebrity and being a leader, and voters have chosen a celebrity to be a leader.
Obama is about to enter the White House, but the world he faces is a very different one from that which Bush faced eight years ago. America faces economic, security, and other challenges in this time of great difficulty. What people should ask now is, can Obama become the proverbial hero made by the times?
The writer is an expert on American affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
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