Friday, November 7, 2008


This marks the end of America Magazine's special Election Blog for 2008.

The magazine's website will continue to run political, and other, commentaries in its "In All Things" blog, so be sure to check in there frequently.

Sarah Palin & The GOP's Future

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession. I really like Sarah Palin.

Palin has been the focus of many post-mortems, most of it unfair. The only time the GOP was excited, or McCain led in the polls, was in the immediate aftermath of her selection as Veep and her debut speech at the Republican National Convention. She was spunky, attractive, could connect with the base and, even more importantly, she could caress the camera. Her convention speech was electrifying. And, the sight of a mother with five children, especially her “perfect” infant with Down’s Syndrome, was heart-warming to all but the nastiest of snobs.

Now, it turns out, Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. And her experience as a governor was not only brief but exceptional: Alaska is not a typical state. When other governors have to balance budgets carefully, weighing the effects of a reduction in services versus a rise in taxes, Palin gets to decide how much of the state’s oil revenue should be distributed back to the citizens. The state has no income tax, no sales tax and no property tax. Palin has had little exposure to a broad swath of national policy issues because of Alaska’s differentness, but a stint as head of the Republican Governor’s Association would fill-in that deficit.

Palin’s performance in her first interview with Charlie Gibson was tenuous at best. Her follow-up with Katie Couric was a disaster. I do blame her handlers for most of this. Instead of trying to pretend that the physical proximity of Alaska to Russia was of any analytical value, or that her status as commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard provided her with a grounding in national security issues, her staff should have assured her that there is nothing wrong with saying, “Hey, I am a governor. We leave the foreign policy issues to the national government. And, I will be learning about those issues at the hands of a master, John McCain.” Instead, she came across as unintelligible and unintelligent, the perfect foil for a Saturday Night Live skit.

Still, those stumbles will be long forgotten in four years and will be easily attributed to her novice status. Her ability to connect with a crowd or a camera and her skill at delivering a stem-winder of a speech will remain.

Palin will also have something four years hence that she lacks today: chits. The day after the election, every state party chairperson faces the same immediate task of replenishing the coffers. And, if you are the state party chair in Ohio or Connecticut or Oregon, and you are thinking that for your big fundraising banquet next year, you want to charge $250 rather than $150 but are worried about whether or not you will be able to fill the room, call Palin. If you book her as your speaker, you will fill that room easily. The base of the party loves her and will open their checkbooks. This time next year, Palin will have acquired a lot of chits and will have the fundraising contacts that are the first step in any presidential bid.

As the GOP regroups from its devastating loss on Tuesday, and the Washington leadership of the party looks tired and out of ideas, Palin remains the one piece of exciting GOP news this year. Keep your eye on her. I would put money on the proposition that she will be their nominee in 2012.

Michael Sean Winters

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Electoral Consequences Big & Small

President-elect Obama ran a campaign that was arresting in its discipline. There were almost no leaks. But, in his very first twenty-four hours since the election, the news that he had offered the job of White House chief-of-staff to Cong. Rahm Emmanuel leaked to the press. This would have been fine if Emmanuel had accepted the job already but he understandably needs to discuss the matter with his family. So, the first major news about the next president has him waiting on someone else. Not good. Obama needs to have a stern talk with his new transition team and tell them to keep quiet or find work elsewhere, especially as the new administration takes shape.
Many Democrats were hoping to win a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and they fell short. This actually will help Obama. It forces him and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate with moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, and those negotiations will help Obama govern from the center. As well, any resulting legislation will bear that all-important label "bi-partisan." Obama won the presidency by winning among Independent voters, voters who by definition resist partisan labels. Having to cross with 60-vote threshold with centrist Republican votes will help him beat back political pressures on the far left of the Democratic Party.
The strangest Senate result also gives Obama and Reid an opportunity. The good people of Alaska have evidently voted to re-elect long-time Sen. Ted Stevens, making him the first convicted felon to be sent to the Senate. The Democrats could be forgiven for wanting to let Stevens take his seat and serve as an on-going reminder of GOP corruption, and the GOP will not have the votes to expel him from the Senate on their own. But, Reid should insist that in exchange for getting Democrats to vote to expel Stevens from the Senate, he gets a big, big chit for an equal number of Republican votes on a major policy vote, say, health care reform.
Obama and the congressional Democrats have to answer a question: Do they want to govern for four years or for thirty? If they resist the efforts of liberal special interests to push legislation like the Freedom of Choice Act, centrist voters will bolt. If they studiously govern from the center, let the GOP show its most extreme side (see tomorrow’s post on the future of Sarah Palin), and demonstrate basic competence in the provision of services, Democrats can craft a governing coalition that could last a generation.

Among those who shifted from the red seats to the blue on Tuesday were religiously motivated voters. According to exit polls, Obama even increased his margins over Kerry’s numbers four years ago among those who attend church every week, a demographic that had become one of the clearest indications of voting behavior. "We see Roman Catholics being the very true swing voters -- going for Gore, then Bush, and now solidly for Barack Obama, some diversification in the white evangelical vote, and Obama making inroads among all religious attendance groups, with the largest increase among the more than weekly attenders," according to Dr. Robert Jones of Public Religion research who joined a conference call on the religious vote sponsored by the group Faith in Public Life yesterday. Indeed, Obama won Catholics 55%-44% a remarkable turnaround from 2004 when George Bush won 52% of all Catholics.
The images of people celebrating Obama’s win all around the world were heart-warming. Not so the stern unsmiling face of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama must brace himself for the hard fact that it is not in Russia’s or China’s or Iran’s interest to have a strong U.S. president, and that the leaders of these nations will act accordingly. Even here, though, it is impossible not to note Obama’s luck: the crashing price of oil will put huge strains on the Russian and Iranian societies which have been awash in petro-dollars.
Still, walking around the streets of Washington, D.C. yesterday, it was impossible not to notice a certain lightness in people’s steps, a greater readiness to smile to a stranger, and a pride that our nation had broken yet another barrier in her often uneven quest for equality. Last night, at the CVS, a group of fifty college students was camped out, quietly reading or talking, in the middle of the aisle. They were waiting for more copies of the Washington Post’s commemorative edition. When was the last time you saw college students waiting to get a newspaper?
Michael Sean Winters

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Catholics & Our President-Elect

Barack Obama’s landslide victory will require time sink in emotionally and also analytically. The exit polls will need to be adjusted to reflect the actual turnout: The numbers we had last night were skewed to the Democrats and under-counted Catholics I suspect. Still, some things are apparent.
The "faithful remnant" of the GOP is confined to those parts of the country that are the least Catholic: the deep South and the Prairie states. The states that are most Catholic – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - are also the states that are the bluest of the blue. Obama’s margin in Pennsylvania was the most impressive of any of the large contested states as he won there by eleven points. It is especially noteworthy that in Lackawanna County, home of Scranton bishop Joseph Martino who was one of the country’s fiercest episcopal critics of voting for Obama because of his views on abortion, Obama won 63% to 36%. This was an increase over John Kerry’s 2004 margin of 56% to 43% in Lackawanna. In neighboring Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre, the numbers were similar: Obama took 54% of the vote, besting Kerry’s 51% four years ago.
Latino Catholics appear to have been decisive in flipping three states from red to blue: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Colorado’s nine electoral votes swung into the Obama column with a strong 53% to 46% win and in New Mexico the margin was even larger: 57% for Obama to McCain’s 42%. In Nevada, 55% of the vote went to Obama and McCain took 43%. If Obama delivers comprehensive immigration reform, these three states and their 19 electoral votes will be blue for a generation. They will also likely be joined by Arizona, which might have joined the shift this year had it not been for the home turf advantage McCain enjoyed. Nine points separated the candidates in Arizona, and the state’s ten electoral votes are low-hanging fruit for the Democrats next election.
Latinos are the fastest growing part of the electorate and young voters are just beginning to define their political loyalties. Obama won both groups convincingly: 67% of Latinos nationwide and 66% of voters age 18-29. That bodes well for the future of the Democratic Party.
Enough of the numbers. Watching our new President-Elect last night, I was struck by his bearing, his dignity. He did not seem overwhelmed by what had happened. In front of our very eyes, he shifted almost effortlessly from being the focus of the hopes of the Democrats to becoming the focus of the hopes of the nation. He recalled Ann Nixon Cooper, an Atlanta woman who is 106 years old and all the changes she had witnessed in her long life and what this election meant to her. He used her story to point to the future, wondering what changes his daughters might encounter if they were given such length of years. It was an elegant and organic moment that achieved the first task of political leadership: articulating the present circumstances by looking to history and finding in its lessons a narrative that points to the future.
It has been an amazing run and in the next few days we will continue to examine the consequences of the race before taking a break next week. Readers are encouraged to send in your election night stories and to write what this result means to you and what you believe it means for the country. Last night was a watershed and the air is filled with hopes but also questions this morning. The challenges that face our president-elect are mind-numbing for me, if not for him, but we can all look with anticipation at what awaits our nation around the corner of history.
Michael Sean Winters

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Race & the Election

This past Sunday, I worshipped at St. Augustine’s church here in Washington, D.C. It is the oldest congregation of black Catholics in the city. The pastor did not preach about the election: He didn’t have to. The anticipation in the room, the smiles, the nervousness, were all immediately obvious. I wondered how this congregation, which is very conservative, would have responded if they had been told that abortion was the only issue that mattered in this election? Yesterday, when I heard the audio of Bishop Finn of Kansas City saying that voting for Obama risked one’s eternal salvation, I wished he had come to St. Augustine’s to say that.

I wonder if Bishop Finn knows who Fannie Lou Hamer was and why today, election day, some of us will have this patron saint of electoral justice in the forefront of our minds. I wonder what Bishop Martino of Scranton would say to Bob Moses if he ran into him at the Au Bon Pain on Harvard Square. Black folk see this election in a different light, and they are not wrong to do so.

Yesterday, I called a black friend who is a priest and asked how he felt about this historic election. “I have my Obama cufflinks already to wear!” he exclaimed. “But, don’t print that until I have a diocese.” He broke out in a full-throttled guffaw. He, like most of the black clergy I know, is very conservative doctrinally but today’s election strikes a different, non-ideological chord. There was joy in his voice when we compared likely electoral college totals.

Today, America proves that race is not an insuperable barrier to political power and we deal a strong body blow to racism. That is an achievement per se. And the bishops who have insisted that abortion is the only issue, and that only their approach to the issue is morally permissible, they should think of Hamer and Moses and Dr. King and John Lewis today. It is not too difficult to say that while they may disagree with Sen. Obama about his pro-choice stance, and disagree forcefully, they join the rest of the nation in being properly thrilled that race is no longer an impediment to winning a presidential election in America. It is a great day to be alive. Everybody should be singing: This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Michael Sean Winters

Watching the Vote Totals

Happy Election Day! My American flag is unfurled on the porch and I will be heading over to the Riverdale Elementary School once the morning rush dies down to cast my vote.

Of course, we know now that there is no more “election day.” Almost a third of the ballots have already been cast by early voting. These will not affect tonight’s exit polls: I am assured by George Stephanopoulos at ABC News that the exit polls will include phone polls of those who have already voted. (Nate Silver at says that exit polls are unreliable in any event, they lean Democratic, and predicted a big Kerry victory four years ago but that is a different story.) On such matters, no one is smarter than Stephanopoulos.

The early voting may not distort the exit polls but it does already tell us a lot about the final electorate in 2008. In Clark County, Nevada, we know that Democrats account for 52% of the 391,936 ballots already cast and Republicans account for 30.6% with 17.4% other or no affiliation. The total early votes represent 71% of the total 2004 vote in that county and Kerry carried it 52%-46%. So, we can figure out, I think, that Democrats are going to have a big turnout in Clark County and that it will go more heavily for Obama than it did for Kerry. In Florida, we know that of the more than 4 million votes already cast, 45.5% are from Democrats and 37.6% are from Republicans with 16.9% other or no affiliations. This is 53.8% of the total 2004 vote. So turnout is heavy in both states and the increased turnout among Democrats bodes well for Obama’s chances in these two states won by Bush four years ago.

Georgia has the most intriguing early voting data. Already, more than 2 million Georgians have cast their ballots. In 2004, 3.3 millions Georgians voted, so the early vote this year is already 60% of the total vote four years ago. Most significant is the racial breakdown in Georgia. In 2004, according to CNN exit poll, blacks were 25% of Georgia’s electorate while 70% were white. But, in 2008 early voting, only 60% are white and black turnout is 35.1% of early votes. That huge increase among black voters will not be unique to Georgia and you can expect record turnouts that break most pollsters models of “likely voters.” Will it be enough to turn Georgia, a state George W. Bush won by 17 points? I don’t know. But, in states that are less red but still have significant black populations from North Carolina to Indiana, I suspect that Obama will do better than the polls are predicting.

So, what to look for tonight? Polls close in part of Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. EST. But, don’t look for the networks to call Indiana quickly. You may recall that in the primaries, Hillary Clinton had a double digit lead when the early results came in, but the tally from the northwest corner of the state, where the polls close an hour later, narrowed the race considerably and she eked out a one-point victory. At 7 p.m., Virginia closes, a state where Obama has maintained a significant lead and a state where they report their vote early. If the networks call Virginia for Obama within the hour, McCain’s chances will be mighty slim. If McCain pulls off an upset in Virginia, it is going to be a long night. Georgia also closes its polls at 7 p.m. and if that state is not called for McCain within the first half hour, Obama is riding the wave.
So, where will we be this time tomorrow? And, when do you think the networks will call the race? I am predicting Obama will win with 381 electoral votes, as black turnout carries him to victories in swing states North Carolina, Indiana and Missouri, Latinos put New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada in his column, and a better ground game turns the more rural Big Sky states of North Dakota and Montana. And, the race will be called around 9:20 when Colorado is put into the Obama column. Readers are invited to post their predictions!

Michael Sean Winters

Monday, November 3, 2008

A First-Time Voter

While most of the nation is gearing up to cast their ballots tomorrow, I am one of many Americans who have already cast their ballots. As a resident of Pennsylvania living outside the Commonwealth, I sent in an absentee ballot so that I could remain in Washington to see the results.

Casting my ballot was certainly not the first time that I have been involved in the political realm, as myself and many my age got involved in activism in high school. Technically, it was not even the first time I have voted (I turned 18 in January, enough time to vote in, and work the polls for, the Pennsylvania primary). But at the risk of sounding melodramatic, there was something special about voting in a presidential election; participating in an event that is only being performed for the 56th time in the history of this country. I recognize that around this time every election there are always stories written bemoaning the low-voter turnout in the United States, but as a recently enfranchised voter, I think that the point really does need to be made. At some point many voters no longer feel that voting is a significant action. It is an process that, though it concerns the common good, is all too often performed by a fraction of the population. Yet I feel as though it is not an overstatement to say that voting is a type of communion (small "c") for the American people. It is a collective action that is not merely symbolic, but real and appreciable; a ritual. It is ironic, perhaps, that the action that can effect the course of the entire society, the ultimate expression of public support or disapproval, is made in the confines of a private voting booth.

Though I acknowledge that my comments sound a little like Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I do not think that they are fueled solely by naivete or unjaded optimism. I sincerely believe that voting can effect policy, and hope that the American people realize the vital role they play. When the campaign rhetoric was at its best this election, both candidates made an effort to appeal to the civic responsibility that voting fulfills. To paraphrase a different sort of Constitution, we as citizens are called to "full, conscious, and active participation" in our electoral process. The work that this nation does depends on the willingness of its citizens to participate in the democracy, and I am proud to join the ranks of the enfranchised.

Alex Pazuchanics