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Election of change

Sunday, November 11, 2012

US President Barack Obama has won re-election to the highest office in the land. But aside from the appointment of the incumbent, most everything else in American politics was forever changed on November 6, 2012. How elections are predicted, the way polls are conducted, the demographics of the electorate, and the trends in civil issues all signalled resoundingly to have transformed.


As much as the election result was predictable to some, supporters of both parties felt concomitantly anxious and confident in the days prior. On the blue side, most polls suggested a surge for Obama. His response to Hurricane Sandy's destruction, according to political pundits, made him look “presidential.” At the same time, the impassioned Republican support and typical stronger numbers on election day made Democrats worry.


On the red side, headquartered here in Boston, talk of Mitt Romney’s momentum since his first debate performance was still in the air. Some polls gave him the lead. Anti-Obama sentiment was strong. However, the candidate’s position changes and gaffes, as well as those from Republican senators on rape and abortion, made Republicans worry.


In other words, most people didn't know the outcome for sure. And there signals the first of many historic events in this election. Some people did know the outcome with certainty. In this regard, if anyone emerged as a superstar in this election, it wasn't Barack Obama, it was Nate Silver.


High-tech oracle
Silver is a 34-year-old economist-turned-statistician whose FiveThirtyEight blog was bought by The New York Times. He does not conduct polls or talk about "gut feelings" or the "mood on the ground" like every other pundit. He uses his own "political calculus," looking at historical election trends and an aggregate of current polls, to derive conclusive data on election forecasts and probabilities.


The revered pundits, making daily media appearances, talked about polls, the trends they're "seeing" and rational predictions based on their expertise. Much of this turned out to be wrong. In 2008, Silver correctly predicted 49 of the 50 states. Last week, he got all right.


That the traditional is so patently giving way to the contemporary was not apparent to everyone. The traditional methods of polling, including mail-ballot polls and calls to people’s land lines, aren’t fading fast enough. Cellphone-only households, for instance, increased by 700 per cent from 2003 to 2009, hence the abhorrent lack of accuracy of many popular polls.


The loss of the traditional was also not apparent to the opposition. Almost every story following the election was focused not on how Obama won but on how Romney lost. And the reason most cited was a disconnect with the real electorate.


Republicans kept their base (White, older, wealthier, male) but lost many others. The fastest growing ethnic group of the electorate is not White or Black; it's Latino. The fastest growing ethnic group in the US is not Black or Latino: it's Asian. The fastest growing demographic groups in the electorate are women, minorities and 18- to 29-year-olds.


There is a discernible pull towards the conservative in the US in these uncertain economic times. But Republicans’ rush towards conservatism doesn't appeal to some people. Those people alienated by the Republicans' conservatism were the ones who lost them the election.  


Obama lost support in virtually every single group totalling more than eight million votes (12 per cent) this time around. Yet he still managed to win the election, the only incumbent to have done so since Roosevelt. Where did he actually make gains? Asian Americans and Latinos.


Gay marriage gains
Other groups like women, young people, minorities and the highly educated voted Democrat. The archaic positions that Romney took on important civil issues seemed validated given the high level of popularity they seemed to garner. But the above-mentioned groups did not agree.


When Republican senators up for election made statements on "legitimate rape" or "God’s intention" for rape victims to carry the children of their rapists, polls still showed tight senate races. Immigration is one of the most divisive political issues here. The term has been conflated with "illegal immigration," even on platforms like Google, LinkedIn and Yahoo! that were founded by immigrants.


Gay marriage was up for referendum in several states. It seemed a sure calamity; every time gay marriage has been up for referendum, it was defeated. More than 30 states have amended their constitutions to ban gay marriage. America is a vast country with deep divisions. Its reputation for being progressive and liberal can easily be countered with the facts above. This seemed to mean security for the Republican Party in its reinvigorated conservatism.


Unfortunately, the anti-abortion senators lost the election. Exit polls showed two-thirds of voters believed undocumented immigrants should be given a path to citizenship. And in every state where gay marriage went up for a referendum, the people voted for it. Now nine states plus DC allow gay marriage.


The US electorate has changed. Obama realised this. That's why, against all odds, he managed to win the election. He didn't flip-flop, he adapted. And that, clearly, is change Americans can believe in.


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