Too Close to Call!

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US Presidential Elections 2004 takes place today, Tuesday Nov 2. By tomorrow morning (that is if the many law suits in several US States being planned by whichever Party loses doesn’t hold up the results) the world will know whether incumbent George W Bush Jr retains the Presidency or has succumbed to the challenge of Senator John Kerry. What a difference a year makes! This time last year the Democratic Party was down and out. The race for the Democratic Presidential nomination being so open, as many as nine aspirants took the Primary route. The early running had Governor Howard Dean of Vermont in the lead. While he aroused the imagination of the youth, “liberal” is unfortunately a bad word with a majority of Americans, the left constitutes only a vocal, heavily out-numbered minority.

With approval ratings of President Bush hitting higher than 70% in the polls, widespread apathy prevailed among the Democratic ranks. Till late 2003 Governor Dean was actually viewed by his Democratic peers as more of a sacrificial lamb to take on the Bush juggernaut. The quick victory in Iraq in April 2003 notwithstanding, the Bush Administration soon found its post-war plans had not been well thought through, there were not enough troops on the ground to prevent the situation in Iraq from going awry. With casualties mounting daily, the Democrats sensed a political chink in the Bush armour that could be exploited. Gov Dean’s early promise evaporated as the Democratic Party establishment turned to an “acceptable” candidate among the nine contenders they thought was most electable, John Kerry, the US Senator from Massachusetts.

Given the incumbent’s job approval ratings and his tough stance on “terrorism” (the No.1 US issue since 9/11), it was always going to be an uphill struggle for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. The Democrats are greater in number but in the conservative southern States, the Democratic faithful tend to vote Republican, the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his so-called “Reagan Democrats”. Part of the grand strategy of putting Edwards on the Kerry ticket was to woo the Southern Democrats with one of their own. A self-made millionaire-lawyer from a humble worker background, Edward’s appeal is to a wide swath of blue collar-white collar working class. While favourite Carolinas-son Edwards may not win either North or Carolina, the critical State of Ohio which voted Republican for Bush in 2000 has lost a large number of manufacturing jobs and is up for grabs. While the electorate has focused on Kerry as opposed to Bush, so has the ruthless “Dirty Tricks” (DTs) Department of the Republican Party.

Carl Rove would be an asset to any organization in any country. Widely credited with planning the campaign that got Bush Junior elected in 2000, and then breaking the Democratic hold over the US Senate and the Congress, Rove is the “eminence grise” in the Republican shadows who plans grand strategy, and then makes sure the strategy is implemented. Kerry’s strong suit was his Vietnam-veteran tag, not only he volunteered he was wounded and decorated. In contrast Bush avoided the draft (and Vietnam) by enrolling in the Texas National Guard as a fighter pilot. Americans love war heroes but living in a very macho fantasy world they seem to have lost the distinction between real heroes and make-believe movie ones. Nowhere is this amazing feeling more manifest than in the election of Arnold Schwazneggar as Governor of California straight from being an Hollywood actor. One cannot compare him with Ronald Reagan who had a political career before he became Governor of California, and then US President. Carefully building the Bush’s image as a Texan macho personality, even landing as a co-pilot of a fighter aircraft on an aircraft carrier, Rove started a campaign to neutralize the Kerry’s Vietnam advantage. A virtually unknown group with no direct links to the Republican Party called “Swift Boat vets for Truth” spent millions of US dollars of ads on prime time TV demolishing Kerry’s Vietnam record. Even though most of it was outright lies, some of the muck did stick. In the end, instead of repeatedly emphasizing the difference between someone who was virtually a “draft dodger” and himself, a decorated Vietnam vet, Kerry has been only too happy to give Vietnam only a passing mention.

The Democratic Convention in Boston gave a boost to the Kerry-Edwards ticket, it was not the surge that they expected. Edward’s candidacy did not create the euphoria was needed as a booster shot-in-the-arm to the Kerry campaign. By end July when the Republic Convention in New York’s Madison Garden came along, the Democratic Party campaign had become flat, on the other hand Bush took a commanding lead, opening up a 8-9% lead in the polls. Throughout August and September, this gap has fluctuated only slightly. While the Iraq situation has gone from bad to bloody and Bush ratings for job approval dropped considerably, Kerry has not been able to close the gap, particularly because of the concentrated attack by the Republican on his perceived, viz (1) “liberal” US Senate voting record and (2) frequent change of stance on various issues (flip-flopping). By the time the first of the three scheduled debates came about, Bush had a solid lead over Kerry, with no sign of the gap closing.

Almost all neutral observers agree that Kerry won all three debates, the first one at the University of Miami by such a margin it shook the Republicans out of their complacency. Kerry was calm and collected, looking positively Presidential, the President himself looked upset and impatient, seemingly harassed and petulant. Kerry scored and scored big, enough to close the gap in the polls. From a one-horse race it became a real contest. In the second debate Bush came back, but most observers still gave it to Kerry. In the third debate, Bush performed well but it was clearly another outright Kerry win! Strangely enough, despite the back-to-back debate victories, Bush again went ahead of Kerry in many polls, the minimal difference making it a statistical dead heat because of the plus/minus 3% margin of error.

All the polls show that Kerry has closed the gap on the very eve of elections, the electorate is almost evenly split and Kerry might even win the popular vote. However the national popular vote will not dictate the outcome. In 2000 Vice President Al Gore won the popular contest by about half a million votes but lost in the Electoral College. When Americans vote for a President and Vice President, they actually vote for Presidential Electors, known collectively as the Electoral College. In the US system there is a winner-take-all in every State, if a candidate has the popular vote in a State he (or she) will win all the electoral votes of that State. Theoretically these electors, chosen by the people, who than elect the Chief Executive. The Constitution assigns each State a number of electors equal to the combined total of its Senate and House of Representatives delegations; at present, the number of electors per State ranges from three to 55, for a total of 538, a figure which includes three electors for the District of Columbia. The State of Colorado has now put proportional representation (PR) on the slate, if it is voted into law Colorado’s 9 electoral votes will be divided as per the voting percentage. Among the 50 States (plus DC), California (55) has the maximum electoral votes, then comes Texas (34) and New York (31), followed by Florida (27), Illinois and Pennsylvania (21 each) and Ohio (20). In 2000 Bush won Florida by a margin of about 500 disputed votes, a US Supreme Court decision gave him all of Florida’s 27 electoral votes to put him over the 270 electoral votes necessary to give him the Presidency.

Knowledgeable observers give Bush the clear edge in 21 States having 181 electoral votes while Kerry is leading in 18 states having 189 electoral votes. In 12 States with 168 electoral votes, the race is too close to call, including Hawaii (3) which is traditionally Democratic. Either one of the candidates has to get at least 90 of those electoral votes to win the election. All said and done, it is the large number of “undecided” voters who will “swing” the outcome. California (55) and New York (31) will certainly go to Kerry, Texas (34) will certainly go to favourite son George W Bush. A look at the US map State by State will show the blue on (Democrat) on both the fringes of the continent enclosing a wide swath of red (Republican) in the middle. The real battleground States are Florida (27) Pennsylvania (27) and Ohio (21). With Pennsylvania leaning towards Kerry and Florida towards Bush, the fight for the heart and soul of the US will be in Ohio. Whoever wins in Ohio, will win the Presidency. Those conducting “exit polling” will know by 2 pm Eastern time on Tuesday Nov 2 who the winner will be. So as not to influence voters in the States voting later because of the time difference, by law they cannot make this “secret” public property till after the polls close in California.

Pakistani Americans voted 80% for Bush in 2000, this time because of the highhandness of the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) in applying the Patriot Act they will probably vote 80% against Bush in 2004, i.e. Kerry benefits from the widespread dislike for the incumbent. Since Pakistani Americans are affected, for them this is a fair choice. In Pakistan itself, if Pakistanis could vote the percentage against Bush will probably go over 90%, there is widespread visceral dislike for the incumbent US President because of US invasions/occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover Bush comes across as arrogant, with a callous disregard for all muslims. In contrast Kerry is personable and acts human. I have had the pleasure of talking to the US Senator from Massachusetts both individually and in group meetings during the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos three different years, he is a very likeable personality. However as an activist Senator pursuing his favourite concerns in different Senate Committee, he has targetted viz (1) money laundering (2) drug smuggling (3) nuclear proliferation and (4) terrorism, in all of which Pakistan figures prominently. He has very strong views on our conduct as a nation and wants drastic internal reforms, in contrast he wants a special relationship with India. Even during his campaign he has reinforced his policy preference for India as a “most favoured” strategic partner. Whether we like Bush or not is immaterial, as Pakistanis living in Pakistan what we have to worry about is how the President of the most powerful nation on this Earth views Pakistan and formulates US policy. For the last three years it has been very favourable towards Pakistan. While US policy may not change drastically under Kerry, for Pakistanis it is better to go with the devil we know rather than risk life with the devil we don’t. Pakistanis may flirt with Kerry, even date him, but we have to remain married to Bush. I like Kerry immensely and personally prefer him, but if I had a vote, because of our national interest I would vote for Bush. As much as most of us may dislike it, we should sport buttons that say, “Dated Kerry, Married Bush!”.

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