x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Echoes of 2000 crisis deep in America's partisan pathology

Nobody in America wants history to repeat itself; they want a clear result to the election and a vigorous presidency.

In what is a must-win state for candidate Mitt Romney, Matt McNair was concerned about his job security at a Home Depot in Jacksonville, Florida. He saw no reason to vote for the Republican presidential candidate. Why not continue on the same path? he asked, arguing that the economy was improving.

In Barack Obama's adopted home state, Paul Martin, a 38-year-old carpenter, would also be voting for the Democrat because he said he was a lot less for big business. He could not envision a Republican president helping people who fall through the social-services safety net.

Across the bar at Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern, Sal Annoreano, a construction worker, was going to vote Republican for one reason: the Democrats' stand on gun control. He did not want any more governmental interference of his right to bear arms.

Bonnie Williams, recently retired from a career with the New York Public Library, said she did not like either of the major party candidates and that the violence in the Middle East had heightened her concerns about US foreign policy and how the country defined its role in a changing world.

Mostly, though, she was concerned about the nature of politics and the big money it attracts.

"They were going to reform the system and replace the smoke-filled rooms," she said. "They did. It is now an open smoke-filled room."

As the pollsters and pundits are predicting a close vote tomorrow between Mr Obama and Mr Romney, the words of these four people echo in my mind. They were spoken to me 12 years ago during the race between the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, and the Republican challenger, George W Bush.

This year there will be no battle over hanging chads and indented dimples on ballots in Florida, and it is unlikely the contest will end up with the US supreme court casting the final vote on who will be the next president of America. But the big money is still there. The two candidates have spent tens of millions in the final days in a down-to-the-wire advertising blitz.

The smoke blowing continues.

The divide still lingers.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Most of the Red (Republican voting) states from 2000 will be Red again this year, and the same goes for the Blue (Democratic voting). Depending on which poll one believes, between four and 10 states are actually in play.

Much of the middle of America's political map tends to be a sea of red - in many parts more conservative, very predictable in which way it will vote. The upper north-east is mostly blue, but New Hampshire is a swing state, meaning it is not predictable, that it has a history of voting for presidential candidates from either party.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll points out that we could have a repeat of 2000, with the losing presidential candidate getting more of the popular vote than the next occupant of the White House.

In 2000, Mr Gore received 543,895 more votes than Mr Bush. But Mr Bush won the presidency by gaining 271 electoral votes - each state is given a number of electors depending on population - to Mr Gore's 266 with one elector abstaining.

Two hundred and seventy is the magic number. Get that, and nothing else matters. New Hampshire's four electoral votes could indeed make a difference.

As Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said in an email: "We are certainly deeply divided again into Red and Blue states, just as in 2000. The election has been long over in 40 states. The presidency is being decided by 8-10 states. That's never healthy ...

"Everyone's nightmare is that November 6 turns into a deadlock requiring a 2000-style recount, or that we again have one candidate winning the popular vote while the other wins the Electoral College. That weakens a president, no question, and the country needs a vigorous presidency," Mr Sabato said.

Echoing Mr Sabato's thoughts, Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in the Washington, DC suburbs said: "Like 2000, this year's election is projected to be extremely close. It may yet again come down to a single state, although we don't know which one right now. Most believe that Ohio will be the key state. What is remarkable is how closely divided the electorate remains, 12 years after the 'perfect tie' in 2000."

Twelve years ago, Lynn Bartels could not stomach that perfect tie.

She drove 682 kilometres from Columbus, Ohio, with her sister and niece to wave a sign in front of the Mr Gore's house in Washington, DC, telling "Al [to] keep fighting as long as it takes".

She was far from alone on that December day when the supreme court handed down its decision.

Parvene Hamzavi, then 23, whose father is Iranian and mother is American, stopped off on the way to work with a bag of campaign materials for demonstrators outside Mr Gore's residence.

Across town at the supreme court, a protester held up a sign saying: "Have a Merry Dictatorship, America."

To some, the memories of 2000 still sting. No matter how interesting it was to be a journalist writing about the election, no one wants history repeating itself in that manner.

No one wants the nightmare to return.

 

rpretorius@thenational.ae