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The Obama landslide

By Philip Machanick - posted Friday, 31 October 2008


With just under a week to go to the US presidential election, I now feel confident in predicting not only an Obama win, but a landslide of historic proportions. The Obama and McCain campaigns are both playing this possibility down, claiming the result will be close. They have to. If Obama relaxed now and predicted a landslide, it could result in some of his supporters staying at home. If McCain conceded now, not only does he lose the improbable chance of a last-week turnaround, but he also (further) sabotages other Republican races.

So both sides have to say at this stage that it will be close; if Obama didn't say this, paradoxically, it would be more likely to be true.

Let's look at the indicators for a massive Obama win.

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Polls

What of the “Bradley effect”, the alleged tendency for polls to be biased against black candidates because those polled don’t want to be seen to be racist?

There is considerable dispute as to whether this effect is real. For example, one of the polls that erroneously predicted that Tom Bradley had won the 1982 California gubernatorial race was an exit poll, that failed to take into account absentee ballots, and the Republicans won on absentee ballots. On the whole, there is evidence that the “Bradley effect” is more likely to be a cover for weak polling technique rather than a real effect. In the current campaign, Obama has several times done better than predicted in the polls.

A big difficulty with polling in a game-changing election is that pollsters rely on demographics from past polls to predict future outcomes. In an election where some constituencies that have low participation rates come out in force, all those numbers could be skewed.

This close to an election, it would be an extremely rare event if polls showing the sort of lead Obama now holds reversed. Absent a real Bradley Effect and taking into account that it is his campaign that is mobilising key groups with a history of low participation, any error is more likely to be in his favour than not. So based on polling, unless his campaign makes a truly significant blunder in the last few days, his chances of not only a win, but a big win, are high.

The “it’s time” effect

Again, all the pressures are on his side if you look at desire for change. The McCain's camp is trying to argue simultaneously that Obama’s short time in Washington makes him both inexperienced and a Washington insider, while McCain’s lengthy period in office makes him not only experienced but an outsider. That these contradictory arguments are implausible only helps Obama.

The “it’s time” effect that worked so well for Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd in Australia (the latter against the backdrop of economic prosperity) is amplified by a widespread agreement that the Bush presidency has failed on all fronts.

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The war on terror has lost direction, the economy is down the toilet and social divisions are as deep as at any time since the civil rights movement. For McCain to claim to be an outsider, he would have had to disavow many more Bush positions than he has. It is not enough just to say that Bush was right on strategy but wrong on tactics, which is what the McCain position amounts to.

Also, despite the prejudice at the start of the primaries that Hillary Clinton would be a divisive figure, she turned out to be surprisingly popular. Obama in many ways has similar pluses and minuses to her. Both have a sharp intellect (a plus or a minus, depending on how dig you deep into social strata), with backgrounds in law. Both have had relatively short periods in elective office; the talk of his inexperience somehow failed to touch on hers. Both represent demographics that have traditionally been excluded from high office. Both therefore represented change even before they articulated a platform.

McCain, on the other hand, represents the past, and has failed to say how he really represents change. Had he campaigned as himself rather than the lapdog of the hard right, he may have stood a chance. But having allowed his campaign to look like George W. Bush - the remake, he has totally lost any chance at claiming it's his time.

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First published in Opinionations on October 27, 2008.



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About the Author

Philip Machanick is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rhodes University, South Africa, and has worked at the University of Queensland, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Stanford University in the USA. He has published a book, No Tomorrow, a novel with a climate change theme, and campaigns for sustainable living and rights-based government. He holds a PhD in Computer Science, and has published more than 50 academic papers. He blogs at Opinionations.

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