Thursday, October 23, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to Washington

Will a funny thing happen on the way to Washington?
By Edward Luce
October 17 2008

At what was the first – and probably last – humorous occasion of this dyspeptic campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama gave comic speeches on Thursday at the annual dinner in memory of Al Smith, the great Catholic-American.

Both revealed a side they have kept well concealed in recent months. “Contrary to popular opinion, I was not born in a manger,” said Mr Obama. “I just call him ‘That One’”, said Mr McCain of his opponent. “He doesn’t mind at all: He even has a pet name for me: George Bush.”

In the best humorous tradition, the funniest line was the one that cut closest to the bone. “We all know that Senator Obama is ready for any contingency – even the possibility of a sudden and dramatic market rebound,” said Mr McCain. “I’m told that at the first sign of recovery he will suspend his campaign and fly immediately to Washington to address this crisis.”

With barely two weeks left before polling day, the media, the Democratic party and the rest of the world (the safest Democratic state of the lot) have virtually called a halt to the election. Barack Obama will be the winner. His momentum is now unstoppable. And for that he has the financial meltdown to thank.

All of which is probably true. To judge by some, although by no means all, of the recent polls, Mr Obama may even pull off a 1980-style Ronald Reagan landslide. Parts of America, such as North Carolina and Virginia, which last elected a Democrat when Mr Obama was in diapers, show him in the lead by ground-shifting margins.

Then there is the money. No candidate has ever raised anything like Mr Obama’s tally, which could exceed $600m (£350m, €450m) if the recent escalation in donations is any guide. By my estimate, Mr Obama’s remaining war chest could fund at least two back-to-back British general elections. Mr McCain, meanwhile, might be able to finance a creditable shot at the New Jersey governorship.

Nor, in spite of the acuity of Mr McCain’s punchline, would a dramatic stock market recovery be likely to dent Mr Obama’s fortunes. It would come too late to restore the American public’s badly shaken confidence in their financial system and in the free-trade economy that Mr McCain so gallantly defends.

Besides, no resurgence in the Dow Jones could reflate a property market that has been the chief source of household spending since the Bush administration took office. Mr Obama can rest easy: Joe Public – and even Joe Plumber – will be feeling the pain for many months to come.

Yet conventional wisdom is often wrong. For a start, as any property analyst can attest, it tends to be self-affirming. The media has leapt on recent polls that show Mr Obama with double-digit margins. But until Friday, when the conservative Drudge Report led on the much narrower two-point lead that Gallup gave Mr Obama, those polls that have not hinted at a landslide have been downplayed. And there have been quite a few.

The RealClear Politics website’s average of polls, which gives Mr Obama a lead of 6.8 per cent over Mr McCain, offers a better guide to the situation. It compares to John Kerry’s lead just a few weeks before he lost the 2004 election to Mr Bush. It is also slightly lower than Mr Obama’s lead over Hillary Clinton shortly before she bested him – and the media – in the New Hampshire primary at the start of the year.

Even were Mr Obama’s average lead to hold up on election day, which would produce the largest Democratic victory since 1964, the one-way bet might still look rash in hindsight. InTrade, the most cited online political betting site, gives Mr Obama an 84 per cent probability of victory – as safe a bet as there is. Can that really be accurate? Or do those who punt on elections read the same newspapers as everybody else?

Then there is the so-called Bradley effect, which is named after a black gubernatorial candidate for California in 1982 who was predicted in the exit polls to win by a double-digit margin only to lose it by 50,000 votes. The Bradley effect describes a problem with polling methodology rather than racism as such, since many respondents were clearly embarrassed to admit they had not voted for the black guy.

Political scientists have found little evidence for the Bradley effect over the past 15 years. America is becoming less racist and therefore less self-conscious about appearing to be racist. But there have not been many opportunities to test it either. Most black politicians in the US represent heavily urban and preponderantly African-American districts and cities. None has ever been nominated for the presidency.

On Thursday, Mr McCain also wrapped this Democratic spectre in humour. “I come here tonight knowing that I’m the underdog,” he said. “But if you know where to look, there are signs of hope. Even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats I can’t shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me. I’m delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary.”

The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief

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