I write before knowing the results of the American presidential election, but I am still wondering whether Barack Obama might have done better if he hadn’t given up smoking. That may sound silly when everyone knows that America is a country full of anti-smoking fanatics where even hardened criminals migrate humbly from the bars to the sidewalks of New York to have a cigarette. I even remember reading somewhere during the 2008 election campaign that Obama’s smoking habit would be more of an impediment to his winning than the colour of his skin.
But there was also an article in the New York Times saying that he had been wrong to give up smoking and should take it up again so as to earn the support of the blue-collar workers who had flocked to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Its author, Tony Horwitz, made the point that Americans on low incomes smoked at twice the rate of the better off, and that most of them lived in the states where Obama had polled worst in the primaries.
They saw him as ‘aloof, over-groomed and fussy about eating the right foods and getting enough exercise’, so taking up smoking again ‘would go a long way towards dispelling his effete image’. (What redneck would vote for a man whose favourite food was steamed broccoli and favourite drink an obscure organic brew called Black Forest Berry Honest Tea?) Another persuasive point made by Horwitz was that ‘indulging in a vice stigmatised by most Americans is an easy way to bond with people with whom you otherwise have nothing in common’.
It’s been true again in this election that Obama’s support has been weakest among white males, the category in which smoking is most prevalent.