I had a piece in today’s The Australian. Mainly geared to an Australian audience, it made one basic point: not much has changed in the presidential race.
Here you go:
SETTLE down. The “bedwetters”, as Obama campaign manager David Plouffe memorably dubbed carping liberals in 2008, are gnashing their teeth, apoplectic after one lousy debate performance by their candidate and then, momentarily, relieved after a second debate. Truth is, though the polls have tightened and the press desperately wants to build the narrative of a monumental shifting terrain, nothing much has changed.
Barack Obama will most likely win a second term, and probably comfortably, based on the state-by-state polling over the past several months.
Consider Ohio. If Obama wins the state, where he has had a consistent lead, he will be re-elected. No Republican has ever won the White House without capturing Ohio.
In 2012, Ohio tells a bigger story. It is one of a handful of swing states that Obama captured in 2008 by attracting large number of independents and “swing” voters, people Mitt Romney has not been able to peel away in large-enough numbers.
Romney’s electoral map looks pretty grim considering the 50 state, winner-take-all contests. Even with some shifting in the polls and a Romney campaign temporarily off life-support, respected pollster Nate Silver, who factors in every state and national poll, rates Obama the strong favourite.
Early voting is crucial. Millions of people will vote, by mail or in person, before election day; many already had before the first debate. In the crucial state of Iowa, Democratic ballots have been cast by a 3-1 margin.
One drag on Romney continues to be a simple fact: the Republican Party is mainly a white, Protestant redoubt, while America is now more than 50 per cent minority and non-Protestant. For example, Romney will not win if he fails to close the gap among Latino voters. Obama is on track to win almost 70 per cent of the Latino vote, which is more than he tallied in 2008 and is a demographic crucial in states such as Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.
But a couple of minefields dot the road for the incumbent. A torrent of money gushing from the wallets of a handful of billionaires via “SuperPACs” (super political action committees) is a grave threat to Obama. It’s shocking that even though both sides have already spent $US500 million ($484m) on advertising alone, the big spending has not begun. No more than 20 individuals may each drop $25m-$100m “superPAC” ads on behalf of Romney.
Will the spending matter? Ask John Kerry. In 2004, an independent group, spending a smidgen of the money gushing into this year’s campaign, morphed Kerry’s Vietnam, war-hero service into a tale of a wimpy, cowardly, indecisive leader. The anti-Kerry campaign, which minted a brand new term of negative, untruthful campaigning called “swift-boating” (after the boats Kerry served on), paved the way for the re-election of George W. Bush.
Ironically, if he loses, Romney can blame the same billionaires. Two people alone – Foster Freiss and Sheldon Adelson – wrote checks for millions of dollars to Romney’s chief rivals for the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. That financial oxygen allowed Santorum and Gingrich to stay in the primary race, paying for weeks of anti-Romney negative ads.
Those relentless TV salvos likely cemented negative views of Romney in the minds of many independent voters long before the infamous video surfaced in which he decried the 47 per cent of Americans who did not pay federal income tax.
Romney will look to build on a largely press-generated sense of momentum in the final days, with one debate left. In 1980, Ronald Reagan trailed incumbent Jimmy Carter until the last debate.
Reagan used the debates to cross a key threshold among voters who needed a simple question answered: can this man be president? Feeling reassured about the prospects of Reagan at the helm, and unhappy with a poor economy, a huge chunk of voters moved Reagan’s way in the final days and the election turned into a landslide.
However, the real threshold is not a checklist of policy issues. It’s an emotional “do I want to see this guy every night on TV for the next four years?”. A lot of voters liked Reagan personally – his eyes sparkled and his jovial demeanor connected, particularly with working-class Democrats (the saying “Reagan Democrats” is still in the American political lexicon). Voters’ feelings about Romney have consistently indicated that enough of them do not want him in their living room.
Romney’s best hope is an unforeseen domestic or international crisis, which stirs existing concerns about Obama’s performance. Romney needs a calamity, not just a crisis. No significant international crisis is brewing that might be blamed on the incumbent. That is one reason Republicans are trying to fire up a debate over the attack on the US diplomatic post in Libya.
Today, my hunch is that with 538 electoral votes at stake, Obama will win. The final electoral vote tally: 332 to 206.
No matter who takes the oath of office in January, it will feel like the proverbial poisoned chalice. The economy will still be dreadful. The winner will face an even more divided congress: even if Democrats retain control of the US Senate, a likely scenario because of Romney’s drag on the Republican brand, the Republican Senate members will be far more conservative.
Paralysis will be the order of the day.
The rumblings in the streets will continue.