Friday, October 3rd, 2008
James Besser in Washington
This week’s polls are showing Sen. Barack Obama opening up a significant lead over Sen. John McCain, but don’t start placing your bets on the November outcome. A cascade of events and some unprecedented political factors make this the most volatile election year in recent history.
That doesn’t mean Obama is doing worse than the polls show; in fact, he could be doing better. The point is that a number of factors are coming together in a political perfect storm that makes political handicapping riskier than ever.
The most obvious factor is the sudden onset — at least it seems sudden, even though it’s been building for several years — of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
It was only last month when President Bush was insisting that the “fundamentals” of the U.S. economy were strong; now he’s telling Congress that unless it passes an unprecedented financial bailout package, Americans face nothing short of an economic catastrophe. Last month, no administration official would admit to the possibility of recession; now, the GOP vice presidential candidate is raising the specter of another Great Depression.
Countless Americans are watching with a sickening feeling as their retirement accounts plunge with the markets; others are taking money out of banks they fear will fail and wondering what to do with it.
The crisis has also changed Jewish politics. Last week’s American Jewish Committee poll showed that the economy has swept aside every other issue as a priority for American Jews. And that includes Israel.
Traditionally, surging economic disruption favors the party out of power, which is one reason Obama has been moving ahead in recent days. But deep fear produces electoral volatility; there’s little question that voters are more scared than they’ve been in decades.
Then there’s the race issue. A recent AP poll suggested Obama could lose 6 percent of the vote total because of the reluctance of many Americans to vote for a black presidential candidate. Numerous observers in the Jewish community believe that race concerns, including an inability to distinguish Obama from black politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are factors in poll numbers that put Obama behind most recent Democratic nominees in the race for Jewish votes.
But in the end, nobody really knows how the race factor will play out – in the broader electorate or in the Jewish community. Will old, stubborn prejudices exert their pull even on voters who aren’t happy with the Republicans? Or will other factors, starting with the perilous state of the economy, cause many voters to overlook traditional racial attitudes and vote to change control of the White House to the Democrats?
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at first looked like just the thing to boost McCain’s sagging fortunes, then looked like a drag on the ticket. A majority of Jewish voters disapprove of her selection, according to the AJC poll. How will the voting public respond to last night’s debate – which was widely seen as a nominal success for the political newcomer? Palin, something new in American politics in more ways than one, is yet another X factor in the fast-approaching election.
Factor in the growing crisis in the Afghanistan war, the potential things could take another turn for the worse in Iraq and the ever-present potential for new terrorist incidents, and the result is electoral volatility on an epic scale.
Fasten your seatbelts.