Measuring Obama’s Coattails

Written on February 3, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen

The big day 02cndobama190for the US presidential candidates is coming up this week, when the Super-Tuesday primaries will produce over half the total delegates for both parties’ conventions.  On the Republican side, Arizona Senator John McCain seems to be running away with the race. But on the Democratic side, the gates are still wide open for either candidate to prevail. The fact that no candidate has yet been anointed has made an already interesting election year even more so. That the stakes are as high as they are – and at this point who’s even counting anymore what with an impending economic downturn, the upheavals of climate change, the crisis in housing, not to mention an urgent need to fix US policies be they fiscal, taxation, foreign, environmental, transportation, and … well, you get the point. That the stakes are so high adds urgency to interest.

I have noted earlier, following the US commentator Roger Cohen, that Obama is a "post-modern" politician, even though it could be argued that this label is largely meaningless.  In part, however, the "post-modern" aspect to Obama is not in his policies (largely indistinguishable from those held by other Democrats) but in his capacity to surmount the strong divisions that plague the US electorate. This, I think, more than anything explains why Obama has been picking up endorsements from all sides of the Democratic party. Last week, the lustre and aura of Camelot (what remains of it at least) came Obama’s way when Ted Kennedy and family backed him, representing the political left of the party. Shortly thereafter, Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed him. She comes from Kansas, and hence the middle/right of the party. This coalition of different political views that is enthusiastically supporting Obama’s bid for the White House stems, I think, from what I might term his coattail factor.

This is the degree to which a candidate or issue can affect other races. In 2004 , the Republican election strategy used what was euphemistically termed "wedge issues" to boost voter turnout. The wedge issue "del día" of 2004 was gay marriage. Republicans manoeuvred to have injunctions against gay marriage placed on numerous state ballots. The thinking was this. Bush’s record by election year 2004 was unenviable – worse, it was compounded by a faltering economy (remember that between 2001 and 2004 the US suffered steep job losses). Republican supporters might be tempted therefore just stay home, complacent in the face of Bush mediocrity. Give them, however, an issue that could galvanise them into action – saving US democracy from the perils of gays getting married – and voilà! Rousted from political torpor , Republicans would go vote, thereby helping to re-elect George Bush, and to keep the Senate and House under Republican control along the way. As it happens, it is unclear the degree to which this actually boosted the fortunes of the President, although turnout was increased. (See this slideshow (in .pdf format) for some interesting evidence.) Anyway, we need not comment on the seemliness of such tactics, but simply note that it was used as a coattail issue.

In a different spirit, I think many Democrats hope that Barak Obama can provide a similar swell of coat-tail support for  his party in 2008 and that is a chief difference between him and Hillary Clinton.  This explains why Obama is receiving a cascade of endorsements from across the spectrum of the Democratic party, despite the fact that Hillary has long been the candidate of the Party’s mandarins.

Listening to Obama speak, I can understand this. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton would make a formidable candidate, but it is also clear from numerous polls that for many right-leaning US voters, Hillary is a political succubus – someone that people might make an effort to turn out to vote against. Both candidates would be in a strong position to win the White House, but Obama might help spark a wider Democratic wave, winning seats elsewhere from Senator down to dog-catcher.

Political ineptitude can spark widespread change. The incompetence of the Bush administration raises the stakes for the next go-round and it seems increasingly clear that many Democrats feel they have in Barak Obama a candidate who can sweep them to power on an agenda for meaningful political change – and backed up by compelling majorities in the House and Senate to do it. That may just be wishful thinking, but it is likely a strong enough conviction to permit Barak a convincing result in Tuesday’s vote.


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