Lawrence Powell, Contributor
This is the first in a two-part Gleaner series that examines scenarios for the upcoming US presidential election. This week's column traces probable scenarios that could produce a Romney win on November 6. Next week's column will examine the prospects for an Obama win.
FACTORS FAVOURING ROMNEY
With Mitt Romney's decisive win in the first presidential debate, he has suddenly seized the momentum in the final month of the campaign, largely erasing the five- to 10-point cushion Obama enjoyed coming out of the August Democratic National Convention, and pulling even with him in most national polls.
Romney's convincingly 'presidential' debate performance helped overcome the liabilities of his earlier gaffes (including the secretly taped "47 per cent" comment), an uninspiring Republican convention plagued by bad weather, and an exhausting primary season. Republican strategists have widely celebrated the debate as a game-changer.
The drawn-out Republican primary season, in which a challenger to Obama failed to quickly emerge, meant that during those months Romney was not free to build his case against Obama on the campaign trail. On the other hand, the multiple Republican debates required to finally produce a primary winner gave Romney extensive practice sparring with other politicians in front of a television audience.
Obama, in contrast, appeared to be out of shape during the first presidential debate. It had been four years since he had debated John McCain, and it showed.
By adopting far-Right positions during the Republican primaries to please Tea Party conservatives, and then abruptly shifting to more moderate stances during the presidential campaign (which took Obama by surprise in the first debate), Romney has succeeded in capturing the political centre and in redefining himself as the 'change' candidate. He also held his own against Obama in the second town hall debate. If he now manages to do reasonably well in the final debate, he will be in a good position leading into November.
Romney also has the advantage of running against the president at a time when the US economy is still relatively weak, with persistent high unemployment. And his ideological positions on the proper role of government and the market are more consistent with the dominant US societal ideology of Lockean individualism and 'limited government', whereas Obama finds himself swimming against the cultural tide in defending what are perceived by many to be European-style 'big government' programmes and policies that emphasise Keynesian solutions, such as Obamacare and the stimulus package.
And finally, this year's Republican Jim Crow-like attempts to suppress minority, youth, and lower-class voting levels (registration hurdles, voter list purges, new picture ID laws) have now been challenged in the courts in a number of states (See 'Vote suppression in America', Gleaner, September 2). Though impeded legally, these attempts to depress turnout may still succeed psychologically.
There are also interesting historical similarities to previous presidential races, which would suggest Romney has a reasonable chance of prevailing this year. It's well known among political scientists who model election outcomes that if the national economy is weak, and unemployment high during an election year, the incumbent often fails to get re-elected.
Over the past half-century, that was the case in 1960 when John Kennedy challenged Richard Nixon (vice-president at the time); in 1976 when Jimmy Carter challenged Gerald Ford; in 1980 when Ronald Reagan challenged Jimmy Carter; and in 1992 when Bill Clinton challenged George Bush Sr. In all of those cases, it's generally recognised that a sluggish economy led to a one-term presidency, handing the challenging party a major advantage.
Conversely, in years when the economy looked more promising, Lyndon Johnson (1964), Bill Clinton (1996), and George Bush Jr (2004) were re-elected. As James Carville, Clinton's campaign adviser in the 1992 presidential race, famously pointed out, "It's the economy, stupid."
Republican strategists are also delighting in the fact that this year's election resembles the 1980 race between Carter and Reagan. Carter is often invoked as a classic example of a weak, indecisive one-term Democratic president. In 1980, the national economy was stuck in a stagflation rut, and the nation seemed rudderless and adrift - which Carter infamously referred to in one of his speeches as a national "malaise".
There was also an "October surprise" leading into the November election, with a messy, embarrassing Iran hostage crisis (resembling the present Libyan embassy debacle), making the incumbent president look powerless and ineffective in his handling of foreign affairs. Also similar is that Reagan, who (like Romney) was at first not taken very seriously as a Republican presidential challenger, surprised everyone by besting Carter in the debates, and going on to win the election.
ELECTORAL COLLEGE TALLIES
With Romney now showing real momentum leading into the 2012 election, it's possible to construct a plausible scenario that would have Romney winning. Assuming present polling trends continue through the next two weeks, and extrapolating from previous 2000, 2004, and 2008 election patterns, this scenario has Romney garnering between 51 and 52 per cent of the popular vote, to Obama's 48 or 49 per cent, in a cliffhanger election.
Consistent with this trend, a Real Clear Politics average of seven national polls over the past two weeks shows Romney at 47.4 per cent and Obama at 47.0 per cent. And the two most recent polls as of this writing, by Rasmussen, and Gallup, show Romney ahead by two and four points, respectively.
Keep in mind, however, that - contrary to what you see in media 'horse-race' reports - the American system does not actually have direct popular election of the president. Rather, in an Electoral College system like the US', it's the state polls that ultimately count. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, equal to the total voting membership of both Houses of Congress (100 senators and 435 representatives) plus three electors allocated to Washington, DC).
Winning a majority of 270 of these electoral votes in the individual states, not a majority of the popular vote per se, is what is required to win the White House. Most of those electoral votes are already in the bag by this point for either Romney (in strong 'red states') or Obama (in strong 'blue states'), owing to lopsided majorities in those states.
So the 2012 election now boils down to several swing states that will ultimately determine the outcome - with the Romney and Obama camps vying for those pivotal votes in the remaining weeks. The nine swing states most likely to determine the outcome, because the numbers there remain very close, include Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.
Looking at the polling averages in those swing states over the past month (which I've listed in parentheses after each state), and comparing this with how those states voted in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections, we can make a well-informed prediction. The most plausible scenario for a Romney win would have him nudging out Obama in Florida (Romney currently ahead, by +2.5%), North Carolina (R, +4.7%), and Virginia (O, +0.8%) in the South. Given his momentum, Romney should also ultimately prevail in the traditionally conservative New Hampshire (O, +0.5%) in the Northeast, and in Ohio (O, +2.2%) in the upper Midwest; as well as Colorado (R, +0.7%) in the West.
Since the first debate there has been a consistent shift towards Romney in those states, of between three and six points in most polls. The working assumption here is that Romney's post-debate momentum will continue to push those marginal states more in his direction, and away from Obama, over the next two weeks.
Of the crucial swing states, Obama would likely win the upper Midwest, including Wisconsin (O, +2.3%) and Iowa (O, +2.3%), as well as Nevada (O, +1.6%) in the West. But that would not be enough to give him 270 votes, so Romney would become the next president by a final count of 279 to 259 Electoral College votes. (See electoral map on this page.)
THE CRITICAL STATES
Of those nine swing states, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin are clearly the most critical to a Romney win. To prevail in the election, Romney would have to win Florida (29 votes), plus either Ohio (18) for a total of 279, or Wisconsin (10) for a total of 271.
Even though Wisconsin is running mate Paul Ryan's home state, the Romney-Ryan ticket has consistently been behind in the polls there. But Romney seems to be making more headway in Ohio now, so the Florida-Ohio combination is the most likely one to push him over the 270 mark on November 6. Historically, a Republican has never won the White House without winning Ohio, which is why you see Romney spending so much time campaigning there.
That brings us to the question of what governing configuration Romney would have to work with, if he were to win. If present polling trends continue through the next two weeks, the new Republican president would have the luxury of a Republican majority in the House, and Republican governors in a majority of the states. But he would also have to do some bargaining across the ideological divide, with a Democratic majority prevailing in the Senate, in order to push through legislation.
Current projections are predicting a new House of about 238 Republicans and 197 Democrats. If this occurs, it would be a net gain of about four seats for the Democrats, but with Republicans still wielding a strong majority and hence continued dominance over committees and legislation.
In the Senate races, most projections point to either a draw (same party balance as before), or possibly a net gain of one for the Democrats, which would produce a Senate of 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans, and two independents (who on many issues vote with the Democrats).
In the gubernatorial races, if current trends hold, Republicans are projected to pick up three more state governorships, which would then leave 32 states with Republican governors, 17 with Democratic governors, and one independent.
In his Gleaner column tomorrow, Dr John Rapley will explore some of the economic and policy consequences of a Romney-Ryan win.
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 a former senior lecturer, Department of Government, UWI,
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