What Africa can learn from the Last American Election

Okot Nyormoi

Okot casts a critical glance at the last American elections and returns with a bag full of lessons




American elections are events of great drama. Each presidential election is a drawn out stage theater. With many acts, actors and scenes that come to a close in Washington, in a colorful ceremony and installation of the most powerful leader in the world. The last presidential election that pitted incumbent Democrat Barack Obama against Challenger Mitt Romney of the Republican Party was one such extravaganza.

Democratic Party strategists along with most independent analysts predicted that it would be a close call. In contrast Republican strategists predicted the election was going to be a run over win for their candidate. In the end Barack Obama decisively won the crucial electoral vote while the popular vote was close.

The surprising results left Republicans and others, groping for explanations about why and how President Obama won. In a democracy such post mortem analysis is necessary to put the election in perspective and to help strategists plan for the next election.

Many leaders now in power in Africa and their advisors assert that it is a total waste of time to pay attention to American elections. We have our own democracy, they say. Yet what goes on in America counts because their impacts affect the entire world. We must discount the self interested position of the sit tight and lifelong Presidency in Africa as signaled by its scraping of term limits.


So, we must ask, are there lessons that people in the developing world and especially in Africa can learn from the last American election and American elections generally? The answer is yes, there are. The American examples can prove useful to electorates, candidates, campaign managers, political strategists and election funders in Africa and in other parts of the world.

One fundamental lesson is that there was no pre or post election violence. This was not because the election process was perfect. Far from it; there were many of the same accusations and counter accusations from competing parties as well as independent voters. For instance, in several states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, the Republican controlled legislatures passed laws that were intended to disadvantage certain groups of voters. A legislator from Pennsylvania even boasted that some law they had just passed would guarantee the election of the Republican candidate.

There were false advertisements meant to scare off certain voters who did not have photo identification cards, contrary to the law which allows every citizen to vote so long as they are registered to do so. In certain circumstances, these would have led to a rejection of the election outcome and post election violence, but here it did not. The judiciary was an available recourse to take by the aggrieved parties. Nobody rioted or rejected the election outcome just because of alleged election fraud and unfairness. While alleged frauds and unfair laws were being handled by the court, community mobilizes did not sit back and wait for court decisions. They redoubled their efforts to canvass for votes on behalf of their candidates.

The second lesson is that truth matters. In this regard, both the Democratic and the Republican campaign organizations used many lies to promote their candidates. Senator Reid, the Democratic majority senate leader falsely accused Governor Romney of not paying taxes for the last 10 years. On their part the Republicans propagated even more lies. For example, they claimed that President Obama is a Muslim and was born in Kenyan, that he had given away large chunks of Alaska to the Russians. Many of these lies were repeated many times. But in the end, the majority of voters ignored the lies and voted according to what they thought was truthful. So clearly it helps to have well informed citizens.

During this election, both parties spent billions of dollars. While resources including money are a great help during a campaign, they cannot buy victory. For example, Sheldon Adelson, a Los Vegas casino executive shelled out millions of dollars to Newt Gingrich in a losing effort. The Koch brothers, two Las Vegas billionaires, donated millions of dollars to the Romney campaign and Karl Rove, the election guru during the Bush era, raised and spent almost four hundred million dollars on behalf of Republican candidates, but they lost some of the key contests including the presidency. The loss was so shocking that Karl Rove was seen on national TV denying the fact that President Obama had won Ohio, a crucial state for winning the presidential election.

Principles matter. Although it is common for political candidates to sing the tune electorates like to hear, candidates cannot be like a flag in the wind. They have to stand for some principles. However, the principles they stand for have to make sense to the voters. Candidate Romney was a clear example of what not to do. He was the architect of the Massachusetts Health Care law on which the federal Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, was based. The Act provides affordable health insurance for citizens who are otherwise not covered under the existing scheme. Yet, during the campaign, Romney stood against it.

Romney was for women’s right to abort and then he was against it. He was for controlling climatic change then he was against it. He was against US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 2014, then he was for it and again he was against it. It became clear that he was a flip flopping candidate who would say anything to win the support of his audience regardless of whether it was true or not. Changing like a flag in the wind is a sure way for a candidate to lose credibility with voters.

Another important lesson to learn is that in the digital age, one must be careful about what one says or writes privately or publicly. It can be recorded and reproduced by any of the available digital tools. This was clearly shown during debates when fact checkers could within minutes determine whether what a candidate said was factual or not. Another example was how a secret recording was used to unmask Governor Romney’s true attitude towards the middle and lower classes during a talk he assumed was private. The secretly recorded audio-video showed that Romney believed that 47% of Americans are free-loaders who live on the sweat and labor of others. Such a revelation confirmed the picture the Democrats painted of Romney as being a heartless capitalist who did not care about the middle and lower classes.

While the Republicans derided it as an inconsequential political activity, President Obama’s campaign developed community organizing into a winning political strategy. The lesson here is that to win, a candidate has to connect with the voters.  Throwing money at them or saturating the airwaves with advertisements will not do.  The strategy of the Obama organizers embraced a door to door campaign by volunteers from the community. The task involved explaining election laws, providing information about election schedules, voting locations, availability of transport, voter registration forms etc, to ensure maximum opportunities for every eligible voter to vote. It is important to note that almost all the community mobilizers were volunteers and voters did not ask to be feasted on chicken, goats, cows or drinks. Volunteers were driven by their commitment to elect a candidate whom they believed would protect their interests.

To increase the chance of success, a candidate has to know the trend in the national attitude on social issues as well as changing demographics. For instance, in the 2012 presidential election, important trends to watch included changing attitude towards same sex marriage and respect for women’s right to control their reproduction. There is also a growing recognition that the various racial minorities are trending towards becoming the majority population. Similarly, women are becoming more and more a major political force to reckon with. It turned out that President Obama included these calculations in his campaign strategy whereas Romney appeared to have dismissed these trends; and as it turned out, at his own peril.

While the US experience is based on its own peculiarities, there are some similarities with what happens in many other countries where leaders are elected by popular votes. They all reflect efforts to develop fair and just systems for serving human interests. In this sense, it is important for people in the developing countries to examine some of the lessons and see if any of them can be adopted to suit their particular situations to make electoral systems, workable, fair and just.