Don't Write the Old Man Off Yet


John McCain can win the 2008 US Presidential Election.

This may come as a shock to many readers, but that’s only because the debate so far has concentrated so much on the vagaries of the Democrat primaries that we’ve lost sight of the main game. The "other" candidate is not Clinton – it is McCain.

In fact, the most significant conclusion from the primaries is that Barack Obama’s nomination could actually play into McCain’s hands.

To prompt debate, what follows are six reasons why McCain can win (or, more accurately, why Obama will lose). They’re not exhaustive and in no particular order.

1. The primaries do not reflect the voting intentions of the general public. The Democratic primary vote tells us a lot about Democrats’ support towards their candidates and their opinions on various election issues, but this partisan sample does not reflect the general electorate. The general public has much more conservative views about God, guns, race, abortion and Iraq than this sample of registered Democrats, and where we have evidence in the primaries of voting intentions along these lines, the results have not been good from Obama.

2. Clinton was the stronger candidate on many issues that could really damage McCain – the aforementioned God, guns, race, abortion and Iraq. Despite being a "soft" conservative (or perhaps because of this) McCain is on par or does better on all of these issues than Obama, with his greatest weakness being Iraq. Our view of these issues should not be clouded by our location in Australia. Issues such as gun ownership and abortion are extremely divisive in the US and mobilise groups that view Obama as a potential threat to their values.

Even on Iraq, things are not as clear as they seem from our vantage. The perception in the US is that things are finally going well in Iraq, that the surge worked, and that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. This may very well change, as the insurgency reorganises and escalates attacks, but will it change before November?

3. Killing your own. Even the Democrats were almost evenly divided between their top two candidates. And in many States it was caucuses that decided the outcome, not even a majority of registered Democrat voters. The drawn-out Democratic primaries have revealed the deepest divisions in the Party for 30 years, and they have been displayed for all voters to see. This division does nothing to build the credentials of the self styled "healer" of the Party and of the nation. McCain may even resurrect Clinton’s 3am crisis call advertisement to ram this point home.

In stark contrast, one by one McCain’s opponents threw themselves behind him (often with a hug for good measure) and he never looked back. Of course, Republican Party unity shouldn’t be overstated. Division was clearly evident in Ann Coulter’s notorious comment about campaigning for Clinton against McCain (which was echoed by other conservative commentators). What is sidestepped here is that these doyens of the right never countenanced voting for the old-style liberal candidate: Obama. Conservative commentators and the religious right may not like McCain, but does anyone seriously think that they want a Democrat of Obama’s ilk choosing the next Supreme Court Justice? McCain isn’t a conservative but Obama is a liberal. McCain will be the least worst candidate for conservatives and the religious right, giving him much room to manoeuvre.

4. Poisoned planning for a running mate. Division among the Democrats will play themselves out in the choice of Vice President. Obama will need a Vice Presidential candidate who will preach to the converted and reach out to swing voters. He or she will certainly placate at least one major group within the Party, one geographic area of the US and one demographic group, but with so many interests clamouring for representation, a suitable candidate will be nearly impossible to find. A Clinton supporter? A female? An older, more experienced operator? A war veteran? Someone from the South? A Hispanic? An older, female, Hispanic, war veteran, Clinton-supporter from the South? And all of this rigmarole to gain the support of groups which could be viewed as existing Democrat voters.

By contrast, the ambivalence of many Republicans means that McCain has much more freedom to manoeuvre. Someone younger than himself? Definitely. Someone more conservative? No doubt. More overtly religious? Yep. From a swing State or the South/Northeast? Sure. Will they be the best candidate for the job? Maybe not, but the candidate’s appeal will be broad and reach further into important demographics than Obama could hope for.

5. Campaign angles. In the US today, sexism may trump racism but does race trump conservatism? Youth can equal exuberance and/or inexperience. Age can be seen as antiquated and/or wise. Idealism can be viewed as naivety or vision and conservatism can be seen as anachronistic or realistic. McCain isn’t Bush. Obama isn’t Clinton. Do both candidates represent change? The maverick and the outsider certainly think so. This confusing mix of campaign angles is enough to make many voters retreat to tried and tested political positions or to simply turn voters off. And we must never forget that America’s voluntary voting system has a major impact on outcomes. So either option probably favours McCain.

Geography: Obama needs roots, fast. For over a generation, every successful Democratic Presidential candidate has come from the South. It’s a fact. And geography has become more important in recent years as the Republican stranglehold over the South has weakened. Race is just the issue that could reverse the seeming end of the permanent Republican majority in the South. Where is Obama from? Illinois? Hawaii? Indonesia? Africa? (Not even the bravest spin-doctor would suggest that that was the deep South).

The preceding points coalesce into a fine example of the enduring ideological divide in modern US politics. They also point to the reinvigoration of other old debates and fissures, such as race, and to the growing influence of new issues in the Presidential race, such as age and gender.

All of this makes for a very interesting election.

Are the preceding arguments convincing? Maybe, but that’s not the point. What they do is provide some relief from the incessant triumphalism we’ve been hearing at the end of the Democratic primaries.

All we really know at this point is that we now have a two horse race. It’s still a long way to go and Obama’s unprecedented victory does not mean that McCain should be underestimated or written off. Far from it, in fact.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.