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The lesson of this year's presidential race: Forget conventional wisdom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 9, 2008 - One morning after breakfast during the GOP convention in St. Paul, Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum, searched her mind for the right metaphor to capture the impact of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the Republican presidential ticket. Dressed in red and flashing a ready smile, Schlafly finally settled on the image of Palin as the drum-beating bunny in the Energizer battery commercials. Turns out the description was right - not the bunny part but the term "energizer," which seemed to convey the spirit and vitality that Palin brought to the convention the minute she stepped onto the stage and accepted the vice presidential nomination.

Her improbable overnight rise from governor of a small state to a spot on her party's national ticket also shows how unpredictable politics has been in this presidential season of surprises. It has been a season in which conventional political wisdom has proved wrong at almost every turn, buried by long-shot candidates, Palin and Barack Obama, who broke through gender and race barriers and by the miraculous resurrection of the once-sagging career of a 72-year-old political maverick named John McCain.

Perhaps the pundits' biggest political miscalculation was the prediction that Palin would not be an asset to the GOP. First, abstinence-minded Republicans were hit with the news that Palin's oldest daughter was pregnant out of wedlock. Then came allegations that politics was behind the firing of the Alaska's public safety commissioner on Palin's watch. Though Palin was never accused of having a direct hand in the dismissal, the incident seemed to reflect poorly on her administration.

What the media scrutiny missed were Palin's respect and popularity among Christian fundamentalists. In about 40 minutes on the stage, she defined herself in terms that comforted many doubters, a tough "hockey mom" who was coping with the same daily problems, the same bread-and-butter issues confronting ordinary Americans. What initially had looked like a bad pick turned out to be a poll and morale booster for the GOP. Thanks in part to Palin's speech, McCain is gaining ground among white women voters.

Obama's Improbable Journey

If Palin's rise was perceived as improbable, so was Obama's. For at least two years, the public saw him coming, a bright and interesting light that nevertheless seemed incapable of eclipsing a genuine political star like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. After all, she had a triple dose of momentum - money, endorsements and insider connections - on her side. Even Obama's wife, Michelle, describes her husband rise as an "improbable journey," one that has put him within reach of becoming the first African American to win the presidency. While Obama delivered his uplifting convention speech in a Denver stadium hugged by the Rocky Mountains and surrounded by more than 75,000 spectators, an astounding 38.4 million viewers tuned into his show at home.

But the conventional wisdom that Obama has more star power than McCain was turned upside down in recent days by - surprise - McCain. Broadcast officials say 38.9 million - or 500,000 more than those who watched Obama - tuned in to McCain.

Polls Now Favor McCain

Something else changed. Two polls - by CNN/Time and Hotline/Diageo - show that McCain and Obama are dead even, with the two each taking 48 percent or 44 percent. In addition, a CNN/Time poll gives McCain a 4-point edge among registered voters and a 10-point lead among those likely to vote.

Meanwhile, an ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that white women have been shifting their allegiance to the McCain-Palin ticket. Obama enjoyed a 50-42 percent advantage among these women before the conventions, but the poll says that McCain now has a 53-41 percent lead among white women. In Midwestern battleground states, the poll showed McCain gaining strength, jumping from a 19-point deficit to what pollsters now say is a 7-point edge.

That's quite a bounce for McCain whose candidacy was all but written off after he lost the presidential primary eight years ago to George W. Bush -- and after a lagging start in this past round. But buoyed by his win in New Hampshire, McCain went on to score a victory in the South Carolina primary in January, and his campaign was back on.

Even the best polls have to be taken with a little skepticism. Just as voters have been known to say they will support an African-American candidate and do just the opposite in the privacy of a voting booth, they also have misled pollsters on which white candidates they would back as well. In 2004, for example, polls showed that the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, was ahead of President George W. Bush, but voters sent Bush back for a second term.

A Close Contest in Missouri?

In other words, this election could turn out to be a real cliffhanger, especially in Missouri.

Take the five most recent presidential elections. Missouri voters went with the winners all five times. CQ calls Missouri "the best predictor of presidential elections in the past century" and predicts that "Missouri will be closely contested again. With Obama winning the cities and McCain ahead in rural areas, the suburbs are key."

CQ says that Missouri is leaning toward McCain, meaning that he has a "slight edge" but the state remains "competitive."

At a session with Missouri's delegation at the GOP convention last week, Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond recalled that 2006 was a year that didn't treat Republicans kindly, electing Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill over incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Talent. Because of the state's bellwether status and the "show-me" quality of the voters, expect the state to be treated to several visits by the presidential and vice presidential candidates.

One Party Will Make History

Not to be overlooked is that one of the political parties will add an important chapter to American history. One way or the other, the United States will have either its first African-American president -- or its first woman vice president. In either case, it's a moving testimony to the Voting Rights Act and the hope that the ballot gave to black people nearly half a century ago. It's also shows the inestimable worth of the 19th amendment giving women the vote. It's doubtful that even the most ardent champions of those causes could have foreseen the day when women and African Americans would have made this much progress toward political power.

Still, progress is relative. In the same year that the GOP put a woman on its ticket, the faces at the convention told another story. About 68 percent of the GOP delegates were men, according to a New York Times poll of delegates, up from 57 percent in 2004. A study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington counted only 36 African Americans among the GOP's 2,380 delegates - or 1.5 percent. The study found no blacks in the Missouri delegation and only two black alternates in the Illinois delegation. Perhaps Obama's rise has dampened the GOP's push to appeal to blacks.

Democrats had policies that made diversity among its delegates a priority. For example, the Democratic National Committee set a goal of having 10 percent of its delegates people under 35. In addition, as party chairman, John Dean had the option of bringing more diversity to the delegation through his ability to choose superdelegates. Women and men were about evenly divided among Democratic delegates, and blacks made up 24.5 percent - or 1,087 - of Democratic delegates. Missouri sent 20 blacks to the convention, a number that hasn't changed since the 1996 convention. Illinois sent 48, or 25.9 percent of that state's delegation. The number hasn't changed much since 1996.

In an age when public interest in political conventions seemed to be fading, Americans suddenly took note this year like never before; they were glued to their TV screens as if they were watching a cliff-hanging soap opera. In a sense they were. The conventional wisdom they had been conditioned to believe was upset time and again. Which party will win is now anybody's guess.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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