US elections: who is winning and why

February 14th, 2008

 (In this guest blog, Godfrey Hodgson, who has followed more US Presidential elections than any other British journalist, explains what the upsets of the present campaigns tell us about how America is changing, and who can be expected to emerge as the leader of what is still the most powerful nation on earth.)

 This is already the most extraordinary presidential election in the United States for at least forty years.  

What has caught the world’s imagination is that the Democratic party has already decided that it will be represented either by a woman or by an African American. Until very recently, either of those choices would have been virtually unthinkable. When the Democrats chose Geraldine Ferraro to run for Vice President in 1984, that was seen as reckless. When Jesse Jackson showed some early form in the same year and again in 1988, it was tacitly assumed that he could not possibly make it round the entire course. 

 That is not the only reason why 2008 is an extraordinary year, however. Many of the state parties, who make the electoral arrangements in both major parties, decided, one by one, with no grand coordination or strategic plan, to hold  their primary elections, or “caucuses”, far earlier than usual. (Some were anxious to  compete for the attention and inward investment an early campaign brings.)  

That meant — so the pundits rashly foretold — that the candidates in each party would be chosen early, and that therefore the campaign would be even more expensive, and even more determined by the weight of money, than usual. Those predictions were perfectly logical. They have been  thrown into doubt by one of the most remarkable electoral phenomena anyone can remember since a paralysed patrician called Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the help of the worst economic depression in American history,  destroyed the Republicans and ended a long period of conservative ascendancy in 1932. 

The bookmakers’ odds have been torn up in 2008 by an even more improbable political magician, a first-term senator from

called Barack Hussein Obama.  

’s three names evoked central strands of American tradition. Benjamin Franklin was the founding Grandfather of the Republic.  Philippe Delanoye followed the Mayflower’s company from

Leiden on the Fortune in 1621. And the Roosevelts, including Franklin’s fifth cousin Theodore, president before him, came from  one of the wealthiest clans of blue blooded “patroons” from New York when it was still



Barack Obama’s divorced father was a Kenyan.  His mother was a white Nebraskan.  His Muslim middle name reflected the choice of an Indonesian stepfather. He went to school in

Indonesia and

before having a far more brilliant academic career at Harvard than FDR.  

Truly young Senator Obama is an exotic. No wonder the

camp can hardly believe what has hit them. He also reminds us how much

America has changed, and how fast it is still changing. And change has been the great theme of his campaign.
Two questions arise: What does Obama mean when he speaks of change? And if he does become president, can he bring that kind of change about?   

There are two phases of any American presidential election, and it fulfils two purposes. 

The first phase, the so-called primary phase, is the period when the two parties are choosing the delegates who will meet together in the parties’ nominating convention in the summer to choose a candidate. The second, often called the “general election”, chooses between the candidates of the two major parties, and other minor candidates.   Only rarely, as in 1912, 1968  and 1980, does a third party candidates (Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1980) play an significant part in the election. 

The general expectation was that Hillary Clinton would capture the Democratic nomination, and would rather easily beat a Republican candidate, probably either Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of

Massachusetts or Rudy Giuliani, mayor of

New York
who could claim to have reduced the city’s notoriously high level of crime and led it through the trauma of 9/11.  

As things have turned out, Senator John McCain of

, whose campaign almost collapsed for lack of money, has trounced those two well-financed candidates and is now virtually certain to be the Republican candidate.  

On the Democratic side of the aisle,

Clinton seemed to have everything going for her: a name that was universally known; endorsements from party chieftains; an excellent reputation in the Senate marred only by her support for the

war; and a massive amount of money which she and her husband seemed able to renew almost without effort. And it did not help that she was a woman.  

may still recover and win. Obama’s clean sweep of the “Potomac primaries” in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, however, show Obama’s appeal to all of which have both black voters and liberal sophisticates, two constituencies Clinton thought she could count on to vote for her. 

Even now Clinton can fight back if she wins more of the delegates from big states such as Ohio,

Texas  and

. However, she may now lose her present lead among the almost 800 “super-delegates” — former office holders and party worthies who (unlike delegates chosen in  primaries or caucuses) are free to vote for whomever they please, and like to be with a winner.  

It is indeed too early to predict the winner. Hillary Clinton is an intelligent and effective campaigner, and she has the help (when he is not a hindrance through over enthusiasm) of one of the most brilliant campaigners in living memory, who happens to be her husband. But to general amazement Obama is still there, after “Super Tuesday” on February 5, the day when almost half the states and other jurisdictions that send delegates to the Democratic convention were chosen. For the time being the all-important momentum is with him.  

So it is time to look at the other grand function performed by this strange political ritual: the testing of the political temperature.  

There is nothing about the Constitution to this effect. But it is now firmly established that a presidential election (and that is a misnomer, in that hundreds if not thousands of other political offices, from the mighty to the obscure will also be decided on the same day) is an occasion for the

people to hold up a mirror and examine their condition, their mood and their prospects. Or rather perhaps it is more accurate to say that the media hold up mirrors, some of them distorting mirrors like those in


Islands of old, and Americans have to make the most of the images that are shown to them. 

What is clear in 2008 is that a large majority of the American people want what they call  “change”.  What is far from clear is what that means. For some, it their glamour shots displayed alongside political slogans on websites or their voices, tense to the brink of hysteria, on campaign TV reports, “change” seems an item in psychotherapy. For others, it seems to be little more than an irritable sense that things, which they had been told were going so well, seem to have slipped.  

The economy, that seemed to be breaking new records every week, now seems sluggish and problematic. A minority have become rich beyond imagining. But life for the majority has improved little, and instead has become more difficult. (Average wages have improved little over thirty-five years, while tens of millions have either no health insurance at all (40 million approximately) or insurance that is sadly  inadequate.  


war, in spite of General Petraeus’s “surge”,  is generally perceived as a disaster. There is a hurt, puzzled understanding that the United States, which Americans have been brought up to see as universally loved and envied, is in fact rather unpopular abroad.  There is as a consequence a sullen anger at George W. Bush and those around him.  

What is not so certain, what in fact will be the great question to be decided in 2008, is whether this rejection of George W. Bush, also amounts to a rejection of the conservative philosophy that has dominated American public life for a generation, and has been so ineptly interpreted and imposed by the Bush administration.  

That ascendancy was built on three pillars. One was a sense, sometimes religious, that moral standards, in terms of divorce, abortion, homosexuality and crime, had fallen and needed to be uplifted.  Sometimes that was associated with racism, more or less openly acknowledged. The second was a reaction against the perception that government was too strong and too interfering, and that taxes as a consequence were too high. And the third was a fear that

’s standing and status in the world were threatened, whether by communism, or competition, or more recently by terrorism.  

Barack Obama’s election would in itself challenge both racial prejudice and fear of decline. His book, The Audacity of Hope, is unfashionably optimistic, and that is part of his appeal.  The question is whether an Obama administration would have the means to reverse the decline in the ability of government to reassert its authority over mighty special interests. 

At the heart of the conservative appeal was what has been called “market populism”: the idea, that is, that what Americans call “liberalism” and the rest of the world calls social democracy, is the self-interested doctrine of elites, and that the interests, and even the feelings, of ordinary citizens are safer in the hands of businessmen than of politicians.  

That prejudice has been so deeply planted in Americans over the past forty years that the

would not even try to challenge it, and even Obama’s  formidable talents and moral courage would find it hard to eradicate.  

In the meantime, if the Democrats fight one another to a standstill, or discredit their party’s appeal in a close and bruising contest, John McCain is there as a  potentially  attractive  alternative. He is untarnished by association with George Bush, who treated him abominably in their first encounter in the 2000 primaries and has not been forgiven by McCain. (Bush’s aides, in reactionary

South Carolina
, twisted the fact that the McCains have adopted a Bangladeshi woman into a whispering campaign about an interracial affair.)  

There is even the possibility, if the Democrats are deadlocked, of Michael Bloomberg, stock market hero and owner of a powerful news organization, jumping into the contest as a supercharged Ross Perot.  

So this most fascinating of electoral campaigns is far from over. But those who hope, or fear, that it will alter the whole temper of American politics are likely to be disappointed, or relieved, as the case may be.  Fundamental characteristics of American political society — the conviction of

’s exceptional virtue, the tolerance of exceptional inequality, the influence of money, the near-paralysis of executive action — will not be changed without a massive popular upheaval.  

And so far, there is no sign that even Barack Hussein Obama, for all his hope and his audacity, can bring that about.   

Godfrey Hodgson is an associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute,


University. He was The Observer’s correspondent in the

United States, and foreign editor of The Independent. Among his books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (1996), The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (2000),  and More Equal Than Others:

America from Nixon to the new century
. His latest book is Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: a biography of Colonel Edward House.

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