The Hofstra University was the scene of what could arguably be called the last big decision making event in the November 2008 US Presidential elections.
Before the debate
Before the debate the TV networks and their polls had all put Obama at least 6 percentage points ahead of Senator McCain. Going into the debate on Wednesday Obama jumped another 2% on to 50% McCain 42% and an 8% undecided. So the issue on the media was what can McCain do to change his poor performance and get even with Obama?
Unlike in Sierra Leone where neither academics nor senior political party leaders are ever willing to speak about what to expect, in America the media went behind to the main strategists in both camps (Obama and McCain) and sort their plan. It came out in the media that McCain would have to be hard and attack Obama about his past associations and try to get him on the defensive. However the TV networks had also brought in people who had analysed that the McCain campaign tactics of attacking Obama had infact harmed his campaign as lots of people (again according to the polls) did not approve. Consequently Obama had been credited with focusing more on the economy which was judged to be what was at the heart of the American people’s concerns. So it was suggested that Obama should stay the course and stick to the economic issues and do nothing wrong to change his leading position in the polls.
At Hofstra University
The organizers of the presidential debates are a non-profit making organization called the Commission on Presidential debates. It is headed by two former politicians- Paul Kirk who was Chairman of the Democratic party (Obama) and Frank Farenkopf who was his opposite, the Chairman of the Republican party.
Speaking to tour reporters inside the food tent Frank Farenkopf explained that their mission since 1987 is that “every four years there shall be a debate,” such that “those who have not decided to vote (could) learn more” about what the candidates stand for. He disclosed that for 16 years presidents refused to debate. CNN facts file says that “after 1960 no Presidential debate was held” for 22 years after which Gerald Ford debated with Jimmy Carter. Also that President Gerald Ford became the first incumbent President to take part in a Presidential debate although three incumbents Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter refused to take part in a Presidential debate.
Farenkopf admitted that the issues were complex and intense and the decision America makes in the next 19 days will definitely have an effect on most of our countries. The two men admitted that their interest now lies in spreading the presidential debate culture all around the world and they are working with institutions like the National Democratic Institute who pioneered the last presidential debates during our (Sierra Leone) September 2007 elections although Vice Preisdent Berewa (who was viewed as the incumbent candidate) did not take part.
They explained that they are mainly funded by sponsors like Budweiser and some other foundations and that the criteria for accepting their sponsorship was that they should have nothing to do with how the debate was conducted and not seek to influence anything concerning the debate.
On the issue of venue they explained that several venues volunteered and they had the responsibility of seeking funding on their own to prepare the venue. They disclosed that each of the three Presidential debates had cost one million three hundred and fifty thousand dollars although the TV networks disclosed that three million five hundred thousand dollars was used for this debate at Hofstra. The final say on the venue was left with the secret service who considered the security implications.
The preparations were unlike anything seen in Sierra Leone. The security was unlike the unruly way presidential aides search people, and infact there was just one point where people were searched but some three thousand journalists had been screened and cleared and credentialed by the secret service before the event. There were dogs to sniff TV and video cameras and electronic scanners through which one had to pass after bags had been physically searched, all in a very polite manner. Infact when I entered and the scanner did not make any noise the secret service guy just waved me through and my New Zealand colleague later asked me why I was waved through without any body search I said I did not know.
The next place of call was a giant tent set up by Budweiser with food. And believe me there was food in the tent no rush and no grabbing since we arrived there at about 10am until we left at a little after midnight and all was FREE. Everyone just went in and took some food on the table and even the different varieties of Budweiser beer were available. I am sure this is where a lot of the money went and it surprised me that they had the capacity to do what they did, changing the hot water the coffee pots as soon as they ran dry. It was truly amazing.
All the local networks were there and it was a maze although they were set up very efficiently. What surprised me was the media centre where over two hundred computers were set up. It all came down o money though because we were asked to buy telephone lines or internet lines and when I asked about the internet line it was $200 so I gave up filing any story from there. They had however laid down half a million foot of wire and bought one hundred and forty thousand phone lines.
As the networks set up and everybody geared up the students had a field day on their campus organizing their own activities. It indicated the very liberal thoughts that were encouraged in this country. What was interesting was that McCain supporters and Obama supporters were mingling with each other without any altercation. There was a large group of these students with McCan and Obama placards shouting behind a stage where one of the networks was doing interviews with a couple of people right throughout the day.
There were diverse views about why the students wanted to vote Obama and which was what a lot of people were saying that he was talking about the issues close to them about how people were losing their homes and what he would do about that and about the economy and healthcare. McCain supporters were saying they did not trust Obama and that he did not have enough experience to handle the crucial issues.
Out of the ordinary was a young student who said he would not consent to having his views taped but then he held a placard which said “Vote for Nobody”. I asked him whether he was not voting and he said “I already voted because it is my right as a citizen”. So I said why the placard and he said “this is meant to be a satire on the people shouting thinking they are going to make a difference personally the only people making a difference are the candidates themselves.”
There was another group “Rednecks for Obama” who said that Obama was addressing the concerns of the common man and that was the sort of person they wanted to see in the White House.
Activist groups also took the opportunity to make their presence felt and there was “project vote smart” which was urging people to vote. They say they were not supporting any one and their aim was to promote the democratic culture. They had a big ball where some of the students inscribed some interesting comments (picture).
There was another group who had placards saying they wanted weed and yes they used cannabis (Diamba). This was liberalism at its best.
The David S. Mack sports and exhibition complex whose auditorium the debate was held had seating capacity for five thousand people. Most of us the accredited media were not allowed in the auditorium and we had to view the debate from inside the media centre with a lot of flat screen Television.
As said earlier both campaign expected McCain went out for the jugular and attacked Obama about his associations. A smiling Obama defended himself well although it was evident he did not start the debate well. Obama stuck to his discussion of the economic issues and accussed McCain of representing another four years of the failed economic policies of George Bush. McCain however got his highest point of the night when he retorted that he was not George Bush and if Obama wanted to contest against George Bush he should have done that four years ago. A McCain supporter said why had he not done so earlier. This was clearly an attempt to distance himself from the Bush regime who were being blamed for the economic crisis facing the American people.
At the end of the debate Obama s chief strategist Axelrod told reporters that Obama had remained calm and had controlled himself and that McCain had nothing new to offer. Howard Dean the Chairman of the Republican Party said he did not believe in the polls which had given Obama an 8 point lead.
The verdict however was that although this was McCains best performance in all the thre debates yet the night went o Obam because he again seemed to understand and relate to the economic issues better than McCain. One interesting issue about the media was that the to the economic issues better than McCain.
One interesting issue about the media was that the American Edition of CNN had a Truth group who were looking at the statements made by the candidates and checking the facts and showing whether they were right or wrong.
It is so difficult to explain how the American electoral college works but it is the votes of the electoral college rather than the popular votes cast by the ordinary man which decides on who will be the next American President. By the time of filing this story the polls were saying that Obama had already 277 electoral college votes and he needed 270 which was saying a clean sweep. McCain was trailing with 176 votes and it was estimated that he had to win all the seven states and even with that it will only get him to 261 electoral college votes which are not enough for him to win. So as it is now the candidates have to campaign in the seven states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Nevada and Colorado in the next 19 days. But the general verdict of the debate was that Obama still maintained his lead and it seems likely he will be the next American President.
There are two things though. One is that speaking with a white Obama supporter she was afraid that what the polls were saying was not true and that many white voters were telling the pollsters that yes they were Democrats and they would vote Democrat, not necessarily Obama, and that it is possible that the racist undertones might come to the surface and the whites might just on that day vote McCain. She said if it was a contest between McCain and Joe Biden who is Obama’s running mate all this vigorous campaign would not have been necessary because they would have voted for Biden easily because he is a white man.
There is what is now known in America as the Bradley effect. This is because the black Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley was leading in the polls before the elections but when the votes were counted he lost woefully. So there is the fear that this could happen to Obama also, and that is why too much premium should not be put on the polls. (We also had our fair share of criticisms for our text-in polls during the last elections although we thought we did well).
At the end of the day a Republican Senator Steve Schmidt said after the debates that what is clear is that this race is not over yet and it will be over only in November. That for me was the most appropriate verdict.
The experience was really valuable.
By Kelvin Lewis in New York (Hofstra University)