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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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