Storms in the US
Posted on: 05 Nov 2012
Surveys of public opinion show that the race is too close to call
Hardly any of the hundreds of journalists, scholars, consultants or other varieties of political buffs who follow the US presidential election has ventured to predict the impact that Hurricane Sandy will have on the outcome. Not many are even prepared to say that it will have any impact at all. However, the atmospheric turbulence that broke out in the first week of November seemed to mirror the churning that had taken place in the electoral scene in the weeks just preceding the November 6 election day.
With only a couple of days remaining in the campaign season, the most dependable surveys of public opinion show that the race is too close to call. For weeks the line on the graph that represents incumbent President Barak Obama's chances has hovered a little above that of the challenger Mitt Romney. The tips of the lines have moved very slightly apart, indicating that Obama might have the edge. But this is meaningless for two reasons. Firstly, the gap is well within statistical margins of error. Secondly, these lines show projections of the popular vote that either candidate could get. As everyone in the world knows post 2001, a US presidential candidate can get a larger share of the popular vote and still lose the election. That is because the outcome is decided by the Electoral College. This is a body that does not assemble but still has the decisive say.
Even those familiar with the US electoral system need a refresher course on the form and function of the Electoral College. It can be put roughly as follows. Each of the 50 States of the Union is allotted a specific number of Electoral College votes according to the size of its population. Heavily populated States like California have a large number of votes while a small State might have votes only in single digits. Whichever candidate gets a majority of the popular vote in each State garners all the Electoral College votes allotted to that State.(There are some exceptions to this rule and some observers believe that such exceptions could come into play this time round). Therefore, if a candidate can win the popular vote in a sufficient number of large States he can obtain a majority in the Electoral College even though he might have lost in a majority of the States or only obtained less than half the popular votes polled.
The political polarisation that has taken place over the past several decades has added a further complication. In most States, significant majorities of the population have developed strong affinity for one or the other of the two dominant parties. To put it roughly again, the States on the West Coast and the northern half of the East Coast have supported the Democrats steadily over several electoral cycles. States located in the South and central parts of the country have been staunchly Republican. As a result there are only about 9 States in which the two parties have to compete hard for the votes. The outcome in these 'swing States' is essentially what the election is all about. Public Opinion Surveys show that neither Obama nor Romney has locked these 'swing States' into their respective columns.
In 2008, Obama had developed unstoppable momentum well before election day and duly registered a thumping victory. But much of that huge upsurge had disappeared by the time the current electoral cycle got underway in the beginning of 2011. The resounding win that the Republicans obtained in the 2010 elections to the Houses of Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) seemed to show that the Right-wing was on the upswing. It was therefore not surprising that at least nine, or as many as a dozen Republicans lined up to contest for their party's nomination when the presidential election process got underway. The primary process--through which the parties choose their nominees--kicks off almost two years before the actual day of the election.
For the Republicans, the direction in which Right-wing politics has moved since the 1990's has added a further complication. Extremists--that is those who hold hard conservative views on economic, international, social and even racial issues--control the party base. Anyone making a serious bid for the Republic nomination has to win over this extremist base during the primary process. But after securing the nomination, the successful candidate has to make a 180 degree turn in respect of most policy positions. Without such a revision the candidate will have no hope of winning over those who are not committed to either party. Such people in the middle ground--usually labelled as moderate though unaffiliated might be a better word--are a dwindling number but they hold the key.
It surely takes some political skill for a person to espouse hard right views for a year and more and then suddenly switch to a moderate mode for the last four months. Romney achieved this remarkable feat essentially because he seems to be a man with no firm political principles--in fact no principles whatsoever. The Republican base showed that it had not lost all touch with reality by choosing the only man among the sorry dozen who was capable of projecting a moderate image during the general election phase. The Right-wing probably calculated that they could eventually control Romney after he had won the general election. However, this has left Romney with the handicap of being perceived as a man of no scruples who will do anything to get elected.
Despite that stigma, Romney has clung close to Obama during the general election phase. A dramatic improvement in his fortunes occurred during the first of the three debates in which he faced off against Obama. In that debate the incumbent put up a totally lacklustre performance while Romney showed that he could talk on national issues in a presidential manner. Obama improved in the next two debates. But he has not been able to shake off the assessment that by squandering an opportunity to destroy his rival in the first debate, he displayed unacceptable weakness.
The suspicion that Obama lacks sufficient strength has haunted him throughout the last four years. The Right-wing, evincing traces of racism, has never conceded that the first African-American president has the requisite qualities for the office. The Left-wing of American politics has grown increasingly disappointed with his failure to implement a rigorously progressive agenda. And, the people in the middle ground? They seem to think that Obama is too weak to stand for his ideals and not smart enough to win over sceptics. However, as poll numbers show, negative perceptions have only dented not destroyed the faith that a majority reposed in him four years ago.
Perceptions might have been less relevant if objective conditions had provided a factual basis for assessing Obama's performance in office. Over the past decades, several issues have acquired particular salience in US politics. In a short list these are--international affairs and their implications for the security of the country and its nationals; social issues; and, the economy. Deeply antagonistic approaches to social issues define the Right-Left divide in US politics. This constant might not have a decisive impact on the current election except in so far as it serves to mobilise party faithful on either side. Republican candidates usually have an edge over their Democratic rivals on international affairs. But as the man who ordered the extermination of Osama bin Laden, prevented a major terrorist attack on the US, managed the pull-out from Iraq, lowered the military involvement in Afghanistan and did not make a thorough mess of the Arab Spring, Obama has been able to hold his ground on this issue.
As another Democratic candidate famously said two decades ago, the issue is 'the economy, stupid'. Arguably, Obama inherited a nearly hopeless economic situation from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. The Bush tax-cuts combined with massive military spending had pushed the deficit to untenable levels. The Republican failure to regulate the financial markets had almost led to the melt-down of the banking system. Unemployment rates were rising while the prices of houses were falling. Most crucially, the actual income available to families was decreasing. This broad picture remained unchanged from 2009 (when Obama was sworn in) until September this year. Of late, unemployment rates have dipped and housing prices have begun to rise. Opinion surveys have registered the first signs of optimism amidst the public about their economic prospects. The question is whether these positives have come early enough to save the Obama presidency.
It is pointless for Obama to say that he stopped the economic collapse that Bush had triggered. It is almost just as pointless for him to say that a Romney victory would mean a return to the economic policies that caused the problem in the first place. People are concerned about the here and now. They are about to deliver their assessment on Obama's economic management. Has he been able to convince the American voter that his management has been prudent and smart enough?
Obama laid out billions to prime pump the economy. His bailout of the automobile industry, one of the main engines of the economy as a whole, has been a spectacular success. A politically ill-timed and perhaps ill-conceived effort to reform the health care system was considered as unnecessary by one side and essential by the other. Critics on the Left believe that he should have done a lot more during his term while critics on the Right are adamant that such social-engineering policies can just never work. The whole election might come down to whether a majority accept Obama's own assessment that the economy is not as good as people would like but is well on the way to getting better.