The upcoming election is shaping up to be a crucial battle as more and more Americans become disgruntled and call for a change.
With disquieting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plunging paychecks, increasing debt, and lost jobs, cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and racial politics-critical issues in national elections since Ronald Reagan-are losing their allure with voters anxious about real threats to their existence.
“Political coalitions get old just as people do,” says Morris Fiorina, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of the upcoming book, The Great Disconnect in American Politics. “The political structure is ossified, stuck in the controversies of the 1960s, and Republicans are in trouble because issues like race and abortion do not resonate as strongly with a new generation of voters.”
Obama represents change, which accounts for his appeal among young voters. In a poll conducted before the national Super Tuesday presidential primary at Stanford University, 53 percent supported Obama, 24 percent supported Clinton and 5 percent supported McCain. And the youth vote could make a difference in the upcoming election.
Daniel Wirls, professor of politics at UCSC and author of The Invention of the United States Senate, predicts that this election could bring a major turnout of young voters with a new perspective: They don’t view issues in the same way as older voters do. Comparing the candidates leaves Obama with many advantages, but young voters need to turn out where they will make a difference, in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan.
“This is the clearest example in modern times of a presidency defined by one thing and one thing alone-the war on terror,” says Wirls. “Bush’s popularity rose to 90 percent after 9/11 as people rallied around the flag. But the war ground on with little progress and began to be seen as a mistake by more and more people-even the economy didn’t become an issue until the past six months-and he continued to slide in public opinion polls.”
Americans are unhappy with the way things are going, but they are also extremely cautious. People want change but don’t want to upset the status quo; they want an end to the war but fear significant changes. They want economic change but are unsure about what a president can do to change the economy. And, although Americans want to hear something different, the candidates are moving toward the center to avoid frightening voters. Wirls wonders whether Obama’s moderation of his message will lead to a loss of the enthusiasm he created in the primaries.
“If Obama continues to pull his punches and moderate his positions, young voters will wonder about him,” says Wirls. “He only looks different in comparison to his competitor: McCain allows him to look different no matter what.”
While discontent is an issue in the presidential campaign, the war and the economy are in the forefront of voters’ concerns. Sheldon Kamieniecki, dean of social sciences at UCSC and author of Corporate America and Environmental Policy: How Often Does Business Get Its Way?, sees the economy as a more important issue in some states than the war. The energy crisis is tied to the economy and spills into environmental issues, as Republicans push for opening public lands and areas off shore to oil exploration. Health care, also tied to economic concerns, and education will also be important campaign issues.
McCain got off on the wrong foot by proposing offshore drilling and nuclear power, two unpopular issues many states including California and Florida. McCain’s campaign also appears confused. Instead of running as a maverick and a populist, his advisors are attempting to repackage him as a conservative, which doesn’t work. His supporters are not enthusiastic. Nationally, support for Bob Barr, the libertarian candidate, could siphon conservative Republican votes away from McCain. Will core conservatives stick with McCain and will Obama discourage youthful enthusiasts as he moves to the middle?
“We may be entering an era where both liberals and conservatives have extra room to change their positions on issues and not worry so much about their base,” says Kamieniecki. “Both sides may be more willing to move to the center in this election with less fear of losing their base. McCain started with a problem of his conservative base, but Obama’s main challenge is to broaden the base of traditional liberal support to reach business people and the white working class-the Reagan Democrats.”
After his successful visit to Europe and the Middle East, Obama appears to have many advantages; but the dynamic flow of a campaign can take unexpected turns. Few would have predicted that a Swift Boat Campaign would have derailed John Kerry, a seasoned veteran facing a president who went AWOL during the Vietnam War. Successful negative attacks by McCain, the bombing of Iran or other unforeseen circumstances could radically alter the campaign before November. Daniel Wirls warns, “Don’t think things are as they seem because there’s a good chance they won’t be.”