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Updated: November 7, 2012 00:52 IST

Race & Money — and the money in the race

P. Sainath
Comment (20)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The polarisation that is emerging between the U.S. presidential camps, with colour as a major element, will haunt America in elections to come

It’s just a few hours to the end of the race, but Race isn’t going to end anytime soon. It was pretty ugly in the 2008 presidential poll, too. Yet, 2012 makes that year seem benign. On the last lap, Mitt Romney is running as the Great White Hope, a Captain America against the illegal immigrant from Kenya (which is how many Republicans paint Mr. Obama). Earlier, Mr. Romney’s campaign co-chair John Sununu accused Gen. Colin Powell of choosing race over country. He claimed Gen. Powell had endorsed Mr. Obama’s re-election bid on the basis of colour. Right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and his crew have described Mr. Obama’s health care plans as “reparations” (compensation to the descendants of slaves). Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has freely used racist slang in attacking the President.

White voters

No surprise, then. Mitt Romney has more White voters, especially males, with him than the last challenger did. But this unfolds in an electorate that is increasingly less White. And the Republican Party is poised to do worse than it ever has amongst Black and Hispanic voters. Race remains a major factor in the U.S. presidential election.

In 2008, when he ran and won against John McCain, the powerful Fox News Network sought to expose the “real” Barack Obama. It dug up some deadly sins. Mr. Obama, it turned out, had personally known a couple of Pakistanis in his younger days. Worse still, he had once visited Pakistan. (That’s passé now, with Mr. Obama’s drones making those visits daily). The other 2008 tack, that he is a foreigner himself, is more in favour. Never mind the man’s been President of the country for four years.

Barack Obama’s stunning 2008 victory makes it easy to forget two things. First, in September that year, his rival John McCain had in fact moved ahead in several of the national polls. Race played a role then, too. Then came the financial meltdown. Wall Street did its thing and drowned the Republicans. The second is that Mr. Obama’s great win in the electoral college vote — 365 to 173 — was not matched by his showing in the popular vote. There, his margin was much narrower. Just around 7 per cent. Even though voter turnout was at its highest — at 57.48 per cent — in perhaps 40 years. Again, race played a role in that. Yet, Mr. Obama got more White male votes then, than he is likely to get now.

There have been worse popular vote margins. George W. Bush actually lost the popular vote (-0.51 per cent) in 2000. He still beat Al Gore on the electoral college count in the dubious election that year. But Mr. Obama’s 2008 popular vote margin was far lower than his emphatic win in the electoral college count. This time, it will be hard to improve on it. To see it fall further — quite possible, even likely — would be an embarrassment.

The kind of polarisation that’s emerging, with race so major an element in it, will haunt the United States in elections to come. In the South, it draws on legacies of hatred going back to slavery and the Civil War. It is not that White people as a whole are opposed to Mr. Obama. He couldn’t win if they were. But Mr. Romney has been clearly able to draw a lot more White voters in his corner in a racially-charged situation. On this trend, things can and will get worse.

At the same time, while Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 was a huge symbolic moment for African-Americans, it’s not as if he brought them all on board. Or that all of them agree with him. Voices within the community critical of Mr. Obama have been growing. African-Americans will indeed vote massively in his favour. Yet, most of those who will vote for him were always Democratic Party supporters. That Mr. Obama is one of them (in a limited sense) might give him an edge. But a huge number of them have voted overwhelmingly for other Democratic presidential candidates (like Mr. Clinton) in the past. The sharp polarisation promises another thing. If the result is close — CNN’s poll suggests a photo-finish — that result will be bitterly disputed. There will be demands and fights over recounts. Get ready for endless lawyering. This is a nation where, anyway, that profession chokes the major institutions. Well over a third of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives are lawyers. In the Senate, that’s more than half. Yet other members of both houses may have a law degree but have not declared themselves lawyers. There is also a huge overlap between the legal world and that of lobbyists, making their domination worse.

Impact of Hurricane Sandy

In 2008, the Wall Street meltdown destroyed John McCain. Many believe Hurricane Sandy will do that to Mr. Romney. And indeed, his television presence during the crisis has helped and will help Mr. Obama. Mr. Romney, as one analyst put it, “simply found no way to work himself into the news cycle during those days.” This was true. But what lies beyond is not quite simple. Hurricane Sandy can have an adverse effect on voter turnout. And there is also growing anger amongst the affected — after the cameras have left. Long lines for, and panic buying of, gasoline continue. There are thousands whose homes were simply blown away. As many as 40,000 people may have been left homeless in New York alone. Wrecked neighbourhoods face a crime wave and looting.

Costliest and most cynical

Meanwhile, we’re just hours from the conclusion of what has been the costliest and most cynical U.S. presidential election campaign in history. The two main rivals have spent half a billion dollars in just three “battleground States” — Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And nearly thrice as much in the remaining States. (Counting spending by the candidates, their parties and Political Action Committees).

The country was subjected to its greatest barrage ever of political commercials. Over a million ads ran on broadcast and national television through October. More than ever before. Some 40 per cent more ran in the same month in 2008. It’s worth remembering that in 2008, Mr. Obama hugely outspent Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama out-advertised his rival by a ratio of four to one. This time, though, his rival has given him something of a run for his money, overall. If you’ve raised a billion dollars (as incumbent President) as Mr. Obama has but are still struggling, things aren’t too bright. But Mr. Obama still held the edge in the ads race. Anything goes in that race, from innuendo to outright lies.

Congressional contests

Then there are the Congressional races. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs. The Center for Responsive Politics — the country’s foremost poll-spending tracker — had reckoned total costs closing in on $6 billion (The Hindu, Oct. 18, 2012). That mark will be met and breached. Indeed, of this, the presidential race alone might have seen spending close to $3 billion. The trends are also reflected in the composition of the U.S. Congress. As “Occupy DC” had pointed out quite some time ago: 1 per cent of Americans are millionaires. But over 47 per cent of members of the House of Representatives are millionaires. So are 56 per cent of Senators. (the median wealth of a Senator, says the CRP, is $2.38 million).

Mr. Obama has had a fight on his hands at all stages, this time around. Two features have been constant for a while. Bad unemployment figures. And a lack of relish and enthusiasm. The zest for the action seemed to be far more in the media. (Which is also the biggest beneficiary of the wild spending). The raw enthusiasm and energy we saw in 2008, spurred in part by the meltdown, has been missing. The kind of blunders that Mr. Romney made — take his infamous 47 per cent comment — should have sunk him. They didn’t. He’s stayed in the fight despite them.

There are also those from all communities who cannot recapture the magic of 2008. They could never vote Mr. Romney. And some could go with the logic put out by one writer: ‘My enemy’s enemy is my President.’ But some might not vote at all. They have seen a Corporate-World-Rules-as-Usual regime for four years. They have wearied of the wars and their costs. They know firsthand that most of the jobs coming up in the ‘recovery’ are low-skill, low-wage ones.

Mr. Obama has only gained after he gave up playing to a right-wing Democrat gallery and returned to the populism of 2008. That came very late in the campaign, yet, helped him out of a hole. Mitt Romney could find himself in one, that he might blame on Hurricane Sandy. He did have Mr. Obama on the mat, more than once. And while important pollsters speak of a dead heat and say correctly that either can win, it’s harder for Mr. Romney to do so. Beating an incumbent U.S. President would be quite a feat.

More In: Sainath | Columns | Opinion | Lead

Mr.Sainath has the rare knack of putting forward serious points,
interspersed with wit and humour.

from:  Neetika
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 04:06 IST

Mr Sainath’s main assertion that race is playing a major role in US
election is far from the truth. There are 28% eligible minority voters
in US, (including Latino’s). If all of them vote for president Obama
(which is highly unlikely) he will still be way short. Take for
example the Lilly white state of Iowa which is 94% white. President
Obama lead in opinion polls there is between 2-10%. Iowa is as
heartland America as it gets. Mr. Sainath chooses to very selectively
cherry pick some quotes and a tiny assortment of information and spins
it as if it is the national opinion of US. I request Mr Sainath to not
try to stereotype US in a country which it might have been in the
past. Let us be objective in our facts.

from:  Peeyush
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 22:15 IST

Sainath is absolutely right. Even Obama occasionally has had to highlight his maternal Irish ancestry credentials. Technocracy has ushered in Mediacracy to replace Democracy and lobbyists are channels for high level Corruption!

from:  Balakrishna Shenoy
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 20:53 IST

I think the real, trenchant analysis in this piece is not by the author Mr. Sainath but by Mr.N.G. Krishnan in the comments section. Well done!
For most of the 'thinking' expats here in the US, both candidates are nothing more than corporate shills with absolutely no visionary statesmanship. The US has evolved into a USSR like 'sham' democracy with both parties in the pocket of the highest bidder. The public (fortunately only about 47% vote) for the most part sees through this smoke and mirrors routine.

from:  Rajasekar Thunghabadra
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 20:38 IST

Republicans are right. Deficit is the most serious issue that US is facing. With US made
products (apart from some of their intellectual property ) not competitive I am not sure the tax
cut would induce Job growth in US. The wealthy would tend to push the extra money from
tax cut to cayman island or invest in outsourcing. This wont generate enough revenue to cut
the deficit. On the other hand with Obama's plan of taxing the rich would make the rich leave
US. But whomever comes to office, I hope they continue Quantitative easing.

from:  Monisha
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 20:07 IST

I don't think race is playing an important part here. True, people
voting on that basis are still around, but they aren't the 'sine
qua non'. Mr. Obama's becoming the president and the blacks
contributing in Mr. Clinton's victory(as mentioned in the article)
proves it. No convincing arguments or facts have been presented to
justify the article's title. I think that the point has been
stretched too far.

from:  Sparsh
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 19:56 IST

The author fails to mention that it must have been a majority of white voters who voted for Obama last time round. Also it seems that the Black and Hispanic people vote blindly for Obama irrespective of whether they follow his policies or not.
Also all those people who are blaming Bush and the Republicans for the wars that ensued his election, yes they may be right about Iraq, but going into Afghanistan was as a result of 9/11. Blame Bin Laden and Al Qaeda for the mess that is Afghanistan. By the way the ancient civilisations of Afghanistan and Iraq were long since destroyed by the invasions and medieval conquerors.

from:  vipul dave
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 17:00 IST

P. Sainath seems to have lost his touch or is seriously out of his depth. Very very pedestrian article, hardly an "analysis" worthy of the name.

from:  Amrita K
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 14:54 IST

Its very true that USA is a land of opportunities those who are
capable must will come forward, it has been shown by American in
2008 election that race had no bar or hurdle in order to achieve
mandate.Now we have weight and watch that in whose court the ball of mandate is getting fall. It seemed that in last term president Obama
has been made serious efforts to bring economy,foreign policy mainly
with middle east on track.Obama conferred on noble prize for peace
for his contribution bringing peace,as he has been announced NATO
forces will be withdrawn from afganistan by 2014.Despite all this
we can`t say that he was able to brought economy on track and still
there is huge human right violation as American army and drone
attacks are killing hundreds of people in Afganistan and in FTA area.
It is 100% failure of Obama that he didn`t nothing to solve Isreal
and pallestine issue.Now it has to be decide by Americans who would
be their president for up coming term.

from:  suresh jokta
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 12:35 IST

The US policy is being known to all.nothing is all gonna change all of a sudden due to elections.they would still remain under the capitalist regime.

from:  swagat
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 12:14 IST

The author had pointed out correctly in noting that it is difficult to beat an incumbent President. Obama had clearly underestimated Romney before the first debate. and the Obama camp had to meticulously rebuild their strategy. It is a sure thing that Sandy had helped Obama. But, getting Bill Clinton to deliver his 'I've done well, so will he!!' speech seemed inevitable considering the tied poll results. Both candidates were found quibbling through out their three debates raising doubts among several Americans. It will be one heck of a job for the new President. The Americans don't want their future President to be pusillanimous anymore.

from:  Sai Kumar
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 12:04 IST

It is too simplistic to argue of colour or the race is the final
arbitrator. The true ruler is the big business . Whoever wins will be
able to do precious little except under the dictates of followers of Ayn
Rand capitalists and lobbyists. Obama proved this. Nearly four years
ago, it seemed like a new beginning for America when he took office.
But this was a misunderstanding. Obama didn't close the Guantanamo Bay
detention camp, nor did he lift immunity for alleged war criminals from
the Bush-era, or regulate the financial markets, and climate change was
hardly discussed during the current election campaign. The military,
the banks, industry - the people are helpless in the face of their
power, as is the president. From rest of world perspective, it doesn't
matter who wins this election. Only US foreign policy is important to
us -- and Obama is no dove and Romney no hawk. Just as erstwhile USSR
was unable to prevent the collapse of Communist rule and disintegration
of the country because of built-in contradictions, downfall of the
American empire has begun. And just as Russians, Americans too
wouldn't be able to stop it no matter how hard they try.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 10:44 IST

I have a feeling that Mr. Romney is going to make it. I don't know if it is bad or good for US. But it is my gut feeling. Let us see the outcome and in all likelihood we will be no better off if anyone wins. For us Indians, its always Nehru-Gandhi Family. I am almost envious of US political system, which is so transparent and even spending is out in the open and we know exactly who spent how much. What can be said about our electoral system. Lesser said is better.
As said Mr. Maun Mohun Singh.

from:  Shrenik Jain
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 10:24 IST

Another superb analysis of the US Presidential elections and the
current American political scene from P. Sainath! I have been reading
all the columns in this US elections series from the author. Their
unique combination of information, insights and wit - political,
economic and social - make it very interesting indeed. One would like
to add that P. Sainath is an excellent, great writer but that would be
an understatement.

from:  Namita Waikar
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 10:06 IST

It is sad that Racial discrimination and Hurricane Sandy have already
won the elections over the American People and rest remains a formality.

from:  Rakesh Manchanda
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 09:55 IST

I'm sorry, but almost all of this is pretty well-known to everybody. Why is Sainath
rehashing old news?

from:  Raman
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 07:56 IST

Agreed. But you underestimate the support that Obama enjoys among the white college
educated men and women, across America. If you break the demographics down certainly a
majority of college educated whites back Obama. Liberalism in America is indeed deep
rooted and counters the forces of chauvinism. I see distinct parallels between the rise of
BJP in India and the ascendancy of a radical right in US. The challenge both countries face
is indeed about how to create an inclusive society where every segment of the society
marches towards prosperity. America needs to get Wall Street off its back and rediscover
the economic optimism it once had. India needs to get back to the 9% growth track and see
larger sections of the society prosper. I would say that this model has worked in states like
Tamil Nadu, Punjab, HP and Haryana. Other high growth states like Maharashtra and
Gujarat have not been inclusive.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 07:11 IST

"Race remains a major factor in the U.S. presidential election" is a slap on the face for
every white voter in the USA that is voting based of issues. The major factor is
economy and you will see it in the forefront you turn on any news / debate /
discussion forum / blog / opinion forums. Race is always an issue in any country
including USA. Especially a multi-cultural society is not immune to such problems.
Judging USA based of Rush Limbaugh is like judging Gujarat people based of what
you think about Modi. How is it logical to make that statement, considering the
african americans in this country is about 12.6% ; White or European American is
about 72.4 %; Barack's middle name is Hussain in this racially charged universe and
he still took 2008. So I think this section of this article is biased.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 05:33 IST

I think Mr.Sainath's comments of race playing a factor are humdrum. Yes, minorities including Africans,Latinos and Asians are behind Obama, but with whites there is no racial voting,it depends on ideology.Bottom-line in this election,is Obama failed to live up to his promises, the economy is worsening,the jobs are few,the national debt has almost doubled in 4 years,American interests in the West Asia/North Africa have been compromised,Iran is tantalisingly close to creating the elusive N-bomb, giving the US seizures. Ayaman al-Zawahiri,the Al-Qaeda chief and architect of 9/11 is still alive.The only achievement being Obama care which have split the choice of the population.Romney promises fiscal consolidation and conservatism and a way out of the present impasse,while a fall in the jobs rate has Obama saying his actions have finally begun to bear fruit an the people must stick with him. Romney says he is the "candidate of Change"like Obama.Will the voter change the "candidate of change"?

from:  Hari
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 05:10 IST

TOMORROW will be the historical day for not only America but the
entire globe.On similar unfortunate day in the year 1999, Gore lost
the mandate and George Bush got elected and the sky was fall down on
America and the middle-east and the rest of the world. More than
million human beings lost their lives, ancient civilization of Iraq
and Afghanistan is almost rubble, more than 10,000 Americans have lost
their sons, fathers and brothers. Many more thousands have lost their
limbs and the nation is almost bankrupt. The global economy is on the
cliff to fall.If Romney, the mirror image of Bush will win, the world
will have to be ready to sustain more shocks. Israel once again is
ready to ring the war bell in Iran and Romney will be ready to issue
an ultimatum before the day end tomorrow.

from:  john dahodi
Posted on: Nov 6, 2012 at 02:42 IST
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