Show Hide image

Who will vote for Obama

It seems to be all over bar the voting but the final days of a presidential race can sometimes produ

This is the 13th presidential campaign I have followed, as a teenager and

as an adult, and the only previous campaign that generated anything like the same passion and enthusiasm was the first of those: John Kennedy’s in 1960. For many people, including myself, the excitement of this campaign is the prospect of an African-American president who could change the direction of his country, and perhaps the world, after the barren Bush years.

However, we should not allow excitement to mask reality. The Obama-McCain contest has generated a number of myths about America's electorate - and it has also generated the polling evidence to extinguish those myths. What is that evidence? And how far can we trust the polls that tell us that Obama is heading for an emphatic victory?

Here are four myths and the real conclusions that can be gathered from the poll data.

Myth 1: Less-educated white voters have deserted the Democrats because the party chose Obama as its candidate. As our chart shows, it is true that John McCain leads Obama among those Americans who never went to college - but so did George Bush four years ago. In fact there has been virtually no change in this group since 2004. The real point, therefore, is more subtle: Obama has failed to make the kind of inroads with the poorer educated that he has made among graduates. Within that group, for example, he has converted John Kerry's 11-point lead among those with postgraduate degrees into a 28-point lead today - a 17-point shift, double the national average.

The same shift can be detected among those whose top educational qualification is an undergraduate degree, where Bush led by 6 per cent in 2004 but Obama leads by 11 per cent today. Even if Obama has not done as well as he might have hoped among less-educated voters, he has more than offset this by his appeal to the college-educated, who make up 75 per cent of all US voters.

A similar story emerges when the data are sorted by income. Obama has maintained, but not added to, the Democrats' traditionally strong lead among Americans whose household income is less than $50,000 (around £30,000) a year. But he has wiped out the Republicans' previously double-digit leads on higher earners. A further shift to Obama in the final days of the campaign might see him achieve the improbable feat of winning more votes than McCain in $100,000-plus households.

Myth 2: Obama's support has suffered because many women voters, upset by the Democrats' failure to nominate Hillary Clinton, will not vote for him. Not so. Obama has gained more ground among women than among men. In Britain, women are usually slightly more conservative then men. But in US elections the gender gap is different. Men are more likely to vote Republican and women to vote Democrat.

This year, the gender gap, far from narrowing as the result of an anti-Obama female backlash, has actually widened. Obama now leads among women by 14 per cent, compared with McCain's 4 per cent lead among men.

Myth 3: Many Democrats won't vote for Obama. Well, some won't; but some Democrats always defect. In 2004, 11 per cent of Democrats voted for Bush. Almost exactly the same proportion this year are likely to vote for McCain. In contrast, slightly more Republicans, and significantly more independents, are likely to vote for Obama than they did for Kerry. Converts to the Obama banner far outweigh any deserters from the supposedly vulnerable base.

Myth 4: McCain appeals less than Bush to the religious right. In fact, McCain's lead among the four in ten Americans who attend church at least once a week is actually higher than Bush enjoyed four years ago, as is McCain's lead among those who describe themselves as "conservative". Perhaps Sarah Palin has done more than we might expect to shore up the right-wing base.

In contrast, infrequent and non-churchgoers have swung Obama's way, as have liberals and, most importantly of all, the 45 per cent of Americans who describe themselves as "moderate". Among this vital group, Kerry's 9 per cent lead four years ago has been transformed into a 26 per cent lead for Obama.

On the other hand, some parts of the conventional wisdom are true. Obama really has won over younger voters. Four years ago, the minority of under-30s who bothered to vote backed Kerry by a modest margin of 54-45 per cent. Today Obama leads with this group by two to one. His challenge is to convert that latent support into big numbers of real votes.

Luckily, however, Obama can win without a vastly higher turnout among young voters. The next age group up - the 30-44 year-olds, many of whom have mortgages and young families and who are worried by today's financial crisis - have also shifted to Obama in a big way. Four years ago, they backed Bush by twice the national margin; today they put Obama ahead by twice the national average. Here is a huge election-deciding shift among people who can generally be relied on to come out and vote.

The shift among older groups is smaller. Among 45-59 year-olds, the shift is a modest (though still useful) six points; but the over-60s have proved resistant to Obama’s charms. They backed Bush by an 8 per cent margin in 2004, and look like backing McCain by the same margin on 4 November.

So, is it really all over bar the voting? Or could Obama still be denied victory by a late swing,

or inaccurate polls, or both? History provides two examples of the polls getting things badly wrong.

In 1948 the Chicago Tribune announced “Dewey Defeats Truman” – a paper Truman held up with glee when he won

So, is it really all over bar the voting? Or could Obama still be denied victory by a late swing, or inaccurate polls, or both? History provides two examples of the polls getting things badly wrong.

In 1948, the final polls showed the Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey, leading the Democratic president, Harry Truman, by 5 per cent. Initial returns on the night from rural areas seemed to confirm this, leading the Chicago Tribune to announce on the front page of its early editions: "Dewey Defeats Truman" - a paper that Truman held up with glee the following day when it turned out he had won, not lost, by 5 per cent.

One or both of two things went wrong: the pollsters' sampling methods contained a pro-Republican bias; and/or there was a late surge in support for Truman, for the polls finished their final interviews two weeks before election day.

In 1980, the polls predicted a close race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - when Reagan in fact won by a 10 per cent margin in the popular vote and a landslide in the electoral college. On that occasion, there probably was a last-minute swing. There was only one television debate between Carter and Reagan, and it took place a week before polling day. Reagan emerged the clear victor and assuaged the doubts of many voters that he was up to the job of president.

This was important, because the fundamentals were not on Carter's side. He was an unpopular president, the US economy was in trouble, interest rates were in double figures, and the US had been humiliated by Iran, which held 52 American diplomats hostage in Tehran. The late swing to Reagan was probably a case of the fundamentals finally asserting themselves.

This year, the fundamentals are on Obama's side, and polling will continue until the last moment. So, unless something extraordinary happens, a clear polling lead for Obama probably will translate into an Obama victory (even if a few voters are telling pollsters that they will vote for an African-American candidate when in fact they won't).

So am I predicting an Obama victory? Yes. Am I confident about this prediction? Yes. Every bit as confident as I was in April 1992 when I said that Neil Kinnock was about to become prime minister.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov

The 2008 data for this analysis comes from YouGov-Polimetrix. It interviewed 26,000 Americans in order to provide a state-by-state projection for the television network CBS. Its overall voting figures - Obama 49 per cent, McCain 43 per cent - are close to the average of recent polls; the size of the sample has enabled us to look at different groups of voters in detail. The figures are compared with those from the 13,000 interviews conducted by the Edison/Mitofsky exit poll for the TV networks and AP news agency on the day of the 2004 election. I am grateful to colleagues at YouGov-Polimetrix for analysing the data for me and to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for inviting me to study the presidential election

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

Getty
Show Hide image

The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.