Lessons from an election
WHEN BARACK Obama won the US presidential election in 2008, we joined the many who celebrated his unlikely candidacy, his disciplined and trailblazing campaign, his historic victory. But we also read Obama’s ascent in the context of the times: “Let us focus on the clear meaning of the 2008 election,” we wrote then. “It was a complete repudiation of the Bush administration.”
Judging from election-day statistics showing that more Americans continued to blame the United States’ economic difficulties on Bush rather than Obama, the repudiation theory continues to have some relevance. (Indeed, the influential Washington Monthly magazine described the 2012 presidential race as a referendum on Bush.)
But what held the attention of many Filipinos this time around was not so much the historical character of a pioneering candidate or the comeuppance, devoutly to be wished, of the so-called cowboys in the White House, as the election process itself.
Aside from the great speed with which the results of a national election involving some hundred million voters were reached, broadcast and then accepted—something which never fails to amaze those of us who are victims of a months-long presidential canvass—what other lessons can the Philippine voter learn from the 2012 American vote?
At least two positive lessons, and two negative ones, suggest themselves.
The good-sized crowds that flocked to the campaign rallies of both presidential candidates were a sight to see. These were nowhere near the mammoth audiences that turned out to hear Obama four years ago, but the crowds that greeted Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail this year were nothing to sneeze at: Many of them had audiences in the thousands, some in the tens of thousands.
Political candidates and election-driven political coalitions in the Philippines attract same-sized crowds, but with a difference. In the Philippines, by and large, we use the hakot method. We realize that campaign rallies in the United States also use celebrity appeal to draw the crowds, but most of the people who pack the rallies go on their own: They are not bused in, are not promised free food and drinks, do not come away with goodies, in kind or in cash. (The candidates, too, do not sing or dance, Gangnam-style or otherwise.)
Media coverage of the most expensive race in American history has often been and justly criticized, as either narrowly focused on the electoral dynamics (the horse race) or over-saturated with partisan political punditry (the talking heads). But despite continuing economic pressures, the media, in general, performed well; crucial issues were given vital play, an entire industry of fact-checkers was given room to grow, social media were embraced. Election-day coverage in particular was impressive, with anchors and reporters carefully explaining the limitations of exit polls, for example, and newspaper editors and TV producers taking a more cautious or deliberative approach to “calling” winners.
The first negative lesson is actually a familiar problem in the Philippines: the role of money in politics. In 2008, Obama became the first candidate to decline federal campaign funding; doing so allowed him to raise over $600 million on his own. Emboldened by this successful example, and enabled by the unfortunate US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, both candidacies declined federal funds, allowing them to raise about a billion dollars each—but in the process turning the election almost into an auction.
With the absurd rules governing so-called super-PACs (political action committees), for example, the United States now finds itself struggling with nameless or unacknowledged campaign financiers—the exact same arrangement that has bedeviled Philippine elections since 1907.
The other negative lesson is also not unfamiliar: vote suppression. Republican operatives in several parts of the country, but especially in the two largest swing states, Ohio and Florida, tried to suppress the minority (and thus Democrat-leaning) vote by raising all sorts of barriers to voting. The result: long lines at the polling precincts, and innumerable complaints of slow-motion harassment.
But this time around, there was a happy ending. Obama’s road to victory was wide enough that the vote suppression campaign did not matter in the end.