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what to make of the american election: a guide to the brit-perplexed

Me, I think Harper will still get in.

Ohhhh, those *other* American elections?

So this is all with the proviso that this far out we really can’t predict anything. But, you know, what’s the point of predicting if you already know what’s going to happen? Also, I have to have something to show for my endless obsession with the pollster sites.

For those of you not keeping track, here’s the expert opinion (which is really me just drinking down Nate’s 538 analyses with a heavy pinch of digestive salts):

First, despite all the freaking out and revelling in the last week or two, Obama is still seen as the favourite. But like 2000, it’s all very close.

Second, the battleground states this year aren’t Florida and Ohio — at the moment it’s more complex than that, partly because Obama’s team want it to be more complex than that. That’s their (and the Howard Dean democratic party’s) “50 state strategy” in a nutshell — don’t throw all your weight into winning a few key demographics in a key state or two, but take advantage of the $$$ and eyeballs of decentralised fundraising to open up as many fronts as you can.

(A brief side-metaphor for the British. You probably all know this from your downloads of “The West Wing”, but one curious aspect to the American party political system is how loosely-joined the parts really are. When someone wins a party’s Presidential nomination, they don’t move into some pre-existing office in a thrumming party machine — it’s more like they plug in their own sentient national network drone into a seat in marked “LEADERSHIP” in a skeletal political mecha suit, and start rapidly re-wiring the whole thing to work the way they work.

This year that booting up was a lot easier for the Democrats, because Obama’s policy is pretty much in accord with the (still controversial) “50 state strategy” of Howard Dean. Dean went from that screaming thing you may remember from 2003 to being the head of the Democratic National Committee (which is, I guess like becoming Chairman of the Conservative Party) and promptly started filling it full of the lessons learnt from his incredibly innovative online campaign (which didn’t do him much good but made him shitloads of money).

Team Obama’s ideas come from grassroots organizing, but mesh very well with the Dean online decentralised approach. McCain’s staff had more trouble, because I sense they had to sit around prodding the zombies that Rove left with sticks to get them to do anything, until eventually Palin energized them to start their engine creaking up to full speed.)

So, thirdly, Obama has a structural advantage this year. The Obama strategy, in a nutshell, is this: keep the Kerry States (which got Kerry 252 votes out of the 269 needed to tie/win in the electoral college last time), and then grab the 17 needed to win anywhere else you can get them.

If you were Obama, you *could* get them by going all out for Ohio (20 votes) or Florida (27 votes), Kerry/Gore/(and Hillary?) style, but Obama and the Democrats’ country-wide push has given them more options in play for longer.

Barring a disaster, Obama has already snagged Iowa (7 electoral votes) and New Mexico (5 votes), which leaves him with 5 more electoral votes to tie, 6 to win outright.

Obama’s strategy has meant that sure, he’s been aggressive pursuing Ohio and Florida, but also Colorado (9 votes), Virginia (13), Nevada (5), Indiana (11), and Missouri (11). Getting any of these would take him over the top, provided he can hold the Kerry states. Conversely, of course, that means that McCain has to hold *all* of these states, and not drop a single one. So, advantage Obama.

But can McCain break into the cache of delicious Kerry states and scrump one while Obama is out hunting for Bush states? Maaaaaaaybe. That’s certainly what he’s been doing with Palin in the last few days. The best targets here are New Hampshire (4 votes), Michigan (a yummy 17), and Pennsylvania (21 votes). These are the states that currently lean most Republican out of the Kerry states.

But they’re really not that accessible. Apart from some weird outliers, McCain has not yet shown much in the way of poll victories in any of these states, whereas Colorado has been leaning to Obama.

The upshot of this (explained in stat-ridden detail here) is that Obama could conceivably snatch Colorado and keep the Kerry states, even if he was losing by 1% in the popular vote. Add to that the fact that if he ties in the electoral college, 269-269, the Democrat-led Congress gets to make the decision of who is President, and you can see why he has a slim structural advantage.

Okay, there, I’ve downloaded my brain to you all. Tomorrow I can talk more subjectively about the actual polling (from the POV of a San Francisco latte-sipping libertarian), and how Palin is doing, and what will happen next — but in the mean time, feel free to ask any questions, particularly if you’re a confused Brit wondering who is going to be your World Tyrant-In-Chief for the next four years. Extra points for queries that require me to stereotype all Americans, or somehow explain why they are so stupid/pliable/religious/have-funny-chins.

5 Responses to “what to make of the american election: a guide to the brit-perplexed”

  1. Julian Bond Says:

    I love the image of the 4 protagonists in Mecha suits. We want to see the show down! Which made me think of this in terms of mammalian politics. I can see where Palin (matriarch), Biden (retired king/advisor) and McCain (Alpha male on his last legs) fit but what is Obama? He doesn’t seem like an Alpha Male to me.

    “have-funny-chins”. Weird haircuts and perfect teeth?

    As ever the most disturbing thing about the elections for a Brit is the obsession with religion and religious weird science and all its implications. Asking all the Republican candidates their position on creationism, science and right to life seemed downright bizarre. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine Gordon Brown and David Cameron being subjected to that (though perhaps in an Irish election).

  2. nick s Says:

    one curious aspect to the American party political system is how loosely-joined the parts really are.

    From experience, working in a limited capacity on a congressional race, it’s more like ‘barely joined’. You had the candidate’s organisation, the county party, the state party, the national party, various local presidential volunteers and national single-issue groups, and in some cases, there were actually legal limits on how much co-ordination there could be.

    the Democrat-led Congress gets to make the decision of who is President, and you can see why he has a slim structural advantage.

    Ah, but it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? You’d most likely have a number of one-person (D) House delegations where the state voted for McCain, or split delegations where you might see all sorts of shenanigans.

  3. Marion Says:

    Your take on the American election seems very accurate. Obama was in Elko, Nevada last week. It is a tiny mining town in eastern Nevada that is something like 80% Republican. In all of American history no presidnet or presidential candidate has ever visited Elko. As I understand it Obama will take Las Vegas by a lot. He hopes to take Reno which used to be Republican but is becoming much more close as Californians (like me) move in and then if he can just move places like Elko to more like 60% Republicanhe will win Nevada. You can read more about it in the Reno Gazette Journal,

  4. Matt Petty Says:

    Thanks for this. As a confused Brit living in San Diego for the last three months, your analysis has been indispensable.

  5. Petty. Me. Uk. » Recent Links, 20080923 Says:

    […] Danny O’Brien’s Oblomovka » what to make of the american election: a guide to the brit-perplexe… This clarifies a few things. It’s nice to have a fellow ex-pat explaining these things to […]


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