On Nov. 4, Americans will elect their 44th president amid the worst financial turmoil the country has known since the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Both candidates are US senators with little experience as executives, so their ability to manage the crisis has become a central issue in the election.
At the beginning of the campaign, many observers predicted that Iraq would be the major issue this year. Instead, it is the financial crisis. In principle, this should help Senator Barack Obama and the Democrats, because polls show them stronger on economic issues, whereas Republicans and Senator John McCain do better on security issues. After the Republican convention, polls showed McCain ahead early last month, but after the financial meltdown, Obama took the lead.
Although both men have warily embraced the US$700 billion bailout of the financial sector, the contrasts between the two men are sharp. Obama is not only the first African-American nominee of a major party, but also one of the youngest candidates ever. McCain has experience as a naval aviator and more than two decades in the senate. If elected, he would be the oldest incoming president.
The two men differ in temperament as well as experience. McCain is a man of strong traditional values who prides himself on his willingness to act quickly and decisively, which he sought to do during the negotiations on the bailout by suspending his campaign to return to Washington. That effort appears to have backfired, because the Republicans that he leads initially balked at passing the legislation.
But McCain has shown himself to be resilient. Many people wrote off his campaign last year, but he had the skills to resurrect it and capture the Republican nomination. His choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate shook up the presidential campaign.
Obama, while an inspirational orator, has shown a cool and calm demeanor in responding to both the financial crisis and the turbulence of political campaigning. When embarrassed by comments made by the pastor of his church, he delivered an exceptional speech about race in America. If anything, some of Obama’s Democratic supporters wish he would show more emotion in responding to criticism.
One should be careful, however, about reading too much into national opinion polls measuring the candidates’ popular support. US presidents are elected by an Electoral College in which each state votes in proportion to the number of members it has in congress. Since even the smallest states have two senators, this leads to overrepresentation of lightly populated Western states that tend to vote Republican.
In 2000, former US vice president Al Gore won the popular vote, but President George W. Bush prevailed in the electoral college. Thus, the two candidates’ campaigns are focusing heavily on a dozen or so states in which voters are closely divided and could sway the Electoral College outcome. Each campaign is now desperately trying to gauge the impact of the financial crisis on these battleground states.
Not only does the Electoral College confuse predictions based on national opinion polls, but there is also the possibility of surprises which can lead to last-minute reversals. A mistake in a presidential debate can turn the tide of public opinion overnight, as happened to former US president Gerald Ford in his debate with former US president Jimmy Carter in 1976. Conversely, former president Ronald Reagan’s performance in his debate with Carter in 1980 is often credited with his victory.