Lawrence A. Powell, World Watch
In a little over a month, American voters will decide whether Barack Obama is re-elected to a second term as president or fades into obscurity. Because the United States is such an influential country internationally, this will impact not only the lives of Americans, but at least indirectly, of everyone on the planet.
What factors will likely dictate the outcome? History shows that winning an American presidential contest usually depends on some combination of candidate likeability, the primaries and party conventions, the televised debates, the three Ms (media, money and marketing), emergent domestic and international events, the state of the economy, voter turnout levels, and the odd math of the Electoral College.
Despite a sluggish economic recovery, persistent high unemployment, widespread frustration with Obama's policies and a major Republican resurgence in the 2010 congressional elections - all of which ought to have worked soundly to Republican advantage - challenger Mitt Romney has got off to a late, unimpressive start in his quest for the White House.
Thus far, Romney has been unable to capitalise on Obama's weaknesses - having to be rescued from the jaws of defeat by his team of political consultants and wealthy financial contributors, rather late in the game.
PRIMARIES AND CONVENTIONS
One reason for this was the drawn-out Republican primary season, in which a clear favourite Republican nominee failed to quickly emerge from among Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and others. This wasted valuable time and resources on defeating Romney's Republican challengers which could have been spent going after Obama and defining the election narrative.
Another was the unlucky, unfocused party convention in August. The Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, got off to a windy start, pre-empted by a hurricane. The first day's events and speeches had to be cancelled, and the entire convention agenda had to be squeezed into fewer days, with many potent speakers and events dropped, resulting in some confusion and lost political momentum. As a result, Romney did not get the usual bounce in opinion poll ratings coming out of the convention.
The Republican National Convention did feature some moving, effective speeches, such as those by Marco Rubio, Condi Rice, Clint Eastwood (!), and Ann Romney (less so, Mitt Romney himself). It succeeded in preaching to the choir, rallying already-faithful Republicans to vote. But to uncommitted viewers who might be tuning in, the impression was of an angry, resentful party that had lost its rudder, and perhaps its mind. The subliminal effect of the storm was to create the image of a party that was trying to prevail against the winds of history, which were blowing the other way.
In contrast, the Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was generally more upbeat and on-message. First Lady Michelle Obama, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Vice-president Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton all gave inspiring speeches that functioned as testimonials to Obama's unwavering character ("backbone of steel"), and compassion for the American people in difficult times. The better planning, and luck, were reflected in a four to five per cent bounce in the polls following the convention.
Another reason Romney is having trouble connecting with the American electorate is that he doesn't come across as charismatic. Choosing a vice-presidential running mate such as Paul Ryan has only made this more obvious. And, of course, Obama is famously (or notoriously, depending on your persuasion) charismatic, personable, and an engagingly eloquent speaker - so Romney will have his work cut out for him in preparing for the upcoming presidential debates.
Nor has Romney yet articulated a very clear presidential vision for America. Again, standing next to someone who does have one - Ryan is an Ayn Rand 'virtue of selfishness' disciple, and the chief architect of the Republicans' budget plan) - only makes his indecisive fuzziness look worse.
Another obstacle is the perceived 'empathy gap' that Romney, and also Ryan, need to bridge before a majority of the electorate will take them seriously as presidential and vice-presidential choices, capable of credibly representing the interests of all Americans. So far, Romney has come across as an aloof plutocrat, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who can't be trusted to care about, or to care for, the less fortunate in American society.
The most damaging blow so far to his likeability profile came last week, with the release by a Mother Jones magazine reporter of a secretly recorded videotape from a US$50,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner in Florida, in which Romney is heard telling the audience of wealthy campaign donors:
"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them ... . My job is is not to worry about those people."
In other recorded excerpts, he refers to Democratic voters as "freeloaders who don't pay taxes" and makes derogatory remarks about Mexicans, Palestinians and Chinese.
Being caught arrogantly joking about, and writing off, the interests of half the electorate worsens what was already a perceived Romney insensitivity to the less fortunate. It further reinforces the media stereotype that he only cares about what happens to 'the one per cent'. Needless to say, the Romney camp is in damage-control mode over this.
But Obama, too, finds himself besieged by difficulties that threaten to spin out of control. Just as he thought he had the upper hand leading into the November election, roaring out of a vibrant Democratic convention with a five-point lead, a foreign policy crisis breaks out to rain on his parade. At the convention in Charlotte, he had boasted of aggressively pursuing tyrants like bin Laden and Gaddafi, as evidence of his strong, effective foreign policy. This defused the traditional Republican criticism that Democrats are too soft on such matters.
However, in the wake of this week's violent US embassy attacks abroad, in multiple countries, over the 'Innocence of Muslims' film whose portrayals of Muhammad are seen as sacrilege - the popular perception of Obama's resolute strength may now be changing, giving his Republican challenger an opening. Obama finds himself trapped in a catch-22 - between those who insist he defend the sanctity of religious belief, and those who insist he defend freedom of speech. To favour one, he has to insult the other; and if he attempts to strike a compromise between the two principles, he looks weak and indecisive.
His Republican opponents stand to gain talking points from this diplomatic dilemma. If foreign events should turn ugly and Obama appears unsteady at the helm, it could even reverse the election. However, the Romney camp has to be very careful how it criticises. This could also be a political minefield for him and his consultants, because each time they attack the president, they risk reminding the electorate that neither Romney nor Ryan has any substantial foreign affairs preparation to be president - an embarrassing truth they had hoped to downplay as much as possible leading into the election.
Of course Obama, as the incumbent, might also come out of this looking stronger, not weaker. He gets to appear presidential and emphasise his foreign-policy experience, as he's struggling to resolve a tough international crisis. But if efforts fail, and he is seen as powerless or ineffective in the face of these events, he could suffer the same fate as Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, incumbent President Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan (who at the time wasn't seen as having any serious chance of winning), because Americans became impatient with Carter's repeated failure to secure the release of captured American hostages in the Iran hostage crisis. Ineptitude in solving a foreign-policy crisis cost him re-election. Some analysts are now comparing the current 'Innocence of Muslims' crisis that Obama faces with the 1979-80 scenario that doomed Carter.
SHIFTING RULES OF THE GAME
Because major changes in US election rules have been rare in recent times, it also remains to be seen to what extent the new combination of intentional suppression of Democratic turnout (voter ID laws in 10 states, reduced voting times), in combination with lifting restrictions on corporate contributions (which disproportionately go to Republican candidates), will shift the election dynamics away from what the polls have been indicating so far.
If we go strictly by the present opinion polls, and extrapolate from those, Obama continues to have a clear popular advantage. Seven national polls over the past week have him leading by from one to five points over Romney, with one showing Romney ahead by one point.
Remember, though, that in an Electoral College system like the US's, it's the state polls that actually count, and at present these appear even more skewed towards Obama. If this past month's polling averages in the individual states were to hold through November, Obama would win 326 Electoral College votes, to Romney's 212. (It takes 270 to win the presidency.)
But the remaining six weeks is still a very, very long time in American presidential politics, so as legendary New York Yankees baseball coach Yogi Berra was fond of saying, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona.
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