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Friday, November 16, 2012

US Presidential Elections

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that Obama won the election. The bad news – the really bad news is that I didn’t win a free trip to the nearest Google office for a nice chat.

To be honest, I’ve been spending more time following the US elections than is fully warranted. I think the reason is that Obama and Mitt Romney were very closely matched. I didn’t think that Romney is a better candidate than Obama, but this is a country where Dubya won two elections.

It was pretty exhausting following the elections. There were real concerns that Romney was going to win. At some points, the outcome looked less than certain. There were a lot of turning points in the race. There were a lot of obstacles against Obama. This is not like Clinton or Reagan’s or even Nixon’s second term, where the result was never truly in doubt from the start to finish.

First, there was the economic problems that were partially solved by Obama, but never completely. The recovery was slower than expected, and the job numbers were slower than expected, and it does seem as though that Obama’s policies were working even though they were working slowly. But some people would not see it that way, and would prefer to think they weren’t working at all.

Second, there was so much obstructionism in the way of Obama being able to achieve his aims, due to the Republicans always blocking him in Congress. It’s an oft-repeated story by now that shortly after his inauguration, a few powerful Republicans got together to hatch a plan to make sure that Obama didn’t get re-elected. As we now know, that plan did not succeed.

Third, Obama will never go down in history as one of the greatest presidents – not on the evidence of the first term. He is certainly bright and capable. But he does not have – say Bill Clinton’s stomach for fighting or his capacity for politicking. Bill Clinton is a great politician, but Obama is not. He likes to get things done, and he likes to do the right thing, and he is disciplined. But he doesn’t like to go around the room and make friends, raise money and schmooze with people. He’s managed to alienate a few very rich and powerful people who have made him the target of a lot of political attacks.

Fourth, he’s black. There are a lot of people who just didn’t want to see Obama in the White House, it’s as simple as that. But fortunately I don’t think that this was a great problem.

There were a lot of things that Obama had on his side, however. First is that he managed to assemble a very formidable war chest. Even though Romney had the support of the billionaires who could write a large number of checks on the order of tens of millions of dollars, Obama still managed to match him in campaign donations. Obama had the support of just about any demographic group who wasn’t white or male. The rest of the world were rooting for him. The media was on his side, just as it had been on his side during the 2008 elections. And one of the biggest things on his side was that the people that the Republicans managed to nominate were pretty crappy. Mitt Romney is basically the least bad guy among a lot of other candidates. Well, maybe Ron Paul is not a bad guy at heart but I think he would have made a terrible president.

When you think about it, the reasons for Obama and Romney are so evenly matched that you couldn’t really tell for sure how it was going to turn out. At certain points, I almost caught myself thinking that maybe Mitt Romney is not so bad after all, and that he could turn out to be a moderate president just like he was a moderate governor. Until I remembered that George W Bush was a moderate governor. On balance, I would say that Mitt Romney would probably have surrendered control to the more hardcore elements in his party, and even though he had a late resurgence, in the end he lost the presidency.

One thing that intrigues me very much is Obama’s election strategy. It’s clear that one of his greatest assets is the ability to run very very good campaigns. He ran not one, but two very good campaigns in 2008 – if you remember, his most formidable opponent was not John McCain but Hillary Clinton. And I should say that the campaign wasn’t really about him: it was about his friends. Obama is never the star of his own show. He had Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama to campaign for him. His great ambassador to the rest of the world was Hillary Clinton.

More importantly, he had a group of very intelligent and very smart data crunchers, who were able to target voters more effectively than the Republicans. I was very intrigued by what I considered to be data analysis of a much higher standard. You can see this article here. In 2000 and 2004, the Democrats ran two campaigns that were not very good. Al Gore lost to George W Bush in one of the most fateful presidential elections of all time, because the Republican administration changed the US in such significant ways. It was an election that was very winnable because Al Gore was Vice-President to Clinton, who was still very popular in spite of the Lewinsky scandal. But somehow they managed to fuck it up – and it was not helped by his deteriorating relationship with Hillary Clinton. In 2004, the John F Kerry campaign fell prey to a lot of negative campaigning by the Republicans, who attacked John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. And they didn’t respond well enough.

Anyway, we know that there are certain administrations which are poisoned chalices. The 1965-1969 term of LBJ was a poisoned chalice because it was a time of great upheaval. LBJ gave up on running a second term. He was responsible for so much – the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Great Society. But he doomed the Democrat party, and leaving aside the Carter administration, between 1968 and 1992 the Republicans not only dominated the White House, but they reinvented themselves as the dominant party.

The Carter Administration was also a poisoned chalice. The presidency fell to Jimmy Carter but he proved to be an eminently incapable president who made many wrong decisions – he could not control inflation, he could not drag the US out of a recession, and the Iran embassy hostage crisis further underlined his helplessness. It handed the White House back to Ronald Reagan.

Also, the 1949-1953 term was a poisoned chalice, because Truman had to fight a very unpopular war in Korea.

We now know that the 2005-2009 term was also a poisoned chalice. It was the time of the Great Recession, the time of declining American influence in the world, the great setbacks from Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China, and hurricane Katrina. There is no doubt that if John Kerry won, he would have been a one term president. He wouldn’t have been strong enough to defy the House and the Senate. And if he had tried to run for presidency in 2008, he would have been defeated by John McCain. Sarah Palin being the Vice President would have been a definite possibility. Some might question whether the Republican Party would have been as right leaning because of the defeat in 2004, but I think it would not have changed a lot. And it would have been pretty scary to think about how John McCain would have handled the financial crisis.

In 2004, though, there were some interesting developments. Howard Dean was for some time the forerunner of the Democratic Party nomination. And he almost secured the nomination out of nowhere due to a new strategy which used the internet and non-traditional media to target the grassroots. However he crashed and burned because during one public speech, he started screaming in celebration and gave people the impression that he was unhinged. But he had started something important and his strategies later on helped Barack Obama become one of the most effective fundraisers for a presidential campaign ever.

As an aspiring data scientist, I am very much intrigued by how Barack Obama ran his campaign. I think they must have done something really effective in order to win all the swing states – and a lot of the electoral votes. Although there are some people who could predict the results of the election way before hand. Yet, consider this: Obama most of the swing states where the data was inconclusive about who would win them, and none of them by margins greater than 53%. Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, for a total of 60 electoral votes. And there are others who include Iowa and Nevada as swing states as well. Florida, whose result has not been out yet, accounts for another 29 electoral votes. If Obama’s campaign had been responsible for swinging these states in his favour, I have to say that they did a great job. People can say all they want about Obama’s victory being a “trashing”. But if you look at the popular vote, it’s just 50% to 48% in favour of Obama. And if he had lost half of these swing states, he would have been extremely nervous.

I think that Barack Obama had a lot of good data scientists on his side because the really smart people would not have wanted to back Mitt Romney. You can pump all the money you want into campaigns, but if the geeks refuse to work for you, there are just some things that money can’t buy.

Barack Obama had a lot of friends during this campaign. There were a lot of newspaper editorials who endorsed him. A lot of these endorsements are not so much votes of support for Obama as the greatest ever president, but rather a mortal fear of what might happen to America if Romney won. To this end, he was endorsed by people who are normally right-wingers, like Colin Powell. Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie received very good help from him during hurricane Sandy and they expressed their appreciation, even though Christie is a Republican who was supposed to be on Romney’s side, and even though Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire who’s supposed to hate a “socialist” president.

Another thing that would have helped Obama was last year’s “Occupy” movement. Even though it was short lived, and even though it was cleared out for the winter, it did produce some results, which were that it changed the way that people thought about politics. This year there were two good reasons why it didn’t happen. One was that they didn’t want to affect Obama’s re-election chances, and the other was hurricane Sandy.

I have seen this as one of the more important presidential elections. In fact, the 2000, 2008 and 2012 elections are all very important in US history. 2000 was important because it gave us 8 years of George Bush. 2008 was important, although it was not a close-run thing. Even though I regard John McCain as a decent man, he had no chance of winning the presidency – especially not after choosing Sarah Palin. 2012 is important, like 2000, because the result was important, and because the result was not pre-ordained. Like I said earlier, it is very plausible that Obama could have lost. If Mitt Romney had won, this would be the triumph of the moneyed class, and this would have proven to them that if you can pump a lot of money Last of all I want to think about the future of the Republican party. During the Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bush 1 administrations, they were supposed to be the more “hard nosed”, realist and sober party. But it has changed and during the Clinton and Bush 2 years, it has drifted more to the right, to the extent that people are getting sick and tired of it. Since Clinton, the Democrats seem to have “retaken” the center. Neither Clinton nor Obama seem to be extreme leftists, no matter how the Tea Partiers try to paint Obama as a socialist. It’s clear that if this goes on, the Republicans will lose Congress in 2014, and a lot of people believe they have to try and reinvent themselves. They have done it once before, during the Nixon years, and those people who study American political history know that was a very drastic reinvention. And another time during the Reagan years, and yet again during the Clinton years. Who knows whether or not we will have the Republicans moving back to the center. The Republicans of Gerald Ford, Eisenhower and George Bush 1. Even Richard Nixon, who did so much to shape the conservative rhetoric that we see today, was actually a pretty liberal president, if we look at the record of what he actually did, as opposed to what he said.

In times of prosperity, people don’t really care very much who gets elected president. But in times of crisis, I believe that left leaning parties have a great advantage. People who promise social safety nets. People who refuse to let the rich take everything away. I still remember how Winston Churchill lost the first election after winning World War II: in spite of his great service to the nation, and in spite of the incredible achievement of winning the greatest human conflict of all time, they elected Labour party into power because they believed that socialism was needed to rebuild the nation. I see hard times ahead for the Republican party. The other thing that is going to be very hard for the Republican party is that focusing on privileged middle class white people is not going to help very much anymore. America is rapidly becoming a place where Blacks, Latinos and Asians have almost as much power as the Whites. It is also a place where women and gays have more and more power.

Now that we have averted the disaster of a Romney presidency, there are a lot of people who believe that Obama is a liberated person, who is capable of pushing his agenda further than he did with his first term. But at the same time, there are people who point to a historical precedent that presidents get into big trouble with their second term. I don’t really buy that: Monica Lewinsky aside, I think that Bill Clinton had a pretty good second term. Ronald Reagan morphed from great cold warrior to great peacemaker during his rapprochement with Gorbachev which changed the world profoundly. And it’s true that presidents who learn their lessons do become more effective leaders.


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