From red to blue

As I write this at 0830 GMT, and with only two states – Missouri and North Carolina – undeclared, Barack Obama leads John McCain 349-162, having easily passed the required total of 270 electoral college votes, and with a majority of the popular vote (52% currently).

Last night, the USA elected its first black president. This morning, the world is already a very different place. How much different it becomes will be the backdrop to the next four years in US politics.

In the final analysis, the writing was quickly on the wall for McCain. Having effectively declared Pennsylvania as his last stand, the state’s early call in favour of Obama – by a crushing ten point margin – had the calorifically-challenged lady limbering up her vocal cords. And when neighbouring Ohio – no Republican candidate has ever gained the White House without the Buckeye state – also proclaimed the Democrat candidate, 51% to 47%, the singing could be heard from Florida all the way to Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska.

As other swing states followed the trend with a seeming inevitability, the US political map turned from Republican red to a sea of blue. It’s an over-simplification for sure, but it’s hard not to see this as a reflection of the changing times, with the demography of key battleground states such as Virginia and Florida having been dramatically altered by a combination of domestic and cross-border immigration in recent years.

While the Republicans will point to the popular vote being closer than any of the pre-election polls were suggesting – the pollsters were forecasting a chasm of anywhere between 6 and 13%, and it looks like the final gap will be 5-6% – the reality is that the Grand Old Party of American politics has been soundly trounced by a charismatic, at times almost messianic opponent, who has mobilised support with unprecedented efficiency. (The Obama campaign spent more money than both candidates combined in 2004.)

(Incidentally, for stattos like me who are that way inclined, Daniel Finkelstein’s article in Monday’s Times is an interesting insight into the systematic inaccuracy of the US polls.)

At a distance several thousand miles removed from the heat of the election battle, it seems to me that John McCain was an essentially honourable man – he repeatedly avoided the temptation to overtly smear Obama – who was ultimately undone by two events: one within his control, the other not. Firstly, his choice of running mate. (I’ll come back to that.) And secondly – and perhaps more critically – the economy, which voters have cited as the single biggest influence on their choice of candidate.

In the hype and hysteria of the last few weeks, in which Obama has been effectively proclaimed president-elect before the fact by a predominantly liberal media, it is easy to forget that the two candidates were neck-and-neck at the end of September. Had the global financial meltdown not started until, say, this morning, the election result could have been very different.

However, the crisis happened when it did, and as such the incumbent ruling party – and therefore McCain – took a lot of collateral damage. Despite being regarded by many as a great ‘war president’, George W Bush leaves office with a lower approval rating than Richard Nixon, and the Obama campaign relentlessly drove home the point that McCain – for all his claims to be a maverick – has voted with Bush 90% of the time.

Can the Republicans fight back in 2012? Of course they can. As Barack Obama himself has shown, with the right message, the right organisation and the right timing, it is possible to go from being a virtual unknown to holding the most powerful office on the planet within two years.

Already, some factions within the Republican party are positioning Palin as their presidential candidate next time around, a scenario which is frankly terrifying – this is the woman who claimed that Vladimir Putin flying through Alaskan airspace counted as foreign policy experience – but far from impossible. Her proponents will point to her being a role model for women (although she conspicuously failed to draw the support of Hillary Clinton’s supporters), her role in galvanising the gun-toting, bible-bashing extreme conservatives (which is true) and that, in four years’ time, she will be a more experienced and better prepared candidate (she could hardly be worse).

But Palin’s backers fundamentally miss the point. Barack Obama has won on the back of a message of change for an American society which has already changed and continues to do so. He has energised previously disenfranchised and disillusioned voters – blacks, Hispanics, the young – and embraced America in all its diversity. Palin’s message (insofar as there was any coherent message) throughout the campaign has been one of fear of change. She has accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and questioned his patriotism, his religious leanings, in fact pretty much everything except his skin colour. Yes, it is a message which appeals to a conservative minority, but that is exactly what her constituency is: conservatives in a time of change, and a minority (of largely older, white Americans) which is shrinking.

Barack Obama talks of striding forward and shaping the future. Sarah Palin is the political manifestation of the lie that America is the UNITED States, and would have the nation take a step backwards into an insular, arrogant and racially fragmented past which is out of step with our modern world.

The last time I wrote about Palin, I referred to her as “the political equivalent of a reality TV wannabe”. I was interested to note this morning in a couple of political blogs that TV execs are reportedly considering approaching her with a view to either fronting a chat show of her own or creating an Osbournes-like vehicle around her family. I don’t normally like to say “I told you so”, but … I told you so.

Anyhow, America has made its decision. It remains to be seen whether Obama really will be able to deliver on what are preposterously high expectations, but I can’t help but feel that the US electorate has voted in a 21st century president for a 21st century world, and that’s got to be a good start.