"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: September 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why the U.S. economic slump may coast Obama to victory

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Worries over a progressively bad economy are drowning out the “culture wars” that had dominated the U.S. presidential campaigns these past few weeks. And Barack Obama is reaping tremendously from this turn of events. Several opinion polls now show that he is leading McCain by several points.

About two weeks ago, a poll of “likely voters” by the Daily Kos/Research 2000, showed Obama leading McCain by 48 percent to 44. But it got even better last week. A flurry of opinion polls shows that he now leads McCain by more than 50 percent, his highest so far in this campaign season. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out Wednesday, for instance, showed Obama ahead 52 percent to 43 percent.

This is especially noteworthy because polls in the previous weeks had shown that the two candidates were either tied or that McCain had a slight lead.

But the best hint yet that Obama may be on a sustained rebound is the indication from the polls that McCain is slipping badly on the economy. When likely voters were asked who would do a better job of handling the economy (which is now the top concern of voters), almost 50 percent chose Obama over McCain. Only 36 percent of likely voters think McCain would do a better job of handling the economy than Obama can. This represents McCain’s lowest rating on the economy since the start of the presidential campaigns.

Similarly, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, McCain is seen by voters as far less likely to bring change to the country than Obama. While 65 percent of Americans say Obama would bring “real change” to America, only 37 percent said this of McCain.

The poll also shows that Americans view McCain as a "typical Republican" who would continue or expand President Bush's policies. In fact, 22 percent of Americans say he would be worse than Bush. Only one third of respondents say he would be less conservative than Bush.

The same Times/CBS poll shows that 60 percent of voters said they were confident in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions on the economy, compared with 53 percent who felt that way about McCain. Sixty percent also said Obama understood the needs and problems "of people like yourself," compared with 48 percent who said that of McCain.

When asked who they thought would win in November, 45 percent said Obama and 38 percent said McCain.

Reaping political benefit from financial crisis
The renewed faith in Obama by American voters is the direct result of the ongoing crisis in the U.S. economy. The crisis has dramatically altered the narrative of the presidential campaigns.

"It allowed Obama to bring the dialogue back to where he expected it to be and where he wanted it to be, after a few personality driven weeks," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic poll taker who advised Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the nomination of the Democratic ticket.

While Democrats hope the presidential campaign will continue to be defined by the narrative of the economic crisis, Republicans are understandably scared stiff. "The tide came in, but the tide has gone back out. We're back to where we were [in early August],” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican Party strategist who was, by many American media accounts, one of the people that were instrumental in getting President Bush get re-elected for a second term in 2004. "Republicans are in for a tough week."

Perhaps they are in, not just for a tough week, but for a tough campaign season.

Why voters don’t trust McCain with the economy
McCain contributed in no small way in shaping perceptions of him as incapable of understanding, much less tackling, the financial meltdown that America is now contending with. Here is why.

At a meeting with the Wall Street Journal editorial board in January this year, McCain confessed, in a moment of involuntary candor, that economics isn’t his forte. “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” he said. “[But] I’ve got Greenspan’s book.” Alan Greenspan is the immediate past chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, equivalent to Nigeria’s Central Bank governor.

This unintended but nonetheless candid confession, which he now obviously regrets, has come to haunt him.

It was not just that McCain had said he was ignorant of the workings of the economy and would need an on-the-job consultation with books to understand it; he had also repeatedly said that the anxieties over an impending decline in the U.S. economy were groundless.

During an interview with newsmen some months back, he dismissed notions that the U.S. economy was headed for a recession. “I don’t believe we’re headed into a recession,” he said. “I believe the fundamentals of this economy are strong and I believe they will remain strong.”

What was aworse, perhaps, was that on September 15, the day the revered firm Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were crumbling like a pack of cards, McCain repeated his familiar refrain that “the fundamentals” of the U.S. economy “are strong.”

Out-of-touch McCain
McCain’s hypocritical but politically expedient patriotic fervor about the strength of the U.S. economy in the face of evidence to the contrary riled many Americans not only because it uncannily coincided with the moment when the fundamentals of the U.S. economy officially weakened, but also because it came at a time when many Americans are smarting from home foreclosures (loss of homes to mortgage lenders because people can not keep up with paying their mortgage).

Similarly, voters recall that last month when McCain was asked how many houses he owned, he hemmed and hawed and finally said he would have to ask his staff to know the number of houses he owned.

"I think - I'll have my staff get to you," McCain told Politico.com’s reporters in August when he was asked how many house he owned. "It's condominiums where - I'll have them get to you."

Obama quickly jumped on this comment to cast McCain as “out of touch” with middle America. "Somebody asked John McCain: 'How many houses do you have?' And he said, 'I'm not sure, I'll have to check with my staff,'" Obama said with a look of disbelief during a stump speech in Richmond, Virginia.

"If you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy is fundamentally strong," he said. "But if you're like me, and you got one house, or you are like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, then you might have a different perspective."

After a rapturous laughter and applause from the audience, Obama then added: "And, by the way, the answer is, John McCain has seven homes." The American news media have confirmed that McCain indeed has up to seven homes.

Perhaps Americans would have forgiven McCain if it were not that his exhibitionist smugness about the strength of the U.S. economy—and with it his disdain for people who disagree with this pollyannaish view—appears to be a deliberate, well-thought-out policy that even his top advisers mindlessly repeat.

In July this year, for example, McCain's economic adviser, Phil Gramm, angered Americans when he told the conservative, pro-big business Washington Times that the American economy was not in a recession; he said it was the American people who were in a state of “mental recession” because they had become a “nation of whiners.”

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is keeping the American economy competitive and robust.

The comments were widely and roundly condemned. Democratic National Committee spokesperson Karen Finney was perhaps the most hard-hitting.

“What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don't understand is that the American people aren't whining about the state of the economy, they are suffering under the weight of it -- the weight of eight years of Bush-enomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue,” she said. “How dare John McCain and his advisers so callously dismiss the challenges the American people face. No wonder voters feel John McCain is out of touch. He and his campaign don't even understand the everyday issues Americans are dealing with.”

The McCain adviser resigned his position in the wake of the furor his comments generated.

Obama on the offense, McCain on the defense
Emboldened by McCain’s careless missteps on the economy, Obama has been emphasizing what he calls his superior grasp of the economy. About two weeks ago, he sponsored a two-minute TV ad about the economy in which he calls for "shared responsibility" and "real regulation" to stop the "anything-goes culture on Wall Street."

For the first time in a long while, McCain has now been pushed on the defense. He has been changing his positions on several key economic issues in order to reconnect with voters. For instance, he now admits that the fundamentals of the economy are far from strong.

“The fact is we have some tough times ahead,” McCain admitted to his supporters recently. But he expressed optimism that the U.S. economy would bounce back. “We will get through this rough patch,” he said.

But Obama has continued to stay on the offense by tying McCain to Bush. In several of his speeches he blamed the current financial meltdown, the worst since the 1930s, on Bush’s “failed policies” and argued that McCain would offer more of the same. "Unlike Sen. McCain, it didn't take a crisis on Wall Street for me to understand that folks are hurting out on Main Street," Obama said.

McCain is straining hard, sometimes too hard, to convince a cynical American electorate that, contrary to what he had said in moments of unguarded frankness, he actually understands the economy. In several interviews these past two weeks, he has bragged about being chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and about how that experience puts in a better stead than Obama to fix the troubled economy.

"I know how to fix this economy,” he said on Fox News, America’s most influential conservative TV news channel. “I have had great experience on these issues as chairman of the Commerce Committee."

McCain gets into more trouble trying to get out of trouble
While trying to make the case that he is more qualified than Obama to tackle America’s knotty financial crisis, and in an attempt to redeem his image as an out-of-touch economic illiterate, he entangled himself in a mesh of embarrassing gaffes.

For instance, during an interview with the CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) he overstated his qualifications and experience on the economy and exposed himself to ridicule.

"I understand the economy,” he said. “I was chairman of the Commerce Committee that oversights [sic] every part of our economy."

He was wrong. And he is was pilloried in the media for the gaffe. The Senate Commerce Committee that McCain chairs actually only oversees 13 areas of the economy, according to the committee’s own Web site, “except for credit, financial services, and housing"—the very areas of the economy that are now in crisis.

It is the Senate Banking Committee, not the Commerce Committee, that has oversight functions over "banks, banking and financial institutions; control of prices of commodities, rents and services; federal monetary policy, including the Federal Reserve System; financial aid to commerce and industry and money and credit, including currency and coinage."

This deliberate and deceitful padding of his credentials—an increasingly frequent occurrence in the face of his downward slip in the polls—is draining McCain’s credibility among voters even further. And Obama is maximally to cashing in on this.

Similarly last week Thursday, McCain said if he were president he would "fire" the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Chris Cox. However, the U.S. president does not have the constitutional powers to remove the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is an independent regulatory commission.

This goof once gain exposed McCain’s ignorance of the workings of the U.S. economy. The press gibbeted him for this. While he was trying to recover from this bloomer the next day, McCain again got into more trouble when he confused the SEC with the FEC, the Federal Election Commission.

"I believe that the chairman of the FEC should resign and leave office and be replaced," McCain said during a speech to the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, a verbal blunder immediately posted on YouTube.

But that was not all. On the day before the Federal Reserve System (America’s central bank) bailed out American Insurance Group with an $85 billion loan, McCain had argued that it was inappropriate to use taxpayers’ money to help AIG. But it is American taxpayers’ investments that were in danger of perishing at AIG. The following day, when his gaffe was drawn to his attention, he retracted his statement.

Evidence that McCain’s attempts to cast himself as a latter-day economic guru are not yet convincing emerged when an influential advocacy group for older Americans, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, recently questioned his economic judgment and sincerity.

The group’s president, Barbara B. Kennelly, in a widely publicized statement, said among other things, that McCain "continues to support plans to turn Social Security money over to the same Wall Street financiers he now criticizes."

McCain’s missteps, Obama’s opening
In many ways, McCain’s flubs in the face of the current crisis have helped to situate Obama as the only candidate who can lead America in these perilous times.
"The question is who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and unflustered?” Sam Donaldson, political analyst, asked on ABC News. “It wasn't John McCain."

Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-regarded politically unaffiliated newsletter, said the current turn of events has turned McCain into a fish out of water.

"I do think McCain is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues," he said. "But the news of the day is forcing him to talk more about economic issues and pushing him outside that comfort zone.”

A bad economy, strangely, is good politics for Obama. But will this last till November 4 when the general election will be held?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

African immigrants in America who will not vote for Obama

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Given the enormous excitement that Barack Obama generates in Africa (and among Africans both at home and in the diaspora), it’s probably hard to conceive that there are African immigrants in the United States who will be voting for John McCain in the November 4 presidential election. But there are.

So who are these Africans-in-America (or, “American Africans,” as Professor Ali Mazrui likes to call African immigrants in the United States) who would be turning their backs on a “brother” when he needs them most? And what informs their decision?

While there is a handful of Africans who resent Obama for various reasons (ranging from his alleged distance from the African community in America, to his self-righteous insistence, last year, that his support for Nigeria’s debt relief was conditional on Nigeria turning over Charles Taylor to the Special Court in Sierra Leone, etc) the most prominent of them is a certain Robert Ngwu, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States who was, in fact, a delegate at the Republican National Convention in the state of Minnesota.

Ngwu, a former chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization in the Americas (NIDO A) was one of only a few non-white delegates at the convention—and certainly the only African. So why is he a Republican?

African immigrants who are Republican are people who have been suckered by the politics of America’s culture wars. For instance, most Africans, however much they may proclaim their progressive credentials, are culturally conservative and find that the Republican Party’s cultural narratives resonate with them more than the Democratic Party’s embrace of unsettling cultural iconoclasm.

As an example, most Africans are mortified that the Democratic Party supports gay marriage. They also can’t understand why the Party pooh-poohs the idea of teaching creationism in schools. Because of our deeply religious upbringing, most Africans have an unquestioning faith in the idea that the world was created by God, and see no big deal in teaching this idea in schools.

In sum, many Africans find more cultural comfort with Republicans than they do with Democrats. Yet, although American conservatives and Republicans espouse points of views that are congenial to African cultural realities, their platforms provide sanctuary for the worst forms of unabashed racial intolerance. Some of the scariest racists in America can be found in the American conservative movement and in the Republican Party, which are practically indistinguishable these days.

This is not to suggest that all Republicans and/or conservative are racist and intolerant. Or that all Democrats and liberals are tolerant. Some of the most complaisant and kind-hearted Americans I have met here are conservative Republicans. And the worst form of undisguised, in-your-face racism I experienced in my stay here was during a class I took with a self-professed liberal professor with Democratic sympathies.

However, it is the case that, in general, liberals and Democrats are more welcoming to non-white immigrants to the United States than are conservatives and Republicans. So while Africans tend to be culturally conservative, they are usually politically liberal. This can be a recipe for confusion.

In a report he did for the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) titled “Wanted: African-born Republicans,” a U.S.-based Kenyan journalist by the name of Edwin Okog’o captured the ambivalence many Africans face in their political alignments here, the kind that forces African immigrants like Robert Ngwu to turn their back on Obama and embrace McCain. Below is an abridged version of the report. Enjoy.

‘The absence of Africans in the Republican Party can be explained, in part, by their captivation with Obama, a fellow immigrant's son, but it goes deeper than that. Even before Obama's political rise, Africans have historically had more affinity with Democrats than Republicans.

African immigrants who have voted Republican in the past often don't express themselves openly for fear of ridicule and being shunned by their fellow immigrants.
African immigrants who have voted Republican in the past often don't express themselves openly for fear of ridicule and being shunned by their fellow immigrants.

I recall years ago hearing two of my Kenyan countrymen at a party in this country whispering about a young Kenyan woman one of them liked.

"She is a Republican," one man warned.
"A Republican?" the other man asked, as if it were incomprehensible.

Until then, he hadn't been able to take his eyes off her. But now, he just walked away, shaking his head.

American politics was rarely discussed at such gatherings, but it was understood by all of us that once we arrived in the United States we automatically became Democrats. We also realized that most black Americans are Democrats, and Kennedy, Carter and Clinton were all popular in Africa for their policies toward the continent. Still, the dearth of African immigrant Republicans is striking, especially since many of them share some of the same beliefs as the GOP's "social conservatives."

This became clear to me several years ago when as a graduate journalism student at U.C. Berkeley I was assigned to interview African immigrants about a special election in California. But I had great trouble finding a Republican to talk to, even casting far beyond the traditionally liberal Berkeley boundaries. Every African immigrant I called said they were Democrats.

I finally managed to track down that same Kenyan woman whose Republican affiliation had turned off the Kenyan man at that party. She agreed to talk but only if I promised not to reveal her identity.

She told me that she had voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had "proven that he could defend America against terrorism." (The simultaneous Al Qadea bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998 killed and injured hundreds of Africans and left a lasting revulsion against terrorism.)

But the longer we talked, the more she mentioned "moral values." She was a devout Christian who went to church every Sunday. She was anti-abortion. She opposed gay rights because "the Bible forbids homosexuality." She echoed beliefs that I have heard from many African immigrants here.

So why still vote Democrat?
I turned to George Ayittey, a Ghanaian-born professor of economics at American University in Washington, DC. Ayittey, who has lived in the U.S. since 1981, confirmed that most African immigrants were very religious and therefore tended to share certain values with the Republicans. Where they differed, he said, is on immigration.

"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I know it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."

"It is not just Africans," Ayittey said. "Immigrants in general see Republicans as being very strict on immigration," and against their interests.

Ngwu, the Nigerian-born delegate to the Republican convention, told me he thinks the GOP can woo African immigrants by better explaining their immigration policies.

"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I have too much knowledge to become a Democrat by default. I know, for example, that it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."

Ngwu joined the GOP as soon as he became a naturalized citizen nearly 10 years ago, and he has never hidden his political allegiance. To African-born Republicans who are afraid to speak out, he offered this advice: "If you are going to be ashamed of what you believe in, don't believe."

Ngwu said he had already met with various GOP leaders, including Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and Sen. McCain himself.

"I met with Senator McCain and his wife Cindy for two minutes," Ngwu said. "I know it is only two minutes, but how many African Democrats can say they got two minutes from their presidential nominee?"

The way Ngwu saw it, those encounters he had with GOP leaders, however brief, may in the future yield longer appointments with them -- appointments that will allow him enough time to propose the business ideas of Mega Souk, Inc., his business development company.

"I'm very passionate about stopping the exodus of professionals like you and me from Africa," Ngwu said. "I want to see more Americans doing business in Africa, and if anyone is going to do it, it's Republicans because they are the party of business."

Ngwu has the spirit of a true believer, but in this year of Obama, it's going to be harder than ever to find an African Republican voter. No amount of Republican preaching is likely to convert souls. This year, the hearts of African immigrants

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mourning the death of “America’s Imam”

By Farooq A. Kperogi
On September 9, 2008, the 9th day of Ramadan here, Muslims in America lost an inspirational icon with the death of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. He was buried on September 11, 2008.

Sometime last year, on this page, when I wrote about Islam in America, I had cause to make reference to this son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad who rebelled against his father’s distorted teachings of Islam and not only embraced mainstream Islam—along with Malcolm X—but also became its face in America for many decades. Before his death, he was head of The Mosque Cares, a national outreach organization that propagates Sunni Islam in America.

However, because he was an incredibly humble and self-effacing personality, very little is known about this extraordinary man beyond America. For the most part, he was eclipsed by the towering shadows of Minister Louis Farrakhan who is actually not an orthodox Muslim.

Imam W.D. Mohammed (as he was fondly called) probably did more for Islam than any American Muslim—living or dead—had. He brought Islam to the mainstream of American public life and, through his personal example and exemplary outreach efforts, made it attractive to thousands of Americans. That is why the executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Ahmed Rehab, rightly called him "America's Imam."

W.D. Mohammed was in many ways unlike Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation Islam, some of whose heretical teachings would shock many mainstream Muslims. He was not given to gratuitous controversies and avoided excessive publicity. Again, unlike Farrakhan, he resented and resisted hero-worship. That was why he decentralized the organization he founded.

Like most African Americans, W.D. Mohammed struggled with a sometimes disabling multiple consciousness. W.E.B Dubois once called it “double consciousness.” But W.D. Mohammed’s Muslim identity made it a “triple consciousness.” He once said he had found himself perpetually negotiating three identities: being a Muslim, an African American and a Muslim in America.

This struggle manifested in his many name changes. He was born Wallace Dean Muhammad. After accepting traditional Sunni Islam, he changed his first name from Wallace to Warith and his middle name from Dean to Deen. However, he didn’t want to come across as some Middle Easterner. So he changed the spelling of his last name from Muhammad to Mohammed. The tweaking of his last name could also be understood as his way of running away from his father’s sordid past while retaining filial links with him.

The following obituary, which succinctly and thoughtfully captures W.D. Mohammed’s life, appeared in the New York Times on September 10, 2008 and was written by Douglas Martin. It was originally titled, “W. Deen Mohammed, 74, top U.S. imam, dies.”

Imam W. Deen Mohammed, a son of the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who renounced the black nationalism of his father’s movement to lead a more traditional and racially tolerant form of Islam for black Muslims, died on Tuesday in Chicago. He was 74.

The death was confirmed on the blog of Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, where Imam Mohammed had recently led a convention. The Associated Press reported that no cause had been determined.

Imam Mohammed emerged from the cauldron of religious politics and internal rivalry that characterized the Black Muslims, as the Nation of Islam members were called, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following Malcolm X, who was drifting away from black separatism toward traditional Islam when he was assassinated in 1965, Imam Mohammed increasingly favored a nonracial approach to religion, without categorizing white people as devils, as Elijah Muhammad did. His father excommunicated him several times for this dissidence.

The son was nonetheless unanimously elected supreme minister of the Nation of Islam after his father’s death in 1975. He pushed his followers toward a more orthodox faith, emphasizing study of the Koran and the five duties of a Moslem: faith, charity, prayer five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca. A major change was rejecting the divinity of the founder of the Nation of Islam, Wallace D. Fard; a lesser one was relaxing the religion’s strict dress code.

Eventually, the Black Muslims splintered, with the fiery Louis Farrakhan leading the faction favoring racial separatism. Imam Mohammed, soft-spoken and scholarly, led what is thought to be a far larger flock that appeals, in general terms, to middle-class blacks, according to Contemporary Black Biography, an online reference book. Over the years, estimates of the group’s size have ranged from 500,000 adherents to more than 2 million.

In 1976, Imam Mohammed dropped the Nation of Islam name in favor of the World Community of al-Islam in the West; that was also the year he adopted the title of imam.

Two years later, he changed the name of his organization to the American Muslim Mission. Later, he encouraged each mosque to be independent under the leadership of the Muslim American Society, or the Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed.

Imam Mohammed moved decisively toward the religious mainstream. In 1992, he became the first Muslim to deliver the invocation for the United States Senate. He led prayers at both inaugurals of President Bill Clinton. He addressed a conference of Muslims and Reform Jews in 1995, and participated in several major interfaith dialogues with Roman Catholic cardinals. He met with the pope in 1996 and 1999.

Imam Mohammed worked to bring American Muslims into the world’s largest Islamic orthodoxy, the Sunni branch. He met privately with Arab leaders like President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and received a contribution of $16 million from a sultan in the United Arab Emirates.

His leadership position in the American Muslim community was evident two years after he succeeded his father when he led what was then the largest delegation of American Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was major news in the African-American press when Imam Mohammed and Mr. Farrakhan appeared together in Chicago in 2000.

“Twenty-five years later, I know that your father wanted this,” Mr. Farrakhan said, Jet magazine reported. “I know it in my heart.”

Wallace Deen Mohammed was born in 1933 in Detroit and was said to be his father’s favorite of his seven children. He was named after Mr. Fard, who according to Black Muslim lore had predicted his birth and his eventual succession to leadership. He eventually changed the spelling of his family name, including changing “a” to “e” as a sign of independence. He took the first name Warith when he became an imam in 1976.

He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he attended religious school taught by immigrants from places like Jordan and Egypt. He learned to read Arabic. He later studied English, history and the social sciences at two Chicago area junior colleges.

In 1961, he refused the military draft and was sentenced to three years in prison. While incarcerated, he began to notice contradictions in Nation of Islam theology. That led to the ideological rift with his father.

Imam Mohammed continued the business enterprises long favored by Black Muslims, including importing clothing, real estate development and developing skin care products. He also kept social services like improving access to health care and helping convicts after their release.

Information on survivors was unavailable. In 1994, The Los Angeles Times reported that at that time Imam Mohammed was married to his fourth wife and had eight children and five stepchildren.

Imam Mohammed was almost preternaturally reserved compared with Mr. Farrakhan and sometimes appeared in public only once a year. His last appearance was in Detroit in August.

“We all,” he counseled, “should try to be more Christ-like.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Return of American culture wars heats up presidential race

By Farooq A. Kperogi
With less than two months to the presidential election, America’s politically tinged culture wars—bickering over “hot-button” cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion and, lately, global warming—have reemerged and are threatening to overshadow the hitherto dominant concerns over a troubled economy and an unpopular war in Iraq.

Given the history of the effect of the intrusion of culture wars into American presidential elections, this is a potentially bad turn for the Democratic Party. Because culture wars put substantive issues on the backburner, many otherwise unelectable politicians exploit this moment to escape critical scrutiny and get elected into office. It was the culture wars that got President George Bush elected in 2000 and that got him reelected in 2004.

Many of the flash-point issues that trigger the culture wars in America would strike many non-Americans as trivial, even pointless. The masses of the people, most of whom are disaffiliated from the vast economic prosperity in the country, get worked up over wedge issues like religion, homosexuality, abortion, gun control, and so on and consign economic issues to the background. American journalists have called this the obsession with “God, gays and guns.”

Non-Americans who find Americans’ obsessive investment in these trifling cultural issues inexplicable have good company in Thomas Frank, a well-regarded American scholar who, in 2004, wrote a famous book on the subject titled, What’s the Matter with Kansas?

In the book, Frank wants to find out what motivates Americans on the lower end of the social scale (who ought to be supporting unions, liberals, and intellectuals that advocate policies that are congenial to the interests of poor people) to vote against their interests by jettisoning the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party, which is unashamedly pro-business and anti-poor.
He finds the answer in the fascination that the American poor have for issues like abortion, guns, and gays at the expense of pressing economic problems. An economic study by Larry Bartels, a professor of political science at Princeton University titled Unequal Democracy demonstrates that when Democrats are in the White House, lower-income American families often experience more economic prosperity than upper-middle class families.

The same study shows that the reverse is often the case when Republicans are in power. This means if Americans were to vote for their economic interests, Democrats would hang on to power in perpetuity since upper-middle class families don not constitute a majority of the population.

The Republican Party, which suffered a crushing political defeat in the Clinton years, and realizing that they cannot win elections on the substantive issues, decided to anchor their campaigns for the recapture of the White House on cultural issues that evoke strong passions in Americans: God gays and guns.

Since the late 1990s, the party has strategically aligned itself with evangelical Christians and social conservatives of all hue. They pushed discussions on gay marriage, abortion, gun control and the teaching of creationism (the belief that God created the world and that we did no evolve from apes) in schools, etc to the forefront of political debates—and then stayed on the Right side of this debate. The stance of the Republicans pushed Democrats to the Left side of the debate.
This means the Democratic Party supports gay marriage, supports some restrictions on gun ownership (the American constitution gives every citizen the right to bear arms), supports the right of women to abort their pregnancies if they so desire, and oppose the teaching of creationism in schools.
However, most Americans are culturally conservative and can’t bring themselves to support the Democratic side of the culture wars. And that is why Republicans win elections when culture wars define presidential elections.

In other words, Republicans have, for the past eight years, persuaded most people to vote against their economic interest through trite lifestyle issues. "Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends," Thomas Frank concludes.

However, after being in power for eight years, the Republican Party has not lived up to its promise to ban gay marriage and institutionalize the cultural issues on the basis of which they won elections.

This had led many social conservatives to feel disillusioned and duped. In fact, last year the National Review, America’s most influential conservative news magazine, published an article titled "A Farewell to Culture Wars."

But it turned out that they were wrong. The culture wars are back again with a renewed vigor.

Republicans shoot the first salvo
The first symbolic salvo in the renascent culture wars was the nomination of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as McCain vice presidential nominee. Evangelical Christians and social conservatives had been reluctant to support John McCain’s candidacy because of positions he had taken in the past that put him at odds with the American conservative movement.

For instance, McCain supports abortion in cases of rape or incest. Sarah Palin (and American conservatives) will not allow abortion under any circumstance.

And there is no more powerful proof of Palin’s conservative, anti-abortion credential than her decision to keep her baby even when she discovered early in her pregnancy that the baby would have Down syndrome. But more than that, she’s also on the Right side of the new addition to the culture wars: environmentalism.

While Democrats (and liberals) believe that global warming is man-made and can be stopped, or at least minimized, if humans reduce gas emissions, and protect wild life, and stop drilling, etc, Republicans (and conservatives) don’t believe global warming is man-made.
As governor of Alaska, Palin has supported drilling activities in her oil-rich state and has dismissed the idea that global warming is man-made, although she is equivocating now. John McCain is, however, unequivocally pro-environment— to the displeasure of many conservatives. This is why Palin’s choice has energized the conservative movement in America. It is seen as a compensation for the deficits in McCain’s conservative credentials.

McCain would get the conservative vote precisely because of Palin. As Polico.com put it, “Conservatives see [Palin] as a kindred spirit who lives her anti-abortion words in the most profound way: by giving birth to a child she knew would be born with Down syndrome. Gun owners see her as authentically one of them: a hunter with a passion for the outdoors and gun freedom.”
This was why Palin’s acceptance speech dwelled on only two themes: culture wars and vicious attacks on Obama. She extolled her “small-town” values of simplicity and compassion and talked about her family and her mentally-challenged newborn baby in attempts to stir the culture wars. Since then, the presidential campaign has taken a new tone.

After the acceptance speech, she not only fired up American conservatives; she also brought back culture wars into the presidential campaign in more ways than political pundits had anticipated.

For instance, shortly after her speech, a Christian organization called the Saddleback Church organized a forum during which it invited both Obama and McCain to answer questions on many flash-point cultural issues.
Obama was asked when life begins—an attempt to gauge his opinion on abortion. Not wanting to alienate his liberal base, which supports the right to abort pregnancy, and not wanting to put off conservatives who oppose abortion, he said the question was "above my pay grade." McCain’s own response was that “life begins at conception”—a response that won McCain many hitherto undecided conservatives.
Obama’s noncommittal response provided fodder for withering conservative attacks against him. Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson took well-publicized shots at Obama. "We need a president who doesn't think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade," he said.

The Republican Party also used this as a launching pad to revisit Obama’s pro-abortion record when he served as an Illinois state senator. They alleged that he supported the killing of babies who survived an abortion. The media found this to be untrue.

But it is issues like this that the emergence of Palin has thrown up. "The choice of Palin is going to bring some of these issues, like abortion, same sex issues, the teaching of evolution in public schools, the whole role of what religion plays in public life, back to the campaign," said Rob Boston, a top political analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "Culture war issues reflect a real divide that is evident in society today."

Obama’s ambivalent response
The Obama campaign knows that it cannot win a culture war with Republicans. But the campaign has been at best ambivalent in its response to the creeping incursion of culture wars into the presidential campaigns.

There are at least two reasons for this. First the Obama camp wants to halt the drift of women to McCain by showing that the McCain-Palin ticket, for its swagger about being fresh and historic, is a ticket that denies women the right to have an abortion if they choose to.

But in attacking Palin, Obama does not want to come across as sexist, especially after vanquishing a valiant female opponent like Hillary Clinton, who is now his enthusiastic supporter. This has been a tricky situation for the Obama campaign.
Since Sarah Palin was nominated as the Republican vice presidential nominee, polls have shown that a majority of white women now have more sympathies for the Republican than they have for their traditional political sanctuary: the Democratic Party.

Polls have also been shown that many of Hillary Clinton’s women supporters are drifting toward the McCain-Palin ticket. Since many women, especially Hillary Clinton-type women, support the right to have an abortion, the Obama campaign thought it would be wise to sponsor an ad highlighting the anti-abortion records of McCain and Palin.

So the Obama campaign sponsored ads in almost 10 key states lambasting McCain as an opponent of the right of women to “choose” (liberals who support abortion rights like to characterize their position as “pro-choice, while opponents of abortion label themselves as “pro-life”).

But the attempt to paint McCain as “anti-choice” inexorably draws Obama into the culture wars, which he cannot win for reasons that will become clear shortly. Similarly, Democrats, especially in the blogosphere (all the webs on the Internet), have also pilloried Palin when it became public knowledge that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter, Bristol Palin, is pregnant.

Conservatives make campaign issues out of premarital sex. Governor Palin, in fact, opposes sex education, and liberal bloggers attributed her daughter’s pregnancy to a lack of exposure to sex education.

But instead of being repulsed, conservatives who disapprove of pre-marital sex celebrated the fact that Bristol decided not to abort the pregnancy and plans to marry her boyfriend. But what is significant in all this is that Democrats unwittingly fell into the trap of the culture wars.

"The whole discussion up until now has been about national security and the economy and now we see the culture wars back with her appointment," said Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It has re-emerged because of the circumstances of [Palin’s] fifth child and her daughter."

Why the culture wars are bad news for Obama
The sad news for Democrats is that most Americans have conservative values. The annual Pew Religion and Public Life Survey recently reported that almost 50 percent of Americans say their “moral values” are conservative. Only 20 percent say their moral values are liberal.
Predictably, when voters were asked to gauge how liberal McCain and Obama were, "the average voter places themselves much closer to McCain than to Obama." Similarly, about half of voters, when asked to assess the moral values of the candidates, described Obama as liberal while nearly six in 10 said McCain was conservative.

So it’s in McCain’s interest that the culture wars rage. They give him—and his running mate— a protective shield against concerns over their perceived weakness in addressing America’s current economic problems.

David Kuhn, a well-known nonpartisan political analyst, wrote: “Given the intensity of Palin support among conservatives, McCain may very well end up with greater flexibility than ever to make his own direct appeal to independent voters. Palin can keep social activists at ease — and excited — while McCain seeks to reclaim his maverick image with a more direct appeal to those Hillary Clinton supporters and undecided swing voters.”

The Obama camp has realized this. Now they are trying strenuously to steer the issues back to the economy, and the war in Iraq, and healthcare—issues on which Obama has a clear advantage over McCain.

Obama’s prayers answered?
The good news for Obama is that Palin-mania may be waning—and with it the culture wars— after a recent television interview which exposed Sarah Palin’s embarrassing ignorance of foreign policy and domestic issues, and that also exposed her lies and equivocation on many key issues.

The most shocking of her knowledge gap, it would seem, was her cluelessness when she was asked if she agreed with the “Bush doctrine”—the idea that America has the right to launch pre-emptive attacks against potential terrorists and their hosts, among other things. She had no earthly idea what that meant.

Again, in response to a question about to how her state’s closeness to Russia affected her understanding of the Russia/Georgia conflict, all she could say was that Russia was visible from many parts of her state. Her responses to questions during the interview came across as vacuous, parrotic recitation of talking points she had memorized.

In fact, the responses sometimes had no connection with the questions asked. The interviewer was forced on one occasion to express frustration with being dazed in a “blizzard of words.”

Her unnerving shallowness during the interview has jolted many Americans. In light of the deepening crisis in the American stock market, polls show many voters are again worried about the economy. This reality may push the issues back to the economy and healthcare, which Obama is strong on. But in the kaleidoscope of American politics, anything can happen—or refuse to happen.

Two days in “America’s most segregated city”

By Farooq A. Kperogi
A day after I returned from Nigeria, I headed straight to Chicago, America’s third largest metropolitan area (after New York and Los Angeles) and reputedly its most segregated city. I was there to present a research paper at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), America’s largest and most prestigious association for journalism scholars.

As has become my tradition, I traveled there by bus. That afforded me the opportunity to travel through—and sometimes lay over at—many historic towns and cities across three other states: Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana.

I was not particularly excited about passing through Tennessee. I had been to several towns and cities in the state before, and I will be going to Nashville, the capital city of Tennessee, for another conference in the midpoint of next month.

The city I eagerly looked forward to seeing on my way to Chicago was Kentucky’s biggest city, Louisville (pronounced as LUU-VUL by its residents), the birthplace of the legendary Muhammad Ali and home to the famous Kentucky Derby.

I stopped over here for about an hour to glow in the city’s lavishly elegant and refined splendor. In this city of over 700,000 people (which makes it more populous than the entire state of Alaska), you can’t escape Muhammad Ali’s symbolic shadows. One of the longest streets in the city—Muhammad Ali Boulevard— is named after him. Several other monuments are named after him.

In geopolitical and cultural terms, Louisville commingles the gentleness of southern United States and the snot-nosed detachment and industry of the northern states. An acknowledgement of this cultural confluence is encapsulated in the fact that Americans love to describe Louisville as the northernmost Southern city or the southernmost northern city in the United States. But the city also does have its own singularities that transcend the stereotypes of America’s geopolitics, although Kentucky is officially regarded as a Southern state.

Another major city I stopped over was Indianapolis, the capital of the state of Indiana. The city didn’t register any strong impressions in me. It is just another American city. But I was told by residents that it is home to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, said to be the world’s largest children's museum. Americans are famous for their love to lavish superlatives on their possessions, so I was skeptical about this claim. But I confirmed this to be true when I returned to Atlanta. Someday I hope to return there with my children.

The last major town I passed through before getting to Chicago was Gary, a town that is technically in the state of Indiana but that is actually contiguous with and often regarded as a part of metropolitan Chicago. This sleepy and desolate town of a little over 100,000 people is the birthplace of Michael Jackson. I had read a long time ago that Michael Jackson—and his brothers— were born in some place called Gary, Indiana. I had not the slightest inkling that I would some day visit it.
Gary struck me as a derelict city. The people I saw on the streets looked forlorn and resigned. Many homes appeared vacated. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the fact that this was the hometown of the Jackson Family, of Morgan Freedman and of Joseph Stiglitz, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics and former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank who is known for his very biting criticisms of the World Bank and IMF.

Things made sense to me when I was told that Gary is one of America’s most dangerous cities. It has one of the highest crime rates in the country and experienced what is called “white flight”—the phenomenon of working- and middle-class white people leaving cities en masse. As a result of white flight over several years, over 84 percent of the town is African American. Only about 12 percent is white.

I got to Chicago in the early hours of the evening. This city of skyscrapers, freeways, and a flourishing downtown beggars description. It suffices to say that the regal architectural grandeur of this city is simply awe-inspiring. Its intimidatingly gorgeous skyline must rank among the tallest in the United States, outrivaled, perhaps, only by New York and challenged only by Los Angeles. I was not surprised when I read somewhere that Chicago was once first on the list of largest buildings in the world.

In the midst of this architectural elegance, the city is also very leafy. It has a record 552 parks, several parklands, beaches, lagoons, conservatories and wildlife gardens. That’s why the city is affectionately nicknamed “City in a Garden.”

But why is Chicago called America’s most segregated city? I first heard this expression from my colleague in Atlanta, who is originally from Chicago. As one of the bastions of American liberalism, I was taken aback to learn that Chicago has the notoriety of being America’s most segregated city. I thought that dishonor belonged more properly to Birmingham in the state of Alabama.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out the puzzle when I got to Chicago. The city is divided into four parts: the North Side (which is predominantly white), the South Side (which is heavily black), Downtown (which is also predominantly white) and the West Side (which is largely black). Obama lives in the South Side of Chicago, although in a highbrow part called Hyde Park.

I personally didn’t experience any racial tension in my two-day stay in this city. Our conference was held in downtown Chicago, and I lodged in a hotel located in the North Side. Interestingly, many of the people I spoke with weren’t conscious of, or at least were not bothered by, the fact of Chicago being labeled the most segregated city in America. One of the few blacks I saw in the North Side dismissed the description as inaccurate. “Which American city is not segregated?” he asked. “Racial segregation is not unique to Chicago. It’s an American problem.”

It turned, however, that it was Dr. Martin Luther King who first called Chicago America’s most segregated city. Since then, that epithet has stuck. As recently as 2001, Mark Skertic and Bill Dedman wrote in the Chicago Sun Times: "The first Census 2000 numbers show that in Chicago, while the city is more diverse, with a rising Hispanic population, African Americans remain largely segregated in all-black blocks." Even Barack Obama, Chicago’s most notable resident, when asked what he knew about Chicago, replied that it was “America's most segregated city."

Until relatively recently, Chicago had been called the Mecca of Black America, a position now occupied by Atlanta. During the so-called “Great Migration” of African Americans from southern United States to the North, between 1910 and 1970, to escape racism and seek more opportunities, Chicago was a huge magnet. The South Side of Chicago became known as the black capital of America.

Up to today, African Americans constitute a significant proportion of Chicago’s population. While whites make up about 42 percent of the population, blacks constitute 37 percent of the population. Asians are a distant third with a little over 4 percent of the population.

Although my stay was brief, I still nourish fond memories of Chicago. It was, for me, America’s second flashiest city after New York.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin displaces Obama as the new American sensation

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Barack Obama is no longer the man of the moment in American politics. He has been upstaged by a new kid on the American political block. She is Sarah Palin (pronounced pei-lin), the governor of Alaska and vice presidential nominee of Republican candidate John McCain.

Since her surprise nomination for vice president two weeks ago, she has generated tremendous excitement and curiosity among Americans in ways that are analogous to Obama’s first entry into American national politics. She has now stolen the show from Obama. While Republicans are excited, even ecstatic, about this, Democrats are worried that this may signal the end of the game for their candidate.

The worries are grounded on emerging facts about what has now been called the “Palin power.” For starters, her acceptance speech at the National Republican Convention in Twin Cities, Minnesota, was viewed live by over 40 million people, according the Nielsen Media Research. This record displaces Obama’s nearly 40 million, which had been touted as the most watched political event in U.S. history. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden’s acceptance speech was viewed live by just 24 million people.

In part because of the buzz created by Palin’s speech a day earlier, McCain, a normally uninspiring and colorless speaker who puts his listeners to sleep, tied with Obama in TV viewership of his acceptance speech. Palin’s superior live viewership and McCain’s rivaling of Obama’s record combined to make the Republican national convention the most-watched convention in U.S. television history, beating a record set by the Democrats a week earlier.

Palin more popular than Obama and McCain

Sarah Palin isn’t just a “buzzworthy,” curiosity-provoking new entrant into American politics; she’s also America’s most popular politician now, a distinction once enjoyed by Obama. According to Rasmussen Reports, a nationally regarded electronic publishing firm specializing in the collection, publication, and distribution of public opinion polling information, Palin is now viewed favorably by almost 60 percent of American voters.

This is remarkable given that only a week prior to the poll, almost 70 percent of American voters said they had never even heard of her. Similarly, after her nomination as Republican vice presidential nominee on August 29, 2008 and before her record-breaking acceptance speech, she was viewed favorably by just 52 percent of American voters.

Rasmussen Reports’ data further shows what must be a disturbing piece of information for the Obama campaign: more Americans now think John McCain showed better judgment in his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate than they think Barack Obama showed in his choice of John Biden.

“Perhaps most stunning,” said the Rasmussen Reports, “is the fact that Palin's favorable ratings are now a point higher than either man at the top of the Presidential tickets this year.” As of last week, Obama and McCain are each viewed favorably by 57 percent of voters, a percent lower than Palin. Biden is viewed favorably by just 48 percent of voters.

Another disturbing statistic for the Obama campaign is that American voters are now fairly evenly divided as to whether Palin (former mayor of a town with only a little over 5,000 people and governor of a state with less than 700,000 people) or Obama has the better experience to be President. Forty-four percent (44 percent) of voters say Palin has the better experience while 48 percent say Obama has the edge. Among voters who are neither registered Democrats nor registered Republicans 45 percent say Obama has better experience while 42 percent say Palin is better prepared. In both cases, Obama is leading Palin by a mere 4 to 3 percent.

Obama’s downward slide on the totem pole of American voter sentiments was prefigured by a previous poll that showed evidence of what media pundits here called an Obama fatigue. What used to be his most potent weapon—media visibility—is now becoming his greatest undoing.

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on August 6, 2008—nearly a month before Palin was picked as McCain’s vice presidential running mate—close to half of Americans said they had already had and heard too much of Obama. “And by a slight, but statistically significant margin - 22% to 16% - people say that recently they have a less rather than more favorable view of the putative Democratic nominee,” the report added.

Given this creeping, pre-existing Obama fatigue, it came as little surprise that Palin has eclipsed Obama’s erstwhile phenomenal star power. One of the auxiliary consequences of this is, of course, that Obama has lost his lead in the polls and is now trailing behind McCain.

Why Sarah Palin is popular
Palin’s popularity is largely traceable to the unusualness of her choice. In a sense, she is the new Obama of American politics—just like Hillary Clinton used to be the new sensation of American politics before Obama displaced her. It’s a gradation of novelty.

When Obama hadn’t emerged on the national scene, the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female Democratic presidential candidate, and probably the first female president, excited many Americans. For a long time, it seemed as if she was the inevitable candidate.

Then Obama emerged. And the novelty of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy wore off. Obama rode on the momentum that his novelty conferred on him to edge Hillary out of the race for the nomination of the Democratic Party. Now, someone who is even more “improbable” (as Obama likes to describe his emergence) than he has emerged on the national scene.

The prospect of “change” that Obama’s candidacy not only symbolized but also sloganeered has been hijacked by Palin. In more ways than Obama, she will be a fresh face in Washington, D.C. She is from a state that is closer to Russia than it is to any part of the contiguous United States. (It takes the same number of hours to travel from Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, to China as it takes to travel from Alaska to Washington, D.C.)

In a period of mass disillusionment with eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration, distance from Washington DC is a huge political asset. And any candidate who can prove more distance from Washington gets more political mileage.

Precisely because of this, the McCain campaign has now usurped Obama’s campaign theme of “change”—to the shock and amazement of Democrats. (Scholars of American presidential politics have found that in moments of economic distress and political uncertainty, such as is the case now, candidates who represent themselves as candidates of “change” often win).

With the new energy from Palin, the McCain campaign decided to snatch the slogan of “change” from Obama. During his acceptance speech, McCain told Americans that “change is coming.” He has since been repeating the same message in his stump speeches. Palin complements this by saying that Obama’s vice presidential pick has been in Washington too long to bring any change.

But Obama has been fighting back by relentlessly asserting that McCain is no different from Bush.

“Since the beginning of this campaign, we’ve been talking about change. … We must be on to something, because I notice now everyone’s talking about change now,” Obama said.

“John McCain has said that change is coming. … Now think about this coming from the party that’s been in charge for eight years. They’ve been running the show, been up in the White House. John McCain brags, ‘90 percent of the time I have voted with George Bush’ … and suddenly he’s the change agent.”

This is a substantive point. However, Palin’s strength has never been her substance. Her strength has been that people tend to like her in spite of—or perhaps because of— what appears like her substance deficit, according to two of Palin's opponents in the 2006 Alaska governor's race.

"She wouldn't have articulated one coherent policy and people would just be fawning all over her," Republican-Independent candidate Andrew Halcro told The New York Times. "[Democratic candidate Tony Knowles] and I looked at each other and it was, like, this isn't about policy or Alaska issues; this is about people's most basic instincts: 'I like you, and you make me feel good.'"

Palin’s potential problems
While Palin is currently wildly popular, there is the very strong potential that this popularity will fade fast as more information about her is unearthed. For instance, although she’s a journalism graduate, she has occasional troubles with English grammar (prompting a columnist to ask: “Doesn't the University of Idaho require its graduates to learn English?”) and knows next to nothing about international issues.

"Ms. Palin appears to have traveled very little outside the United States," reported The Times. "In July 2007, she had to get a passport before she visited members of the Alaska National Guard stationed in Kuwait." Yet Anchorage is a major hub for flights to Japan, Korea and China.

Not surprisingly, only a year ago, she couldn’t even answer a reporter’s question about the war in Iraq."I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq," Palin told the Alaska Business Monthly in March 2007 when she was asked for an opinion on the Iraq war. "I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan."

If she had been following the news, she would have realized that she was swimming against her party’s mainstream by talking about an exit plan for American troops in Iraq. In fact, her ticket mate, John McCain, has consistently opposed any exit plan for American troops from Iraq. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on January 3, 2008, McCain took his opposition to an “exit plan” even farther by declaring that it would be "fine with me" if American troops remained in Iraq for "maybe a hundred years."

But two potentially explosive issues that may effectively sink Palin are: her associations with a secessionist Alaskan political party and an ongoing investigation into whether she fired a state commissioner for failing to oblige her request to fire a police officer who divorced her sister.

According to the Alaskan Division of Elections, Palin’s husband, Tod Palin (a union worker and fisherman who doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree) was a registered member of the Alaskan Independence Party from 1995 to 2002. The Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), founded in 1978, advocates a plebiscite that will allow Alaskans to vote to secede from the United States.

The Party’s founder, Joe Vogler, was an unapologetic secessionist who had tremendous contempt for the United States. On the party’s Web site, he is quoted to have said, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American…I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." For the McCain campaign whose newfound slogan is “Country First,” Palin’s associations with a secessionist group whose slogan is “Alaska First” could prove politically disastrous.

Although the Alaskan Division of Election said Sarah Palin had been registered as a Republican since 1982, she has had strong personal associations with the secessionist AIP. She and her husband attended the Party’s 1994 convention in her hometown of Wasilla, according to the Los Angeles Times. Six months ago, she also videotaped a solidarity speech to the Party’s convention.

In the video, which is now posted on YouTube, she told the delegates to "keep up the good work," and wished the party luck on what she called its "inspiring convention."

Dexter Clark, the vice chairman of the AIP, in videotaped comments to the second North American Secessionist Convention in October, 2007, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said Sarah Palin is a member of the AIP. The video is now posted on YouTube too.

"She was an AIP member before she got the job as the mayor of a small town," Clark told the group. "That was a nonpartisan job. But you get along to go along. She eventually joined the Republican Party."

The McCain campaign distributed Palin's voter registration records last week to show that she had never been a member of the AIP. It remains to be seen how many people believe this and how much damage this story can inflict on her—and McCain—politically.

The second big problem confronting Palin is what the American media now calls the “troopergate” investigation. The allegations are that Palin, her family or her administration inappropriately forced then-Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire Gov. Palin's ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten, who divorced the governor’s sister in very bitter circumstances.

Republican strategies to keep Palin’s popularity

Realizing that her wild popularity could be up for diminution, the Republican Party is jealously guarding its historic, game-changing vice presidential nominee from any critical searchlight.

The party’s first strategy is to use the gender card. Every critical question about her record is condemned as “sexist smear” campaign. In a country where terms like “racist,” “sexist” “homophobic” are grave devil terms, this strategy has been effective so far.

Charges of “sexism” against the media have not only slowed media investigation into her records, they have earned the McCain campaign more women voters than the Republican Party has ever attracted. At the time of writing this report, more women voters now support the McCain-Palin ticket than they do the Obama-Biden ticket.

The second strategy is to shield her from the media. Since her convention speech, she has neither spoken with the media nor with voters. In campaign appearances with McCain, she does no more than merely repeat lines from her acceptance speech.

According to The Associated Press, “…none of the candidates in this race has been so shielded from the media, so protected from any spontaneous situation [as Palin], and [her] unvarying remarks give the impression that she and her message are being tightly controlled.”

There are only two aims for this studious shielding of Palin: not to expose her weaknesses and to avoid falling victim to voter fatigue, such as Obama seems to be suffering. But this may be counterproductive. Voters, most of them women voters who can’t conceivably be accused of sexism, are now increasingly demanding that she speak to them.

According to an Associated Press reporter, after a rally in Pennsylvania recently, “a group of supporters waiting outside to shake hands with McCain and Palin screamed for Palin to jump up on an outdoor platform, as McCain had just done, and speak to them. ‘Speech! Speech!’ they cried.”

She ignored them and jumped into her SUV. But it remains to be seen how many times she can ignore voters’ request to speak to them.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Obama leads in polls again but fears of ‘Bradley effect’ remain

By Farooq A. Kperogi

There has been some good news for Barack Obama this week. After being in a statistical dead heat with John McCain for several weeks—in an election year that should ordinarily be a cakewalk for Democrats given the Republican Party’s current unprecedented unpopularity—he has rebounded with his most impressive lead in the polls in recent times. But some people say if you factor in what has been called the Bradley or Wilder effect, his lead may be more modest than it seems—or perhaps non-existent even.

According to the Gallup daily tracking poll, America’s most respected opinion polling agency that has accurately predicted all but one American presidential election, Obama now leads McCain 50 percent to 42 percent in a measurement of American voter sentiments over the past couple of days.

Rasmussen Reports, another well-regarded independent opinion survey agency, gave Obama a significant, though slightly less giant, lead over McCain. Prior to this, both candidates had been tied at 45 percent in most polls. Some surveys had even given John McCain a slight, statistically insignificant but nonetheless symbolically significant lead in the polls.

American elections are heavily poll-driven. But because the polls fluctuate from time to time depending on the mood of the electorate, the dictates of contemporary events, and the comportment--and gaffes-- of candidates, they are updated periodically. To be competitive in the polls, which give candidates both bragging rights and political capital, politicians often speak “poll-tested” phrases and act “post-tested” acts, as Americans call carefully choreographed political performances designed to improve politicians’ likeability among voters.

Obama’s latest lead in the polls has been attributed to his eloquent and electrifying August 28 acceptance speech at the just concluded Democratic convention in Denver, Colorado. The speech was delivered to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters that numbered nearly 800,000 and was watched by about 40 million people, making it the biggest television event in America’s entire political history.

No political speech in America’s history has been watched by as many people. It doubled John Kerry’s acceptance speech four years ago and nearly doubled George Bush’s.

According to Nielsen Media Research, America’s preeminent media audience measurement research company known for its “Nielson rating” which scientifically measures TV viewership, more people watched Obama’s acceptance speech than watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics game in China, the grand finale of the “American Idol” (a wildly popular, participatory American reality show that seeks to discover the best young singer in the country), or this year’s American Academy Awards.

Why Obama’s speech is helped him
Obama’s speech, apart from its rhetorical brilliance and perfect delivery, achieved two crucial tasks: First, it confronted head-on and deflated the Republican Party characterization of Obama as a vacuous “celebrity” (in the mould of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears) with no substance.

Second, it tried to show that Obama is not merely an exotic African American born by the union of a Kenyan father and an American mother, but that he is also just as ordinary an American as anybody else is.

Shortly after Obama’s massively successful European tour that American political pundits predicted would earn him significant political capital at home, the John McCain campaign, in a bid to do violence to whatever gains he might get from the tour, sponsored a damning and effective ad in major American TV networks and in what the campaign called “11 key states.”

The ad shows massive crowds of “Obamamaniacs” (as intensely enthusiastic Obama supporters are derisively called) swooning over him and chanting his name. Then an announcer says: “He is the biggest celebrity in the world”—a subtle reference to his European tour that attracted unprecedented crowds.

Shortly after that, the camera shows brief, but effectively subliminal footage of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, two crowd-pulling American pop culture icons that have become the byword for flippancy and shallowness in American popular discourse. And the announcer again says: “But is he ready to lead?” before rolling out a litany of his allegedly injurious plans for America.

Political analysts had dismissed the ad as childish. They said it would be counterproductive. But it turned out to be very effective. After the ad was aired and analyzed in the media, Obama’s poll numbers not only began to plunge downward, the thematic preoccupation of American media punditry shifted to analyzing the merits of the ad, which invariably turned a more critical searchlight on Obama’s “substance” and readiness to lead. The ad also pushed Obama to the defense.

The acceptance speech was Obama’s opportunity to fight back even more forcefully. In the speech, he took time to define, in concrete terms, what he means by “change” without getting too specific to the point of boring his viewers who are known to resent “wonks” (i.e., people who are boringly studious and detailed). In so doing, he showed that he was a “celebrity” unlike Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Polls showed his strategy worked.

The second task was to show that he was also American at his core. The McCain campaign appears to have adopted a strategy that Hillary Clinton’s former chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, had suggested to her: to frame Obama as “fundamentally not American.”

A memo Penn wrote to Hillary Clinton, which has now been leaked to the press, suggested that Obama’s multicultural background, which is conferring on him a lot of symbolic and political capital, should be spun in a negative light.

“All these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light,” wrote Penn whose consulting firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, has been paid more than $4.3 by the Clinton campaign and is still being owed $1.5 million at the time of filing this report. “It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values.”

The McCain campaign has adopted this recommendation, which Hillary Clinton apparently didn’t implement to its fullest. Obama’s acceptance speech succeeded in moving his biographic narrative from that of an exotic multicultural American to one that situates it firmly within America.

For instance, by talking about his white mother “who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships,” he not only humanized himself, he also reminded Americans that he is not the snooty, privileged elitist he has been portrayed to be.

But most importantly, by talking at some length about his white grandparents who brought him up, he Americanized himself in a way he had never done before. “In the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton's Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill,” he said to applause from the audience.

More was to come. “And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman,” he said of his 86-year-old white grandmother who became the first American woman to rise to the position of vice president of a bank and who still lives in Hawaii in the same apartment where she raised Obama. “She's the one who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.”

The reference to his grandmother (who once said her favorite pastime is watching Obama on CNN everyday) drew tears from many white women in the audience. Then he went for the clincher: “I don't know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine. These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as President of the United States.”

The speech resonated with the nearly 40 million Americans who watched it when it was broadcast and many more who watched it after. Obama reminded Americans that contrary to Mark Penn’s assertion—and McCain’s campaign rhetoric—he is “at his center fundamentally American in his thinking, values” and family background, a theme that tended to be pushed to the back burner in the (mostly benign) eagerness to focus on his exotic “otherness.”

Poll bounce not unusual
Although the Obama speech was very instrumental in his dramatic poll bounce against McCain, it is not unusual. According to American political pundits, it is traditional for candidates to receive boosts in their poll numbers after a party convention. John Kerry, for instance, got a 3 percent boost in the polls after his acceptance speech in 2004—lower than Obama’s but still significant given that he was trailing behind George Bush prior to this.

But Obama’s bounce is slightly less than what Al Gore received in 2000 and Bill Clinton received in 1992. It is expected that McCain will also receive a gain in his poll numbers at the end of the Republican National Convention taking place in Twin Cities, Minnesota. It is not clear by what margin this would be and whether it would completely erase Obama’s gains.

The debate over Bradley or Wilder effect
The question people are asking is: are the polls showing Obama’s bounce reliable? Or, for that matter, are all polls about Obama accurate reflections of voter sentiments about him? Could the polls be victims of the Bradley or Wilder effect?

The Bradley or Wilder effect is the phenomenon where white people lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for black candidates because they do not want to be seen as racist. This reality exaggerates the electoral chances of African American candidates.

The phrase “Bradley effect” is named after Tom Bradley, an African American who, in 1982, ran for governor of the state of California. The opinion polls showed him leading his white opponent by several margins. In fact, exit polls (a poll of voters as they leave the voting place; usually taken by news media in order to predict the outcome of an election) showed that he had won the election. Based on these exit polls, the media declared him the winner.

But when the actual election results were released, he lost to his closest white opponent by a wide margin.

In 1989, seven years after Bradley’s shocking defeat, Douglas Wilder, America’s first elected African-African governor, nearly lost to his white opponent, even though opinion polls showed that he was ahead of him by 15 percent. He won by a mere 6,700 votes.

Obama himself has had close brushes with this effect, although in less dramatic ways. According to the Associated Press, “exit polls in 28 states overstated Obama's actual share of the final vote.” The most stunning, perhaps, was Obama’s defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Polls—and even exit polls— had shown that he would defeat Hillary Clinton. But Hillary won the primary by a slight margin.

So how should people read the polls predicting Obama’s electoral chances? Take 5 percent off the numbers? Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says no. He argued that there is no reason to suppose that people are being untruthful to pollsters about their willingness to vote for Obama.

He told The Associated Press that "because I don't think there's a lot of stigma in saying you're voting for John McCain," people have no reason to lie about their support for Obama. He said if the question pollsters ask were: "Do you want to vote for the white guy or the black guy?" then it would be reasonable to expect people to lie.

But he nonetheless made the instructive point that the major problem poll takers encounter is that lower-income white males—most of whom resent Obama and who tend to be generally less racially tolerant—often decline to participate in the polls.

However, Anthony G. Greenwald, who teaches psychology at the University of Washington, told the Associated Press that there may actually be a "reverse Bradley Effect" for Obama in this presidential contest. He brought up the example of what happened during the Democratic primary where states with numerically significant African-American populations, such as Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and Georgia, gave Obama more votes than polls had forecast.

Again, he said Obama’s popularity with young white people who do not participate in polls may actually cancel out the effect of lower-income white males who have so far shown a dislike for Obama and who also avoid participating in polls.

Daniel J. Hopkins, a scholar from Harvard University who systematically studied the Bradley or Wilder effect from 1986 to 2006 said his research has led him to the conclusion that the phenomenon has practically disappeared in the wake of more racial openness in the American society. Hopkins arrived at his conclusion from his study of 133 gubernatorial and Senate elections.

But Douglas Wilder, the man after whom the phenomenon is named (and who is the current mayor of Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia), doesn’t share Hopkins’ optimism. When he was asked if he thought the “Wilder effect” is dead and ready to be buried, he said "No, I won't say that. I won't go that far."

In many ways, Obama is a different candidate from previous Black American politicians, and his support among white people in the polls may not be wildly off the mark, but in a presidential race where questions of race occasionally flare up, analysts say it would be wise to take the polls with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

US election: Vice presidential picks change election dynamics

By Farooq A. Kperogi
The choice of vice presidential candidates by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the last few weeks has dramatically altered the narratives of the U.S. presidential campaign and kept political analysts wondering what this would all mean for the November general election.

Obama’s choice of Joe Biden (pronounced BAI-DIN) as his nominee for vice president has undermined an abiding mantra of his campaign: change. But it has also bolstered up his most enduring weakness: experience. And McCain’s choice of little-known first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin has subverted his most cherished forte: experience. But it has also shored up his biggest Achilles' heels: age and change.

A constant line of attack against Obama from both his erstwhile Democratic opponents such as Hillary Clinton (and even Joe Biden) and his Republican rival John McCain is that he is too inexperienced to be president of the United States at a time when the country is at war and its economy is in peril.

During the Democratic primaries, for instance, Hillary Clinton famously said “I think that I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.”

Similarly, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice presidential pick who also ran for the nomination of his party but dropped out after winning less than one percent of the votes in the first primary contest, had said it was risky to elect Obama as president when newsmen asked him about Obama’s preparedness to be president. “I think he can be ready, but right now I don’t think he is,” he said. “The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.”

When he was asked during a widely publicized Democratic presidential debate if he was misquoted or misrepresented, his response was: “I stand by that statement.” Oddly, when he was asked what he thought about John McCain, he said: “I would be honored to run with or against John McCain because I think the country will be better off.”

Predictably, shortly after Obama Barack officially announced Joe Biden as his running mate, the McCain campaign quickly released a statement. "There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama’s lack of experience than Joe Biden,” the statement said. “Biden has denounced Barack Obama’s poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing -- that Barack Obama is not ready to be President.”

Then they followed it up with a TV commercial showing Joe Biden defending his characterization of Obama as inexperienced and unsuited for the American presidency and his ringing endorsement of McCain.

End of the experience message from McCain
Then the twist in the presidential campaign narrative came when McCain announced his own running mate. McCain passed up such favorites as Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who also contested for the nomination of his party, Joe Lieberman, the Jewish American former presidential running mate to Al Gore but who has abandoned the Democratic Party now, Timothy Pawlenty, the current governor of Minnesota, and so on, and picked an obscure first-term governor of the geographically isolated state of Alaska.

(Alaska, formerly part of Russia, was bought by the U.S. in 1867 and only officially became the 49th state of America in 1959. It is not part of the contiguous U.S., that is, the 48 states in mainland America).

For a candidate who stakes his strength on his experience, the choice of the 44-year-old former sports reporter who would be the least experienced vice president in the entire American political history—if McCain wins the election—this was unexpected.

The Obama campaign also took advantage of the lack of national exposure and foreign policy experience of Palin to score a political point and to retaliate. “Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency,” said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, in a statement. The town Sarah Palin was mayor of is actually less than 9,000 people.

Other Democrats, too, have pounced on McCain for his choice of Palin. "After his attacks on Obama's readiness for the job, it'll be amusing to hear a 72-year-old with a history of health problems justify this decision," said Jim Jordan, a seasoned Democratic strategist. "She's a talent, but that's the end of the experience message from John McCain."

Even Pat Buchanan, a famous Republican Party pundit, described the choice of Sarah Palin as the “biggest political gamble in American political history.”

A reversal of campaign narratives
What is significant in the vice presidential picks is that it denies both candidates ownership of their erstwhile strengths. In an ironic twist of circumstances, the Obama-Biden ticket is now, cumulatively, far and above a more experienced ticket than the McCain-Palin ticket.

If you add Joe Biden’s 36 years as a U.S. senator to Obama’s four years in the U.S. Senate, you end up with 40 years of national experience for the Democratic ticket.

On the other hand, if you add John McCain’s four years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and his 22 years in the U.S. Senate, you have just 26 years of national experience for the McCain-Palin ticket.

Sarah Palin has never had national exposure of any kind. Before her election as governor of the state of Alaska, one of the least populated states in America, she was a two-term mayor of a small town in Alaska called Wasilla, which has a population of 6,700. And she has been governor for only one and half years.

Obama, on his part, spent eight years as a state senator (equivalent to a state House of Assembly member in Nigeria, except that Illinois, like most U.S. states, also has a state House of Representatives, which is lower than the state senate in stature and hierarchy) in his adopted state of Illinois in Midwest United States. This gives Obama more state experience than Palin.

Then there is the question of emotional preparedness for the job. Obama’s critics say apart from his relative inexperience, he isn’t emotionally prepared to be president because he was only “testing the waters” and then got an unexpected gift of a boat to swim with. The New York Times, quoting unnamed close associates of Obama, published an exclusive report that claimed that Obama’s immediate goal was to run for governor of Illinois at the expiration of his first term of six years in the U.S. Senate in preparation for a run for the president thereafter.

His foray into presidential politics, the report said, was just to create a buzz and raise his national visibility. It turned out, however, according to the report, that the national and international response to his candidacy went way beyond his wildest anticipation. The Obama campaign condemned the report but has not officially denied its accuracy or facticity. Predictably, his opponents seized on the report to paint him as not ready to be president “on Day One.”

However, it emerged recently that Sarah Palin, the woman McCain nominated to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, as Americans like to characterize the office of vice president, only a month ago described the job of a vice president as unproductive and even said she didn’t know what it entailed.

When a CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) reporter asked her about the prospect of becoming McCain's ticket mate, she betrayed a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the job. “As for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day,” she said. “I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration.”
What informed Obama’s choice of Biden
Why did Obama choose a man who had dismissed him as inexperienced (and therefore unfit to be president) and even implied that he would not mind crossing over party lines to become a running to John McCain if he can’t run against him? What is worse, why did he undermine his message of change by running with a 65-year-old man that has been in the U.S. Senate for the past 35 years, that is, since Obama was only 12 years old?

Obama passed over front-runners like Jim Webb, Sam Nunn, Sen. Evan Bayh, Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Gen. Wesley Clark, and so on to choose Biden.

Analysts say Obama chose Biden, in spite of himself, to compensate for four major weak spots of his candidacy: his inability to connect with poor working-class white males, his perceived lack of foreign policy experience at a time America is at war, his insecurity about his national security credentials, and his studied choice not to hit hard at his opponents. Of all the favorites for the VP slot, Biden provides the greatest safeguard against these deficiencies.

Biden has a solid working-class background and is very popular with his constituents. A proof of that is that he is the longest-serving senator in the history of his adopted state of Delaware. But he is originally from the state of Pennsylvania, one of the so-called bellwether states (states whose election patterns always predict national outcomes), and still has his political roots firmly in the state.

And as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, he has more foreign policy experience than even John McCain. Plus, he is a dogged political grappler who can tear McCain to shreds in ways Obama cannot. Obama does not want to be seen as aggressively fighting white men (or women, in the case of Hillary Clinton) because it would play into the fears of borderline racists who might be persuaded that he is another “angry black man” smoldering with rage against white people.

As Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of Reverend Jesse Jackson and member of the U.S. House of Representatives said recently, "No one wants an angry African-American man in the White House." He was explaining why Obama smiles more than any presidential candidate in U.S. history and why he has been soft in his rhetorical punches against his opponents.

Biden is now Obama’s surrogate in hitting back at mean Obama characterizations. Being a white male gives him the license to throw aggressive verbal punches without inviting imputation of dark motives for his acts.

Another attraction of Biden for Obama is that although Biden has been in Washington for the past 35 years, he has been simultaneously away from it. He neither rents nor owns a house in Washington, DC; for 35 years, he has been commuting to work by public transportation (actually by train) every day from his hometown of Scranton in the state of Delaware to Washington DC.

This fact accentuates his image as a down-to-earth, pro-poor politician who has not lost touch with his working-class roots. That is why when Obama introduced him as his running mate in Springfield, Illinois, he indicatively called Biden a “crappy kid from Scranton.”

However, Biden’s superior wealth of experience has fed Republican Party-inspired cynicism that Obama only wants to bask in the glory of being the president while Biden would do the real job. And Obama didn’t help himself when, in a state of unbridled exuberance, he introduced Biden as the “next president” before quickly correcting himself.

Obama’s opponents say it was a Freudian slip that betrayed his anxieties about his unpreparedness to be president and his desire for Biden to do his job for him.

Another weakness of Obama’s choice is that both he and Biden are senators with no executive experience. Although McCain too has no executive experience, his vice presidential pick can boast some managerial experience as a two-term mayor and as a governor with nearly two years’ experience.

But the biggest drawback of the Biden pick, according to Politico.com, one of the most influential news blogs in the US, is that it shows a brazen insensitivity to regional balance. For the past 60 years, Democrats have won the White House only when they have a Southerner on the ticket. Both Obama and Biden are from the North.

Did McCain choose Palin for her beauty?
As for John McCain, his choice of Palin is informed by at least three considerations: notions among the rank-and-file in the Republican Party that McCain is not conservative enough, concerns about his age and desire to court female voters who traditionally vote Democratic.

Evangelical Christians who oppose abortion under any circumstance, oppose gun control, oppose gay marriage, and support the death penalty, had been reluctant to support McCain’s candidacy because he had taken stances in the past that deviated from the American conservative orthodoxy.

Sarah Palin, the youngest and first female governor of Alaska, is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who refused to abort the pregnancy of her now four-month-old baby boy (her fifth child) even when she discovered very early during her pregnancy that the child would have Down syndrome. This personal story resonates with the American conservative base, and that is why her choice has electrified American conservatives.

Another attraction McCain has for Palin is her youth and distance from Washington politics, which trump Obama’s. But Palin’s youth is sure to overdramatize McCain’s old age in a country that celebrates youth and derides old age. McCain would be the oldest U.S. president ever to be sworn in for his first term—if he wins in November.

Palin is three years younger than Obama and her lack of Washington political experience eclipses Obama’s habitual references to his freshness and distance from the ways of Washington. He often says he has not stayed long enough for Washington to “squeeze the hope out of” him. When Joe Biden, Palin’s opposite number, first got elected into the U.S. Senate in 1973 at the age of 30, Sarah Palin was only 9. If she gets elected, she would be one of the youngest vice presidents in U.S. history.

Perhaps McCain’s greatest attraction for Palin is that he calculates that by appointing a woman as a running mate, the first time this has happened in the history of the Republican Party, he would win over the disillusioned supporters of Hillary Clinton some of whom are still smarting from what they consider Obama’s shabby treatment of their idol. (She was not even on the shortlist of candidates Obama vetted for the vice presidency, even though he had said several times in the past that Hillary would be “on anybody’s shortlist”).

It’s not clear, however, that most Hillary supporters who are mostly feminists with values that are diametrically opposed to Palin’s would be persuaded to vote Republican because of the mere symbolism of a female vice president.

But cynics say McCain’s biggest attraction for Palin, whom he had met only once, is, well, her attractiveness. McCain is famous for his almost compulsive attraction for beauty queens. His first wife, whom he divorced after she had an accident that disfigured her, was a beauty queen. His current wife was also a beauty queen. And Palin whose good looks have prompted citizens of Alaska to display bumper stickers that read “Alaska: coldest state, hottest governor” (“hot” means “sexy” in American English), was also a beauty queen.

Nonetheless, although the choice of running mates has changed the narrative of the presidential campaigns, it has not changed the polls. Over 70 percent of Americans say the vice presidential choices have not altered their own choices. But it’s still too early judge.