A Last-Minute Assessment

Barring a last-minute surge for John McCain of the sort that carried Harry Truman to victory in 1948, Barack Obama will be elected next week as the 44th president of the United States. A year ago, no one (perhaps even including Obama) saw this coming. Back then – an eternity ago – Iraq was the dominant issue, Hillary Clinton was the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and John McCain was the least likely Republican candidate. The collapse of international financial markets and the prospect of recession eclipsed Iraq; the gears on the well-oiled Clinton machine suddenly seized up; and the failure of (theoretically) more plausible candidacies made McCain the GOP nominee.

These are only three oddities that have made for a very strange political year. There are any number of others. Who would have predicted that an unknown female governor of Alaska would become so prominent on the national stage? And despite the well-documented liberal proclivities of the mainstream media, did anyone foresee that they would become unabashed cheerleaders for the Democratic ticket?

Then there is the extreme volatility of this year’s polling data, quite unlike anything seen in recent decades. During the past three weeks in particular, prominent polls have shown double-digit margins in favor of Obama, or a race within the margin of error. Once the actual votes are counted, the poll-meisters will figure out why and how so many of them ended up looking like amateur Ouija board players.

In the meantime, here’s my guess. Pollsters adjust their raw data in accordance with what they believe to be historical patterns and, comparing those patterns with current data, make certain assumptions about the likely turnout by various demographic sub-groups – e.g., men and women; Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; by race, religion, and socio-economic status, etc. The process necessarily entails more art than science, so equally competent and neutral statisticians can vary in predictions.

The adjusted figures in all cases rest on what happened in the past. But what if the past is not prologue? What if the electorate, for reasons that aren’t immediately discernible, decides to break with historical patterns? Something like that may be in play now, which is the first election since 1952 in which an incumbent president or vice-president is not running for the top job. Add to that another precedent-breaker: the first African-American presidential nominee in American history, who may draw blacks to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Yet again, given the apparent enthusiasms engendered by Obama’s candidacy among the young, will there be a large youth turnout, or (as has traditionally been the case) will many of them be busy on election day? Perhaps even more important are the psychological and economic consequences of the financial meltdown occasioned by the bursting of the housing bubble.

Assessing the impact of these phenomena on voter behavior is a judgment call. Competent experts can and will disagree. Perhaps the electorate will revert to recent patterns – in which case, each party will succeed in turning out its base to the maximum feasible extent, and we’ll be up all night next Tuesday (and perhaps for some days thereafter) waiting for the winner.

Alternatively, one may argue that “change” is in the air and that, whatever the pattern of the past twenty years or so, the voters may be of a mind to take the nation in an entirely different direction.

Which brings us to Senator Obama, the least experienced major-party candidate for the presidency in recent memory, if not in all of American history. Despite his ideological proclivities, which are decidedly left-of-center, he has run a brilliant campaign, especially compared to the Republicans, who have yet to come up with an overarching, coherent argument for electing John McCain – except, perhaps, for fact that he’s not Barack Obama or George W. Bush.

Other than Democrat enthusiasts, a large segment of the public are clearly nervous about Obama, as well they should be. Four years ago, he was an obscure Illinois state legislator of undistinguished achievement. Before that, he was a community organizer in South Chicago, which is not exactly a familiar job description or one that (pace MSNBC’s Chris Matthews) sends a tingle up the leg of most voters. His three-year record in the Senate is likewise devoid of accomplishment, which is perhaps understandable inasmuch as he spent most of that time running for president. So what, precisely, are his qualifications?

Beyond his remarkably thin professional experience, his penchant for far left-wing nostrums is his defining characteristic. His campaign, with the cooperation of the mainstream media, has done a masterful job in hiding that from the public. But it doesn’t require an ideological brain surgeon to figure out where his head and heart will take him. His economic and social policies are radically redistributionist. (Why the Republicans failed to spell this out until a few weeks ago is beyond me). His foreign policy, at best, is incoherent and, at worst, dangerously naive. (Joe Biden wasn’t kidding when he prophesied that as president, Obama would be severely tested by America’s enemies.) On abortion, his views are brutally hostile to the most vulnerable members of the human species and, if he carries through on his promises, he will eliminate every last vestige of legal protection, not only for the unborn but for babies who survive abortion. (That McCain was incapable of pointing this out is perhaps the most appalling feature of a generally artless campaign.)

Notwithstanding all this, there is a better-than-even chance that the American people will elect this man to the highest office in the land. If so, we will not be able to say we didn’t know what was coming.


Michael Uhlmann (1939-2019) served in the Reagan White House and taught American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.