Obama’s victory of hope over hate

by Bridget Welsh
Nov 8, 2012


When the presidential election was finally called, the results confirmed what most people expected – Barack Obama was returned to office for another four years.

It was not quite the nail-biter the media hyped it up to be, but there certainly were moments of uncertainty and anxiety on both sides.

In terms of the popular vote, Obama’s margin was extremely slim, although the electoral college system gave him a comfortable margin as he picked up the key swing states, including Florida (where I voted).

The election had a record turnout as Americans took their right to vote seriously (with some queuing for hours) and the process carefully monitored by observers.

The US 2012 election offers some simple lessons on understanding electoral behaviour and what can deliver political victory in close contests.

Women, minorities and the youth

Obama’s victory shows that in order to win you have to be careful not to alienate powerful constituencies. Among the groups that were critical to Obama’s victory, women were one of those at the top of the list.

The gender gap was large – 55 percent of women supported Obama with only 44 percent voting for Romney. The reason was simple – members of Romney’s party repeatedly and disgracefully suggested that rape was legitimate and went further to argue for the denial of a women’s right to control her own body after she was raped.

NONEAbortion, birth control and equal pay – issues at the core of women’s right in the United States – were prominent in what became a ‘gender war’ in the campaign. Ultimately, the Republicans alienated a majority of women.

It did not help matters that Republicans also went on the offensive against women candidates, crossing the line of acceptability. Previous studies show that attacks on women politicians can backfire, especially if they are seen as unfair or unsubstantiated.

The women that were unfairly attacked – such as senators Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin – won in close races and were made stronger by the attacks.

It is not a coincidence that this election saw an unprecedented number of women running for Congress, and large numbers were elected, notably for the Senate. Women also make up the majority of voters in most electorates.

They are loyal and they came out to vote. In this US election, they showed they have power!

Racial undertones

It was a historic moment when an African American was elected US president in 2008. This election may not have been a barrier breaker, but it is perhaps even more meaningful.

To re-elect an African American – a minority candidate who was vilified disgracefully by the birther movement that challenged his citizenship in a climate where racism was a not-so-subtle undertone in the campaign and the economy is still recovering – illustrates that Americans are moving toward greater tolerance.

An important facet of this campaign is greater acceptance of minorities in political leadership and an embrace of ethnic diversity.

Much has been written about the end of the American dream amidst a broader economic decline. This election suggests that this view is premature – that minorities can rise, and be supported in their advancement. Obama’s campaign this time may not have had much of the rhetoric of hope and change, but the final result illustrates that hope and change are very much alive.

This is not to say that ethnic identity was not important in this campaign. Racial voting played a role. African Americans came out in large numbers to support Obama, and these numbers in part comprise the record-breaking turnout.

Latinos who now comprise 16.7 percent of the population contributed to the incumbent’s victory, especially after the Dream Act which gave citizenship to children of immigrants. Whites, on their part, disproportionately made up the Romney base.

The picture of supporters in the halls when the election was announced shows however that there were two Americas – one embracing diversity and the other holding onto the past of a white-majority America. Diversity won out.

To think that you can win without minority support in a close contest is foolhardy.

Money alone is not enough

The third group that played a vital role was young people. Many youth were undecided. But when it came time to touch the screen, they voted for inclusion and Obama.

His campaign continued to inspire young people to a greater degree than his opponent. Youth disproportionately did the ground work in the campaign and energised the campaign by making sure the machinery stayed well-oiled.

Part of the reason that Obama’s campaign was so successful was that it relied on this network of young people, tied together through social media and smart phones.

This was the most expensive campaign in history of the US, and the Republican campaign had millions of dollars in advantage. But in the end, the money was not enough.

What Obama did better was to get his machinery to work effectively, to reach out and to bring people out to vote. Make no bones about it – the election was about hard labour, not spending money.

Obama’s victory speech highlighted a central tenet of his campaign approach – the election was not about what the government could do for citizens, rather it was about what citizens could do for others. This belief in the power of people brought people together and assured that campaign offices performed. Indeed, empowerment inspires people.

Inspiration was also part of Obama’s final campaign approach. He finished his campaign with positive clear and dichotomous messages: Hope not hate. Unity not division. People not politics first. Needless to say, he was aided by Hurricane Sandy that allowed these positive messages to reach a wider audience.

Graciousness in defeat

Mitt Romney showed graciousness in his concession speech and highlighted that elections are a means toward governing. Power is not just about acquiring it or holding onto it, but knowing how to use it and when to let it go.

An election is judged by the actions of all sides, and a respect for the process as a whole is essential – especially in defeat.

Obama will face a difficult second term, and he is bound to disappoint many in the contested polarised political reality of US politics and on the increasingly complex international stage.

He does have a mandate, however, to bring people together and focus on bringing sustainable and meaningful benefits to ordinary citizens.

Yesterday’s election shows that the competition for power – even a fierce one – does not have to be a zero-sum winner-take-all game. Such a competition can open the way to compromise and empowerment, and the process itself holds promise.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at [email protected]. She voted for Obama by absentee ballot and received an email acknowledgment that her vote was counted.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 1:54 am

    Look at the crowd at Obama victory speech….mixture of all Americans…white…black..brown…rich and poor.
    Then look at the Republican crowd at Romney’s farewell speech…ALL whites…wearing suits..ladies all dressed up too.
    That itself tells you why Obama won.
    Americans hates to be racists…hates to be controlled by the rich…hates wars…which Republican politicians are good at…hates to be disunited.
    Obama have drummed into their heads…politicians work for them…and being elected as President gives him the blessed chance to work for all Americans.
    Obama won the 2nd turn ..not by chance.
    He delivered all he promised…to the best of his abilities.

  2. #2 by monsterball on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:07 am

    The second term will give Obama to follow up and finish what he promised.
    Obama hates Mahathir.
    He is no fool.
    From now onwards…if Republicans keep being racists…like their great grandfathers…slave driving…they will never win another election.
    That brings us back to Malaysia.
    As long as BN are racists parties…they will lose votes.
    As long as corrupted masterminds are not brought to court for justice…they will lose votes.
    As long as the murderers and the masterminds behind murders are not brought to court for trials..they will lose votes.
    As long as Umno b keep trying to fool Muslims….be hypocrites…using religion to upset the country..and disunite Malaysians..they will lose their votes.
    USA election concluded.
    Najib has 5 months to hide as much as he wants.
    The fact that Najib delayed 13th GE…is saying he knows Malaysians are smart voters…especially the young close to 3 million new voters.
    USA Republican party is finished.
    Umno b party will be finished by voters.

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:21 am

    ///Hope not hate. Unity not division. People not politics first.///

    But the BN election campaign objective is: Hate not hope. Division not unity. Politics not people first. In attempts to hold on to power, errant BN politicians are using the race and religion cards to arouse people’s sentiments in order to fish for votes.

  4. #4 by Noble House on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 3:50 am

    Indeed, a detailed analysis on the outcomes of the US Presidential election by Dr Bridget.

    I see a similarity taking shape in our local political landscape where the middle class especially, and the have-nots are determined to take this country forward while the Umno government is still living in the past with its ‘Ketuanan’ policies. The decision to change may necessarily stirs passions or even controversy and that won’t change with a new government in place. It shouldn’t. But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for this country’s future. These common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems that which we have been made to live with over the past and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward are that common bond that binds us for the future. This is where we must begin.

    So vote for action, not the usual politics. The government we are going to elect should focus on our jobs, not theirs!

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 7:04 am

    It may be a mistake to think Obama’s victory helps Malaysia; and a greater mistake to underestimate UMNO elites as unsophisticated. Quite the opposite: they’re forward thinking [not in terms of making this a better country but to p[reserve and perpetuate UMNO’s hegemony]. As Bridget says what Obama has leveraged successfully is to get support of groups that perceive themselves marginalized which besides 55% women voters include a fast growing minority groups of Latinos/Hispanics (16%) not to mention African Americans, Chinese and others. In America “racial voting played a role” against backdrop of white majority but changing demographics of expanding minorities make them kingmakers. UMNO has cornered the market for perpetuating itself cos it understands the dynamics: Firstly, its treatment of women (generally) is sensitive with plethora of legislations promoting gender equality – any exception is defended upon religious/Islamic premises which will not provoke backlash; secondly, it manacles and restricts minorities from being a potent force by setting out policies that encourage non malays to emigrate/shift out, and those who are prepared to subordinate themselves to malay/Muslim identity to come in [eg, projek M or IC]

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 7:33 am

    Leveraging More on Ketuanan: UMNo’s successful formula is to play on majority’s group’s sense of relative socio-economic deprivation vis-a-vi others combined with sense of historical entitlement to be first here (to establish political organisation in Malacca) thereby excluding Orang Asli. Hence the Never Ending Policy and the stress again and again of political dominance to set off relative economic marginalization. When Anwar left UMNO his challenge is to highlight intra Malay class conflict. He says NEP should be needs based, and not favouring UMNO elites/cronies etc that plunder national resources. By pointing out excesses and corruption Anwar is able to split Malay voters between UMNO PKR & PAS. Against that, Mahathir leading a dominant UMNo / conservative faction reasserts that Malays should take advantage of the favourable demographics and not split. More important is his fall back on the central belief and premise- that nothing works better than cementing and making even stronger the tie between financial/economic interest represented by the NEP and the race/religion. The latter appeals to primordial instincts and get votes surer from the majority group (esp rural votes) than inclusive policies. Hence UMNO now goes all out alone raising racial/religious rhetoric (with Perkasa’s & pro Malay NGOs’ assistance) even if it puts rest of parties like MCA, MIC, Gerakan in quandary.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 7:52 am

    Ketuanan premise has to tackle the challenges posed by (a) PAS (b) parochialism of East Malaysians and (c) liberal attitudes of Youth in Urban centres. UMNO understands better than anyone – from experience in Iran & Arab Spring- that the perception of corruption will cause voters to swing to religious based parties like PAS on the thinking that religion is panacea against corruption. Hence TDM islamised aggressively for 22 years, declared the Islamic nation, and even today our ruling elites are prepared to make U turn and talk of Hudud to extend olive branch to PAS for a PAS-UMNO tie up. The part on Youth is left to Ah Jib Gor and his socio-media blogging/twitter initiatives, attending Youth concerts, liberal 1 Malaysia Moderate over Extremist talk etc. On East Malaysia’s problems (first posed by Pairin/PBS), solution was then Money/positions to purchase crossovers and demographic wise, the Mykad for immigrants based on religious criteria and promise of eligibility to NEP benefits in exchange for votes (this is consistent with its gradualist assimilation policies set in place when in the 1970s onwards national identity, culture, language & symbols for the country is Malay/Muslim set for all). However since the influx of immigrants in Sabah has alienated locals and deepened parochialism away from Federal centre Ah Jib Gor concedes to RCIII but leave it dangling with the rest being addressed still by money largesse based on “I help you help me formula”.

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 8:04 am

    This shows that UMNo elites seem to plan far ahead and think of a solution to every challenge/problem. Obama’s formula works but it’s a country, value system and level of political maturity totally different from us here where the ruling party has a strong control over media and all major institutions (without separation of powers). Obama won on minorities’ interest being be fairly represented. Here’s opposite – Obama victory will be used to argue why minorities should not being given a change to increase in demographics by liberal policies lest they become effective king makers to help install an administration that will not be supportive of the traditional Ketuanan premises. The other point learnt is this: in US (ever since Kennedy won cos he looked more cool and tele-genic to millions of viewers in debates than the tense and uncomfortable Nixon), actor Reagan comfortable before cameras also won, and Obama “looked” more cool, charismatic, confident and intelligent in articulation than Romney in televised debate. The lesson is never allow an opponent to leverage on his advantage: hence the offer to debate with Anwar is not taken! Again they have thought of everything and not as unsophisticated as often alleged by detractors.

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 8:17 am

    “Hope not hate. Unity not division. People not politics first works” to secure electoral victory in US but here it is “Hate not Hope Division not Unity and Politics not People” that have empirically proven the winning formula or last 50 years.

  10. #10 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 9:29 am

    Americans went for change 4 yrs ago. For two centuries and more america had not had a single black president. Going by umno’s twisted logic, blacks in america therefore would not hv the experience to be president. But obama’s recent re-election proved that the decision to change was not made in a flash and that he is equally capable to run the country.

    So umno poooordah with your no experience claim. Anyway, you are urged to look at the several pakatan controlled states for lessons on how to govern properly.

  11. #11 by Bigjoe on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 9:33 am

    The truth is neither candidate offer real solution for the biggest problems the voters faced – the US debt and jobs. So the election came down to execution and other issues. The fact that Romney had huge pile of money, negative campaigning on their side and Obama side made mistakes really showed that Romney lost the election rather than Obama actually any big winner. Romney did not deserve to win but Obama no great hope..

    More than anything else, its a warning to us – politicians can get us into a situation where THEY HAVE NO ANSWER. WHEN POLITICIAN OFFER GOOD SOLUTIONS – its a god send.

    And that is what precisely we have with PR today – they are not flawed even very but they offer a good affordable solution to VERY VERY BIG PROBLEMS WE HAVE…IF we don’t take the opportunity to fix it NOW, we will end up with two sides of divide with NO SOLUTIONS like like the US and Europe have right now…

  12. #12 by Noble House on Friday, 9 November 2012 - 2:08 pm

    The government we elect should focus on our jobs, not theirs! Yes, there will be problems and there will be problems. And we will continue to have our differences but what matters most is that common bond that binds us and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward for our common hopes and dreams. It may take a new government years to end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems but this is where we must begin. The Umno government is simply living in the past with its ‘Ketuanan’ policies.

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