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Political Physics: The Colin Powell Dynamic


A blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

colin_powell_official_portraitIn honor of the impending end of 2008, I thought it made sense to blog about some sort of “political year end review.”  But then I scanned the Internet and saw that several other people already had that covered.  There was the funniest political moments of 2008, the most influential politicians of 2008, the most significant political books of 2008, etc.  So I gave that one up, shoot no need to reinvent the wheel.

So instead I decided to blog about someone I think was one of the most influential (and overlooked) figures in this year’s campaign – Colin Powell.  I know, you’re thinking what?  There were way more influential people you could focus on that drove this year’s campaign. The obvious would be the candidates like Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin, etc.  Or the folks behind the candidates like David Plouffe, Pete Rouse, etc.  But no, my choice is Colin Powell.  Why?

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama was a “tipping point” during the 2008 campaign for the US Presidency.  Powell, a retired U.S. general and a Republican, served as Secretary of State under President Bush from 2001 to 2005 and was once seen as a possible presidential candidate himself.  BBC North America editor Justin Webb said that Powell’s endorsement marked “an important moment in the campaign.”

During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in October, Powell said, “I think [Barack Obama] is a transformational figure, he is a new generation coming onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I’ll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.”  He added, “I think that Sen. Obama brings a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas to the table. I think that Sen. McCain, as gifted as he is, is essentially going to execute the Republican agenda, the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda with a new face and with a maverick approach to it. And he’d be quite good at it. But I think we need more than that. I think we need a generational change. And I think Sen. Obama has captured the feelings of the young people of America and is reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society.”

Powell noted that McCain has been a good friend for 25 years, but expressed disappointment in the “over the top” negative tone of the GOP campaign, as well as in McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee.  And he also harshly criticized some of McCain’s campaign tactics, such as the “robocall” campaign linking Obama to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

While Powell’s endorsement did not signal the “nail in McCain’s coffin” as some political insiders had indicated that it would at the time, it did have one very important impact.  It solidified Barack Obama’s appeal with the middle-of-the-road voters who are worried about whether or not he has sufficient experience for the job or whether or not he was “too liberal.”

According to exit polls, 39% of the voters identified as democrats and 32% identified as republican.  As one would expect, approximately 89% of the democrats voted for Obama and 90% of the republicans voted for McCain – almost a wash.  But the remaining, 29% of voters identified as independent and of those voters, 52% voted for Obama versus 44% for McCain.  Do the math.  Independent – middle of the road – voters played a key role in this election.  I think Colin Powell’s endorsement helped some of those independents off the fence and onto the Obama side.

But enough of my two-cents.  What about you?  Who do you think was the most influential political figure of 2008 and why?