Obama recently promised his donors that he will win. Obviously, no candidate is going to tell the people who have given him (or her) money that he (or she) is going down in political flames. No doubt his donors have faith in him (or are at least hedging their bets). What remains to be seen is whether he can keep his promise when election day rolls around.
Predicting a candidate’s chances is a tricky thing. National politics is a complex subject and the relevant factors shift and change constantly. However, it is possible to provide a general assessment of his chances by considering his strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly enough, many of Obama’s strengths and weaknesses are the same.
First, Obama is young. While he is older than I am (so I rather like hearing people say how young he is), he is considered somewhat young for a Presidential candidate. This can help him or hurt him. On the positive side, youth is valued in our culture and many Americans look back favorably on another young Democrat (Kennedy, of course). Some Americans also seem to be looking for a President who has vitality and energy and Obama has both. This can give him an edge over the much older McCain especially among the younger voters On the negative side, many voters prefer an older leader. The stereotypical image of a President is often of an older man and this seems to indicate a bias towards older candidates. The fact that Obama is spoken of as being young shows that he is up against this perception. While it is close, I think that the country is leaning more towards youthful energy and I think this will help Obama.
Second, Obama is not a Washington insider. While he is a senator, he has not been one for long and is not perceived as part of the old system. On the positive side, this helps to separate him from the old system and the dismal approval ratings of both the President and Congress. Americans seem to be eager for a change from the old Washington and Obama clearly is in a position to deliver. On the negative side, as much as people claim to dislike Washington insiders, they seem very inclined to keep supporting them. After all, to become a Washington insider a politician has to be re-elected regularly. Thus, if Americans really loathed Washington insiders and it strongly impacted their voting behavior, then there would not be many (or any) Washington insiders. I think this outsider approach (which McCain is also trying to tap into) will help him, provided that the approval ratings for the insiders remains low.
Third, Obama does not have very much experience. He is young and his national political experience is limited to being a senator for a short while. On the plus side, this lack of experience separates him from the failures of the past. It also means that there is little political dirt that can be dug up on him and that he is far less beholden to those with whom he has become entrenched. These factors can help him in the polls. On the minus side, a lack of experience makes him an unknown quantity and people tend to be a bit wary of the unknown. Further, the Presidency is not generally regarded as an “entry level” position. Like employers, voters generally seem to prefer someone with experience. McCain has an edge in this regard, although it makes it harder for him to claim that he is not part of the Washington establishment. Somewhat ironically, when McCain attacks the Washington establishment he seems to help Obama. While McCain used to be regarded as an outsider and a maverick, that image seems to have worn down by the necessity of appealing to the party base. Overall, I think that this lack of experience will help Obama, provided that he can keep playing on the past failings of experienced politicians.
Fourth, Obama is liberal. On the positive side, many voters are liberal and much of his “liberal agenda” consists of causes that are currently very popular such as health care reform and ending the war in Iraq. Naturally enough, the catastrophic failures of the Bush administration are helping Obama out a great deal here. Neo-conservatism and conservatism are no longer as well regarded as they were in the past. McCain is stuck in the unenviable position of having to be conservative to appease the Republican base while distancing himself from the failures of the Bush administration. On the negative side, there are still many people who are conservatives and while they are not very happy with Bush, they have no desire to vote Obama into office. If McCain can convince voters that he is a true conservative while also making them believe that he will not be serving Bush’s third term, then Obama will have quite a fight on his hands. I think that some Democrats are making the mistake of thinking that unhappiness with Bush means support for Obama. This need not be the case.
Fifth, Obama is male and is not Hillary Clinton. On the positive side, all Presidents have been male and the stereotype for the President is also male. On the negative side, there are some female voters who will remain die hard Hillary supporters and might not support Obama. While there are rumors that some will turn to McCain out of spite, this seems unlikely. Even if it does happen, the impact will be minimal. The main worry is that such voters will stay at home or write in Hillary’s name on the ballot. While these will not be votes for McCain, they will be lost votes for Obama. I think that while a few hard core Hillary supporters will give into their spite, most will fall in behind Obama.
Sixth, Obama is Christian. On the positive side, many Americans claim to be Christian and many of them seem to have a positive view of having a Christian President. On the negative side, some people still think Obama is a Muslim and this could lead to them not voting for him. However, I think that the people who would be inclined to believe that he is Muslim probably would not be voting for him anyway. As such, this factor is not a critical one. Overall, his professed Christianity will help him a bit.
Seventh, Obama lived outside of the United States. On the positive side, this means that he has had exposure to non-American culture and this can help him. On the negative side, this has provided fuel for attacks against him that attempt to portray him as foreign or exotic. As with the Muslim attack, I think that these attacks work best with people who would not vote for him anyway. As such, the impact of this will be minimal, although it has and will generate a lot of noise.
Eighth, Obama is regarded as being black. On the positive side, this seems to be helping him with some key demographics. Obviously enough, many commentators attribute his success with African-Americans and other minorities to this factor. Also, some claim that liberal white also support him because of this factor (of course, they would support a white Democrat as well). Minority votes will obviously be important in the election and Obama seems to have an edge here. On the negative side, racism is still a factor in the United States and this will impact voting behavior. McCain is obviously no racist, but no doubt some people will vote for him because he is white and Obama is black. It is difficult to predict how much of an impact race will have in terms of people not voting for Obama. Obviously, black candidates can get elected in the United States (Obama is, after all, already a senator). But it remains to be seen whether a black person can win a Presidential election now. I suspect that the race factor might balance out. While some will not vote for him because he is black, some will vote for him because he is black. Others will vote for or against him based on other factors.
Much could change between now and November, but I suspect the election will be a fairly close one. I am inclined to think that Obama will win, but only a fool picks a winner before the starting gun has even been loaded.