Much though it may appear an incomprehensible circus of brassy showmanship taking place far away from our lives, the outcome of this year’s US Presidential elections matters. Since post WW2, when the US became a superpower, their political postures—from the Cuba missile crisis to post-9/11 pursuit of the Taleban in Afghanistan—have defined the world in which the UK/Scotland operates, like it or not.
Because of its dominance of the the world economy, the outcome of their election will have a major impact on our economy, as well as their own. Aberdeen can flourish all it likes; if Houston doesn’t, any growth will be limited. VisitScotland can trumpet next year’s Open at Muirfield but if the Americans don’t come over in force, its impact on our revival will be trivial. Which will triumph on November 6th—Obama’s pragmatic inclusiveness or Romney’s tax-cutting de’il tak the hindmost?
American politics can appear naive and simplistic on policy (only two parties and those sharing a child-like jingoism) but they are geographically complex. A convenient shorthand of “blue coasts—red centre” gives you a layout of the (relatively speaking) left-leaning Democrats winning states like California and New York and (definitely) right-leaning Republicans dominating places like Texas and Tenessee.
For Presidential purposes, each state elects a number of delegates (to the Electoral College) proportional to its population and most give all to the winner in that state. The candidate with majority (over roughly 245 delegates) wins. After a cliff-hanger in 2004 when Bush unexpectedly won Ohio and the contest, in 2008 Barack Obama sailed home, leaving the Republican McCain/Palin ticket in the dust. This is shown in Figure 1 below:
At first glance on this map, it would appear that the Republicans won from the sheer size of their red area. But much of the US population is concentrated on the coasts and so a more accurate, demographically based map is one such as shown in Figure 2.
In either case, several unusual occurrences stand out. Florida, famous for being an unending cliffhanger in 2000 and run by Bush’s brother, chose Obama and in New England only New Hampshire (state motto: a rather uncompromising “Live Free or Die”) voted for McCain. After four years of buffeting by recession, almost everyone expects 2012 to be a much tighter race, with polls confirming Obama is only a few points ahead.
The on-line retailer Amazon has come up with a creative new measure of what is in the voters’ minds by compiling political books they are buying into a heat map (Figure 3).
At first glance this appears alarming for Obama, with Republican readership 16 points ahead of Democrat. But, simplistic as it is, American politics cannot be so glibly divided into two camps, any more than its literature can. There is also the argument that many Democrats are boning up on Republican thinking as the right has made far more policy twists in recent years. The New York Times has a handy 2-minute lesson on this.
As the Republicans gather for their conference in Tampa, Florida next week under the inauspicious shadow of Hurricane Isaac, they are reasonably united in policy: no gay marriage; no abortion; lower taxes; undoing ‘Obamacare’ medical coverage; less government. But, Mitt Romney gaffes aside, by picking Paul Ryan as his ‘running mate’ (i.e. Vice-Presidential candidate) has painted himself into a pretty extremist corner. It may be no more extreme than Reagan chose in the eighties. But that ballooned the country’s debt, laying the spending-beyond-means foundations of the present fiscal mess.
The Democrats convene the following weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina and will have some unwanted distractions: a rally on same-sex marriage is in town at the same time. Despite their reputation as pace-setters in innovation of material things like cars and computers, Americans are notoriously conservative politically. There is also continued links between big donors and their influence on party policy on a scale we would find embarrassing (the Boston Globe recently covered the issue of “Late-Night Charlotte” and who’s schmoozing whom).
At this point (10 weeks out), there is still little coverage here—not least because there tends to be a series of unseemly squabbles as both sides lob expensive ‘attack ads’ at each other on major TV channels. These are invariably unedifying and usually about some obscure item of US politics/constitution/personal history about which we know/care little. That Obama made a mark in his four years is beyond doubt, unifying a fragmented country by motivating whole blocks of previously disenfranchised citizens to vote. But you can also argue that he has been divisive, as National Public Radio (NPR) has found.
But we really should care. Whoever is inaugurated into the White House in January will lead the world out of recession. While Republicans claim to be the party of business, their track record of cutting taxes with no real cut in expenditure means their strategy is bankrupt. Add to that Romney’s Bush-esque lack of awareness of the world outside and foot-in-mouth ability to hack off friends and you may find yourself with the bulk of Europeans—rooting for Obama.
It now looks like I may be in-country for the fortnight run-up to the poll (Philadelphia and San Francisco), so expect Uncle Sam to dominate this blog from around October 24th until the brouh-ha-ha dies down in the early hours of November 7th. It’s important enough to make a stink about it.