MY FIRST JOB out of the University of Georgia was as staffer (a very low-level staffer) on a political campaign in Chesterfield County, Va., a suburb south of Richmond. After spending a year dealing with politicians and would-be politicians and their outsized egos — and politicians’ egos don’t get more outsized than the ones in Virginia — I’ll never forget their faces on election night, and how different their behavior that one evening.
In those pre-internet days — yes, I’m that old, get over it — returns were posted manually on a big board at the county board of elections. The only quick way to find out the running total was to gather there, in person, and watch for yourself as the numbers went up.
So of course the candidates would all show up and gaze at the big board, with nearly the full range of human emotion playing across their faces, often in quick succession: Anxiety, fear, panic, relief, happiness, euphoria, sadness, disbelief.
I’ll never forget the humility in that room, how despite the power and charisma of these officeholders and officeseekers, on this one night they were powerless to influence events, their fate for once completely out of their hands as the votes came in.
The truth about politics is you never know how people are going to vote. Polls are useful as trend predictors and snapshots in time, but are imperfect guides. You just never can tell what people will do.
I write this column a day before New Hampshire holds its presidential primary, one week after Barack Obama’s impressive, expectations-shattering win on the Democratic side in Iowa. If today’s polling holds true, Obama is likely to win New Hampshire as well — we’ll all know for sure before this issue hits stands.
If a year ago you told me Hillary Clinton would be fighting for her political life after just the first primary, I’d say you were crazy. She seemed too savvy, too well-funded, too well-positioned.
And if you told me Barack Obama would be the one to end her presidential aspirations, I’d have called mental health authorities to come take you away.
But here we are, in a situation where if the poll numbers are right, Obama will not only win Iowa and New Hampshire, but likely South Carolina and Nevada after that. While it’s too soon to make predictions about “Super Tuesday” on Feb. 5, when Georgians make their picks, in all likelihood Obama will do well then too.
Ipso facto, Obama is the clear favorite right now to be the Democratic nominee. And after years of Bush fatigue, with Republicans at their lowest ebb since the days of FDR, that means that — as I write this, anyway — Obama is the clear favorite to be the forty-fourth president of the United States.
President Barack Obama.
President Barack Hussein Obama.
I have noticed that Sen. Obama’s many passionate supporters do not like their candidate’s full name to be brought up, or even mentioned at all —though clearly the senator himself is not running away from it, nor from much else.
But I guarantee you — as a journalist who follows politics and as someone who’s worked in politics, though a long time ago —that rightly or wrongly Obama’s name will indeed be an issue going forward should he be the Democratic nominee.
Seven years after 9/11? A guy with two Arabic names and a surname that rhymes with “Osama” won’t have his name become an issue, if only briefly?
Riiiiiiight. And I’ve got a nice bridge over the Savannah River to sell you, cheap.
Please note I’m not saying any attacks on Obama on the issue will necessarily be effective, nor that they should be effective. But I have learned that despite the flowery rhetoric, politics is never pretty, and that neither side has a monopoly on nastiness.
In other words, if things can get ugly, they will.
I concede that I may be overstating the level of interest in this. I’ve noticed I’m more cynical than most folks, and that most people don’t appreciate it very much. But the thing is, my cynicism rarely fails me.
Personally, I couldn’t care less what Obama’s name is — regular readers of my column can already guess which way I’m likely to lean in the November election — but I assure you that many people will care, some quite deeply.
So that’s why I decided, after serious thought, to run this week’s cover story by David Wallis, a story that originally appeared in Slate.
Some of you may find it inflammatory. Some might even find it offensive.
But frankly, I felt that the article is as even-handed an examination as we’re going to get of the pitfalls and potential historic upside for Sen. Obama, and that with Savannahians going to the polls soon to pick their party’s nominee it was as good a time as any to run it. As a student of politics and human behavior, I’d be curious as to your reaction to it, positive or negative.
In any case, and whichever party or candidate you support, don’t forget to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Jim Morekis is editor in chief of Connect Savannah. E-mail him at
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