by Abhishek

Four things to watch out for as US votes SHASHI THAROOR

In two days, in an election that has attracted an unprecedented level of global attention, America elects its 44th president. So much has been written about it, including in this space, that another analysis would be otiose. Instead, here is a quick checklist of four things to look out for as the results start streaming in on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning in India):

The Bradley Effect. Tom Bradley, a popular, if somewhat dull black mayor of LA, has become far more famous internationally a decade after his death than when he was alive. This is because of a political phenomenon named for him that has become particularly relevant in the age of Obama. When Bradley ran for governor of California in 1982, he consistently led by healthy margins in the polls, until the actual results saw him defeated by an obscure Republican. The conclusion: you can’t trust the polls when they are about a black candidate, because Americans, unwilling to acknowledge their own racial biases, lie to pollsters (and perhaps to themselves) about their true voting intentions. Conventional wisdom has it that the ‘Bradley effect’ accounts for anywhere from 5-7% of a black candidate’s poll numbers; if such a percentage is deducted from Obama’s current lead in the polls, he would lose an election he is widely tipped to win.

Obama optimists discount the theory, pointing out that it is a quarter-century since Bradley suffered defeat and that America has moved on since then, notably in electing two black governors (in Virginia and Massachusetts) and a black mayor of New York. Michelle Obama also argued that if the ‘Bradley Effect’ still applied, her husband wouldn’t be the nominee of his party. Both objections are not wholly convincing. The black electoral victors all won by narrower margins than their polls had suggested, meaning that the ‘Bradley Effect’ still applied, though perhaps in a diluted form. And Obama’s winning the Democratic nomination proves little: Democratic primary voters are more liberal, more mixed-race and more multi-cultural than the general electorate. The real question is whether the white majority of American voters, once they are alone in the voting booth, will be able to accept the idea of a black family in the White House. We will not really know till the votes are counted.

The Electoral College. Don’t forget that American presidential elections are not decided by popular vote totals, but by a majority in the Electoral College, a body created to ensure that each state counts in the final outcome. The Electoral College consists of the same number of people as there are members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which means that a tiny state with a few hundred thousand people has the minimum three electors, New York and Texas have 31 and 34, and California has 55. In recent elections, the country and the Electoral College have been fairly evenly divided — and Al Gore lost the 2000 election in the Electoral College despite winning a larger number of popular votes nationwide. Each candidate will be aiming to hold on to his party’s core constituency — well reflected in the states won by Bush and Kerry last time — and to be competitive in states that only narrowly went to his rival’s party in 2004. By this reckoning, the Democratic base of the states Kerry won is 252 Electoral College votes; Obama needs a further 18 to win. But McCain may have a chance to pull back a couple of Kerry states — he is competitive in New Hampshire and Maine in the northeast, and is fighting hard in Pennsylvania — and Obama is leading in some Bush states (Iowa,Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and Florida) and is in a dead heat in West Virginia and North Carolina. So far, the polls give Obama a strong lead in the Electoral College, even if his national poll lead is somewhat smaller.

National fault lines. The election will reveal an America divided in significant ways. In the words of political scientists Earl and Merle Black, “A Republican Party dominated by white Protestants faces a Democratic Party in which minorities plus non-Christian whites far outnumber white Protestants.” The two parties, as i wrote in an earlier column, are much more ideological than ever before, with liberals broadly aligned with the Democrats and conservatives entrenched with the Republicans, and a dwindling centre of moderates and independents holding the balance. But that is not all. There is a gender imbalance: the Democratic Party’s membership is some 60% female, the Republicans only 50%. There are regional divisions: the Northeast and the Pacific coast are overwhelmingly Democratic, the South and the Mountains/Plains region solidly Republican. That leaves the Midwest as the truly contested territory. Look for the results in the Midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Whoever wins a majority of these states will almost certainly win the election. Last time, Kerry won Illinois (21 electoral votes), Michigan (17), Minnesota (9), and Wisconsin (10); Bush won the rest (62 electoral votes in this region to Kerry’s 57). If Obama can wrest a couple of these states away from McCain — and it does seem that Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia might be ‘toss-ups’ — he could reverse the 2004 result.

The unexpected. All of these considerations, however, can be trumped by an unexpected event in the waning days of the campaign — most dangerously a terrorist attack on a major American target, which could prove a boost for McCain, or a serious blunder by either candidate, which could sway undecided voters at the last minute. If Osama bin Laden is captured or killed, the Republicans could still triumph. If there is more bad economic news reflecting the ineptitude of the Bush White House, Obama gains.

But if there is no last-minute surprise, i’m betting on Obama. He has done everything right in his campaign — coming across as calm, intelligent and presidential, whereas McCain has been erratic, impulsive and (in his choice of the woefully undercooked Sarah Palin as his running mate) irresponsible. If Obama were white, this would not even be a close contest. If he loses despite having run the most impressive presidential campaign in recent Democratic memory, it will only mean that the candidate of change has been defeated by the one thing he cannot change — the colour of his skin.