Irish-Americans, like the rest of the US electorate, will be concerned with jobs and the economy, writes Gary Murphy
ABOUT 36m Americans — estimated at 11.9% of the total population — claimed some form of Irish ancestry in the 2008 American community survey, conducted by the US census bureau. Another 3.5m Americans identified more specifically with Scottish-Irish ancestry.
Irish-American political leaders have played a major role in local and national politics since before the American War of Independence, and no fewer than 22 presidents from Andrew Jackson, elected in 1828, to Barack Obama claim to have some Irish ancestry.
The sheer number of Irish-American voters could in one way be construed as a significant voting bloc with the potential to influence what is sure to be an extremely tight presidential election come November. It would, however, be a myth to pretend that the Irish vote will be central to the outcome of whether Barack Obama gets a second term or Mitt Romney ascends to the presidency to become America’s 45th president. The reality is somewhat more mundane. When it comes to American electoral politics, these voters are first and foremost American voters. The Irish part comes a distinct second.
In attempting, on the anniversary of Obama’s flying visit to Ireland in May 2011, to decipher whether the Irish-American vote will be decisive in November, it is helpful to look back at his election in 2008 for some clues.
The crucial issues for American voters then, including those with Irish ancestry, were not green cards and the status of immigrants. They were jobs; the historic campaign of Barack Obama as the first black candidate of any of the two main parties; and the legacy of George W Bush, particularly in relation to US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If any ethnic group was likely to be a major influence in the 2008 election, it was the ever growing Latino population in the southwest of the country which was crucial in Obama’s victory in New Mexico and Nevada and whose support even saw Obama poll well in John McCain’s native Arizona.
This is not to say that immigration issues are not important to Irish-Americans and Americans in general. They clearly are. Moreover, Catholic votes, and Irish-American Catholic votes in particular, in former steel-making cities like Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh might now rank in the undecided rather than in either the Democratic or Republican camps. It is, however, fanciful in the extreme to expect that such votes can make the crucial difference in swing states based on Obama’s position on abortion, or whether or not he, or Romney for that matter, can solve the immigration conundrum. Take the state of Michigan as an example. It voted for Obama in 2008, but has long been a state that the Republicans have thought of as fertile territory for them. In the Republican primary Michigan voted for Romney. It was a come-from-behind victory over Rick Santorum and was based on a last-minute surge to Romney from Michigan Catholics unhappy with a rather unwise attack by Santorum on John F Kennedy’s famous speech in Houston in the 1960 presidential campaign.
In this speech, Kennedy made clear the distinction between Church and state and proclaimed that he would not be influenced by his Catholic faith as president.
This speech, widely respected amongst all sides in the half-century since it was delivered, was derided by Santorum who complained that Kennedy had in effect said faith had no place in politics.
Polling evidence after the Michigan primary showed that Santorum’s attack on Kennedy only had the effect of turning the state’s Republican Catholics toward Romney. Religion is important to voting Americans and Obama’s stance on abortion and recent controversies about contraception and birth control policy have been strongly criticised by the American Catholic hierarchy.
But if Santorum’s staunchly conservative views switched off moderate Michigan Catholics, what are the chances that independent voters will decide how to vote in November based on the culture wars of abortion, birth control, and the influence of religion on politics? Unlikely is being kind.
In Michigan, as elsewhere, the dominant issue in the election will be jobs. And in Michigan — where Romney’s father, George, was a popular moderate Republican governor in the 1960s — nothing will haunt Mitt Romney more than his 2008 op ed piece for the New York Times entitled “Let Detroit go Bankrupt”.
Obama, of course, did not leave Detroit and General Motors, in particular, go bankrupt but bailed them out with a subsidy that has since been repaid. The car industry is crucial in Michigan and it will vote for Obama.
While the US economy continues to slowly pick up, there are other states where the stubbornly high unemployment rate means that Obama’s re-election is in serious doubt. Moreover, high petrol prices are never a good sign for an incumbent president involved in a tight election race.
The United States is in an era of extreme political partisanship — 47% Democratic and 47% Republican, with the independent voter set to make all the difference. The partisanship is also geographically dispersed.
The west coast and the north-east are solidly Democratic. The south and the heartlands are Republican. And six months before the election, only 13 states, at most, are in play.
If one looks at the electoral map, it is very difficult to envisage Obama winning any states that went to McCain in 2008. Thus Romney will start the campaign proper with practically a guaranteed 173 electoral votes. Can he get another 98 and could the Irish-American vote count? Well, he could get the electoral votes but it won’t be the Irish-American vote that gets him to the White House.
The states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia were all won narrowly by Obama in 2008 but could now go either way, as could the rich electoral colleges of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
When we think of Irish America, these are not the states that automatically come to mind, yet these are the states that will decide the election.
The Obama campaign will no doubt use some artfully chosen shots of him speaking in College Green, or maybe even downing his Guinness in Moneygall, as part of one of its soft focus advertisements come the autumn. It is his hard focus advertisements, however, that will determine whether he wins the election.
These will attack Romney over his supposed flip-flopping and his heartless capitalism. The Romney campaign will have their own ripostes, and will try to paint a picture of a failed American president.
The hyphenated Irish will compete with the hyphenated Italians, Poles, Latinos, and others. But at the end of the day, it is American issues of jobs and the economy that count.
In a side note, while spending the last six months travelling around the US, I asked Americans of all hues whether the Irish-American vote would be decisive or even important come the presidential election. Outside of Massachusetts and New York, I was met with blank stares. And Massachusetts and New York are voting Obama come what may.
* Gary Murphy is associate professor of politics at Dublin City University
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