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The movement behind Barack Obama

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
The US presidential election showed a real desire for fundamental change. Anindya Bhattacharyya asks what the votes tell us about battles to come
Issue 2127
Barack Obama
Barack Obama

Millions of people around the globe celebrated last week as Barack Obama won the US presidential election, turfing George Bush’s hated regime out of the White House.

Even though his victory was widely predicted, nothing could prepare people for the shock and joy of seeing the American people elect a black man to be their next president.

The scenes from the US showed young, multiracial crowds thronging the streets. Many spoke of their pride in what they had done, explicitly talking about Obama’s election as the result of their collective action.

This picture is backed up by extensive polling data that paints a fascinating picture of exactly who had rallied to Obama’s call for change.

Obama won huge support from the African-American population – some 95 percent of black voters backed him.

He also won two thirds of the Latino vote. This was a significant win – the Latino population favoured George Bush in 2004, and during the primaries they rallied behind Hillary Clinton.

One factor was crucial in breaking support for the Republicans among Latinos – the immigrant rights demonstrations of May 2006.

More than two million Latinos and their supporters came onto the streets to protest against a vicious anti-immigrant bill being pushed by the Republicans.

Among white Americans some 43 percent voted for Obama and 55 for John McCain. But these proportions were reversed for white voters under the age of 30.

And the Democrats registered some of their strongest swings in overwhelmingly white, rural and traditional Republican states such as North Dakota, Utah and Montana.

So there is no doubt that Obama’s appeal spanned racial divisions. But the class composition of his vote tells a more complex story.

If you divide Americans up by their income levels, the poorest households were the ones who voted the most heavily for Obama – 73 percent of voters with an annual family income of less than $15,000 backed him.

As you go up the income level, Obama’s vote steadily drops – until you reach the very top bracket, where this trend reverses.

A majority – 52 percent – of households that earned over $200,000 a year opted for the Democratic candidate.

This picture reflects the dual nature of the mobilisation behind Obama. On the one hand there was the mobilisation from below – among the poor, black and working class, furious at the economic meltdown and disastrous wars.

On the other hand, there was a top-down corporate mobilisation for Obama. Much has been made of his early funding, which came from thousands of small donations from ordinary people.

But shortly after Obama pulled ahead in the primaries, the bulk of big business funding started flowing in his direction.

By mid-October he had raised a massive war chest of $640 million and spent $250 million on TV advertising. McCain’s October budget, in contrast, was a measly $47 million.

So Obama’s victory is the product of two forces converging behind him – one from below and one from above.

The US working class stood up to demand “change” over the parlous state of the economy and the “endless” war in Iraq.

But the same factors have also pushed a section of the ruling class into ditching their previous support for George Bush and the neoconservatives.

The big question facing the US is which of these two forces will dominate over the next few years. They may have called a truce to get Obama into the White House – but this truce will not last.

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