Exceptionalism is a dangerous vice, but I cannot help but feel that this election is different. Past elections have been won on character or fear or both, but in 2008 I don’t believe the majority of Americans will vote for the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with, or who promises to kill the most Moslems. And while I don’t doubt that our nation remains closely divided on ideological grounds, the divide itself is not nearly as wide as the Rovians would like to believe.
This has also been a brutally long election season in which Americans have had the opportunity to get to know Senators Barack Obama and John McCain in excruciating detail, and so I don’t expect the polls to fluctuate wildly between now and November. Voters have been waiting for both sides to show their hands, and with the vice presidential selections on the table, the waiting game is pretty much over. McCain will get some sort of convention bounce—every nominee does—and then within a week or two, the vast majority of undecideds will pretty much make up their minds.
Which way will the swing vote swing? If I had to bet money, I’d wager on Obama. No doubt McCain has energized his party’s right wing base with his naming of the ultra-conservative creationist Sarah Palin to his ticket, and that will likely mean shorter Obama coattails here in Washington state, where we had been hoping the Ellen Craswell Republicans might stay home en masse. But national elections are won in the middle, and amongst moderate voters Palin will have much more limited appeal.
Indeed, the tone of the two conventions couldn’t have provided a greater contrast. The GOP convention peaked on Wednesday, when a lineup of speakers, endcapped by Palin, entertained the crowd by belittling Obama and his supporters with overtly mean-spirited (if admittedly clever) barbs. And while McCain gamely attempted to recast himself as a bipartisan reformer in his speech last night, it was the partisan sniping that will most likely be remembered by viewers.
The Democratic convention on the other hand adopted a more hopeful and uplifting tone, culminating in Obama’s historic acceptance speech before a roaring crowd of 85,000 at Denver’s Invesco Field. It was (and I somewhat shudder to type the adjective) almost Reaganesque. It was also laced with considerably more substance than the Republican sequel.
Obama has promised tax cuts for 95% of American households; McCain has promised tax cuts for corporations. Obama has promised universal access to health care; McCain has promised tax incentives to make health insurance more affordable. Obama has promised to invest $150 billion in developing the alternative energy sources of the future; McCain has promised more off-shore drilling. Obama has promised to end the Iraq war honorably, and bring our troops home; McCain promises a hundred years war.
And Obama wants abortion to be legal, safe and rare, whereas McCain wants to outlaw abortion while denying young woman access to the birth control and medically accurate sex education that would prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
On all these issues, and most others, it is Obama who appeals to the middle, as he does in tone and character. The Republicans will attempt to brand him as tax-raising, gun-stealing, terrorist-loving liberal… but I just don’t think these charges will stick, and my instinct tells me that it is probably too late. By the end of next week the vast majority of voters will have made up their minds, and all that will be left to do is figure out the electoral math.
McCain needs to win both Ohio and Florida to capture the White House, but Obama doesn’t, with Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina presenting him an endless number of reasonable scenarios toward securing 270 electoral votes. And Ohio and Florida are still toss-ups. And if in the end it is as close as the last two presidential elections, and turnout becomes the deciding factor, there too Obama has the advantage, having invested in extensive field operations McCain can’t hope to match.
This race will be closely fought, and Democrats can’t let their guard down, but let’s just say that coming out of the conventions I am cautiously optimistic. But then… I could always be wrong.