Campaign of Fear: US Election Boils Down to 'Lesser of Two Evils'
To win the election, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will have to mobilize as many of their base voters as possible. At this stage in the race, political agendas are no longer as important to the candidates as badmouthing their opponent. The campaign is getting ugly.
Right now, Michelle Joseph feels good about each individual vote and every decibel of elation. She may have her arms crossed in front of her chest, but whenever Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says something and the applause swells to a roar in the open-air theater in Henderson, Nevada on Oct. 23, her confidence grows. She claps along, cautiously at first, but then more liberally. Is this the Mitt Romney her Democratic friends warned her about? The Mitt Romney portrayed in the TV ads? The out-of-touch multi-millionaire? The man who is supposed to be such a monster?
Joseph has a good view of the candidate from her seat. He is standing there, confident of victory, buoyed by his recent success in many polls that put him ahead of the incumbent, President Barack Obama. At this moment, some polls place him one or two percentage points ahead of Obama, while a poll by the ABC television network and the Washington Post gives him a three-point lead.
Joseph is applauding a man who makes a thousand times more than she does working as a sales clerk at the Kohl's department store chain. He is a man who cultivates a backward view of women, rages against Obama's law that mandates equal pay for women, and can probably hardly imagine what it must have been like when her parents immigrated from Mexico and were so poor that her mother had to cut meat with tin can lids because there was no money to buy a knife.
But as a devout Catholic, she says, she can only vote for a Republican, especially because of the abortion issue. She says that she can either vote for Romney or not vote at all.
Everything he is saying up on the stage makes her more likely to vote for Romney, so much so that she is beginning to forget the horrified questions and incredulous looks coming from friends and coworkers when she told them that there was no way she could vote for Obama. The cheers grow louder when Romney stokes fear of a second Obama term, when he says that Obama has ruined the American economy and that Obama, a secret socialist, wants to turn the country into another Greece. Now she's asking herself whether her friends' words make any sense at all. Isn't Obama the real monster?
Equilibrium of Horrors
Fomenting fear of the other candidate is an important feature of this election campaign, and it was the fear of a Romney presidency that long benefited Obama. He was ahead in the polls as long as Romney was largely unknown to millions of voters. Obama attacked him with a flood of TV ads that depicted Romney as an unscrupulous capitalist and enemy of the middle class, someone who, as CEO of the investment firm Bain Capital, eliminated jobs to increase his profits.
Only since Romney managed to strike back in the first televised presidential debate before millions of viewers has the race moved toward a precarious balance, a sort of equilibrium of horrors.
Both candidates are finding it difficult to generate enthusiasm with concrete programs. No matter what new plans he promises, Obama is being judged by the mixed results of his first term. And Romney, in a vain attempt to please everyone in his party, has changed his positions so often that everyone can now vote for the version of Romney he or she likes the most.
For this reason, it is the differences, which are sometimes little more than nuances, that are couched in as negative terms as possible, as if the two camps no longer had anything in common. On the one side is Obama, the socialist who is dragging America into a national bankruptcy, and on the other is Romney who wants to take away food stamps from America's poorest citizens. The campaign has turned into a barrage of insinuations, negative stereotyping and constant accusations from both sides that the other candidate is betraying America.
Most voters made up their minds early in the game, and only about 2 percent of registered voters are still undecided over which candidate to vote for. For this reason, it's important for both sides to mobilize their respective base voters. To convince the base to go out and vote, each candidate has to create fear of his opponent.
The Jewish Vote
Much depends on the mood in the nine swing states that will be critical to winning the election. Both parties are breaking down the voting population into manageable small groups, hoping to motivate those still hesitant to vote. The campaign managers have honed their strategies to precisely target certain groups of the population. Romney is focusing primarily on white blue-collar workers in Ohio and Virginia, evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt and gun lovers in Colorado. Obama, for his part, is targeting women in Virginia, college students in Iowa, Latinos in Nevada and Jewish voters in New York and Florida.
Marvin Manning, a Jewish American and registered Democrat, is one of the crucial voters in this election. He is sitting in front of a fountain in the "Clubhouse," a Democratic meeting point in Boca Raton, Florida, looking as though he's lost his faith. Almost 80 percent of the residents of his retirement community near Boca Raton are Jewish, and if they all turned out to vote, it would constitute an enormous advantage for the Democrats. Manning, 86, is unshaven and wearing a faded T-shirt and shorts. He managed a chain of jewelry stores before retirement. Now, he'd like to retire as president of the Democratic Club too. But first he wants one last, significant success.
Although only about 2 percent of Americans are Jewish, they wield far more influence than their numbers would suggest. Jewish citizens are politically involved, regularly vote in large numbers and, most importantly, often live in states where the number of Republicans and Democrats is roughly equal, so that a relatively small number of voters can decide the outcome of the election in those states. Some 148,000 Jews live in Ohio alone, 295,000 in Pennsylvania and more than half a million in Florida.
For Manning, 2008 was a great year. The Jewish population backed Obama, even though he had spent four years of his life in Indonesia, an Islamic country, and gave speeches promising reconciliation with the Islamic world. Four out of five Jewish voters gave Obama their vote at the time. For Manning, the outcome of the election in his district was also a personal success of sorts, a confirmation of his influence.
'Shifting Like a Pendulum'
But this time he sees billboards everywhere in Boca Raton that read: "Friends Don't Let Friends Get Nuked," a reference to Israel and the possibility of an Iranian bomb, among the most important issues for Jewish voters. "Our people are shifting like a pendulum. One day they are for Obama, the other day for Romney," says Manning. For them, it isn't good enough that Obama refers to Israel as America's "best friend."
"Many of my friends simply no longer trust Obama to show strong leadership on Iran and its nuclear program," says Manning. "Israel is such a tiny country." Using his finger, he draws a large circle on the table, which represents the world, and then a tiny circle the size of a pea: Israel. "There is no margin for error -- it can be exterminated easily."
He knows how dangerous it is if the enthusiasm for Obama wanes. "If Jewish voters don't vote in Florida, it's like a vote for Romney," he says. A visit by Obama would help at this point. "We need to hear from Obama. He has to reassure us in person," he says. But what should Obama explain? There really isn't anything else to say.
The two candidates also talked about Israel in the third televised debate, held last week. Romney fueled the fears that Jews in Boca Raton have. He accused the president of having distanced himself too much from Israel, but he didn't say what he would do differently. Instead, he praised the president's Afghanistan policy, the drone war and the decision to end the war in Iraq. He also didn't differ from the president on Iran.
Clinton on the Campaign Trail
Obama has realized by now that this election can no longer be won with arguments, which is why he doesn't even shy away from using somewhat coarse language, saying that what his rival says is "bullshit," a term polite Americans would never use. Seven weeks ago, at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, he turned over the most important task to former President Bill Clinton, a man who was not only better at explaining Obama's policies than Obama himself, but whose role was also to remind Americans of better days, when the economy was still prospering and the country was at the apex of its power.
When Obama began campaigning five years ago, he sought to differentiate himself from precisely that period, the Clinton era, especially after having waged a tough primary campaign against former First Lady Hillary Clinton. But now he is sending the former president to Ohio, probably the most important swing state in this election campaign, Obama's "firewall" against the possibility of defeat. Since 1964, no president has moved into the White House without having won Ohio.
Bill Clinton made his first appearance there 10 days ago in Parma, a 15-minute drive from Cleveland, a gloomy Ohio suburb in America's rust belt. The former president stood in the gymnasium at a local community college, where the baskets on the basketball court had been folded up. He maligned Romney, the multimillionaire who claims to be patriotic, for showing little patriotism when it comes to reducing his tax bill by tucking away his millions in tax havens around the world.
Clinton spoke about Romney's refusal to release details of his tax plan, and then asked: "Does he think we're stupid?" Then rock singer Bruce Springsteen joined him on the stage, rolled up his sleeves and sang one of his ballads about ordinary people. "The nation can only be measured by its compassion for its weakest," Springsteen told the crowd.
One member of the audience was Chuck Montague. Four years ago, he was still working for a small local newspaper, but when its fortunes turned sour, Montague was laid off. "It was quite an adjustment," he says, adding that it gave him the feeling of no longer being needed. He is now 66, and his prospects are slim for finding the kind of job he used to have. In this election, white Americans like Montague pose the biggest threat for Obama. They are disappointed and searching for an alternative.
He had expected more from Obama. The president wasn't as strong a leader as Montague would have liked, and the economy isn't recovering yet, either. But Romney? What exactly does he stand for?
He taps his feet to "The Promised Land," Springsteen's song about life in America still being part of a promise. And suddenly Montague manages to come up with arguments in favor of the president again. "You do have to give him credit for killing Osama bin Laden," he says. "I think Obama deserves four more years."
'Lesser of Two Evils'
And that's what boils down to in the end: America's power and America's might. The country has lost a noticeable amount of its influence since the 1990s. This is the new reality that Americans across party lines can't get used to.
The election is still a week away, and the question is whether Romney will manage to mobilize the last doubters within his party, and perhaps even the millions of fundamentalist Christians who didn't really want to vote for him because of his Mormon faith. They helped reelect former President George W. Bush in 2004, but they have great reservations about Romney because his faith challenges their faith, since Mormons do not believe that the Bible is the only source of eternal truth.
It is perhaps the most decisive barometer in the campaign of fear between Obama and Romney: Is there enough hatred for Obama that even evangelical Christians and a Mormon can join forces to form a large, new coalition? Will the representatives of both churches become allies, despite viewing each other with mistrust and skepticism, to elect Romney and prevent Obama from being reelected?
Mormonism "is a heresy from the pit of Hell," influential evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said during the primaries, calling the religion a cult when Romney hadn't been elected as the Republican candidate yet. Mormons were his enemies, but now there is an even greater enemy.
But for weeks, Jeffress has been on a tour of 10 American cities to convince other evangelical pastors to tell their congregations to vote, and that they must vote for Romney. The pastor says that it isn't about partisan politics for him, but about what's right and wrong, about decency.
"I still believe Mormonism is a false religion that leads people away from rather than toward the true God," he says. But the fear of Obama, the other party's candidate, the man so many people still think is a Muslim, is still greater. This is the most important issue. Romney, he has said, is "the lesser of two evils."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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