This is the second 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 an Obama win on November 6.
Hold on to your seats. This one's going down to the wire. With Republican challenger Mitt Romney unexpectedly aceing the first presidential debate in Denver, and Obama's lethargic performance that night, the dynamics of the race to the White House have morphed. It now appears this will be a much closer, less predictable, election finish.
The first debate seems to have confirmed fence-sitters' lingering doubts about Obama, shifting their allegiance to Romney. Prior to that debate, national opinion polls showed Obama with a comfortable five- to 10-point lead, and well ahead in crucial swing states. However during the past two weeks the polls have tightened up to the point where the two candidates are now in a dead heat, with some polls showing a slight edge for Romney. A Real Clear Politics average of nine national polls over the past week gives Romney an average of 48.0 per cent to Obama's 47.1. Depending on which poll you prefer to look at, Obama is up by as much is three per cent (Washington Times), or down by as much as four (Rasmussen).
In most of the swing states critical to winning the election, Obama is still slightly ahead. But he's definitely losing ground, with victory margins looking thin. Among the swing states that Obama previously had in his column, Romney is now slightly ahead in Florida (with 29 electoral votes), Virginia (13), and Colorado (9). Obama remains ahead in Ohio (18), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), and New Hampshire (4), but the narrower margins there are worrisome, and too close for comfort this close to election day.
Following his embarrassing loss of the first debate, in the second and third debates Obama was able to temper Romney's new-found momentum, somewhat. He rebounded with strong, aggressive performances that put Romney back on the defensive, contrasting his presidential strengths with Romney's inexperience. And Biden clearly dominated the vice-presidential debate, 'mopping the floor' with Paul Ryan.
This seems to have restored the spirits of Democratic party faithful and contained the hemorrhaging in the polls. But American voters typically pay the most attention to that first presidential debate, and not much thereafter. So it's difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube; polls have not returned to their pre-debate levels. Despite Obama's and Biden's excellent performances, the latter debates don't seem to have moved the needle much.
Factors favouring Obama
In spite of those disappointing 'October setbacks', Obama still retains certain advantages leading into this election. The long, 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's 'failed presidency'. This gave the Obama team plenty of time to define their opponent negatively in the public mind, and take the high ground in defining the dominant election narrative.
So rather than going after Obama, Romney has spent much of his time recouping his image and reputation from damage done in those early 'Bain Capital' and 'tax evasion' anti-Romney campaign ads, trying desperately to convince the electorate that he is not a Scrooge-like defender of the rich and powerful at the expense of middle and lower income Americans. The most fortuitous of these for Obama's campaign was the release of a secretly taped '47 per cent' video in which Romney is overheard to say, speaking candidly at a wealthy elite campaign fund-raiser, that there are "47 per cent of the people...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. My job is not to worry about those people."
And this year's Republican attempts to suppress minority, youth, and lower-class voting levels (via voter list purges, registration hurdles, new picture ID laws) have not worked as intended.
They have been challenged in the courts in a number of states, including in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Texas. (See 'Vote Suppression In America', Gleaner, September 2 ) And in states where it is still permitted, the practice of allowing 'early voting' (which Republicans had hoped to reduce or eliminate) has mostly favoured Obama as it did in 2008.
Electoral college tallies
Finally, there are Obama's continuing, albeit narrowing, leads in key swing states that could push him over the top if they hold. Though Romney has seized the October momentum, the most plausible scenario still favours Obama squeaking by with a narrow win on November 6. Assuming present polling trends continue through next week, this scenario has Obama winning the electoral college vote (and thus the presidency), with about 277 electoral votes, to Romney's 261. (See map)
However it remains unclear whether Obama, or Romney, will prevail in the popular vote - which promises to be very close. It is conceivable that the 'popular' and 'electoral' votes could diverge in this election, leading to furious Republican protests that they have been 'robbed of the presidency' (just as Democrats claimed when Bush won the electoral college in 2000 but lost the popular vote). The two most recent national polls as of this writing, by ABC News/Washington Post and Rasmussen, show Romney ahead by one point, and four points, respectively, among likely voters. Yet paradoxically, Obama remains ahead in enough of the individual states that if the election were held today, he would win by 277 to 261 electoral votes, and possibly by as much as 281 to 257 (if you include New Hampshire, in which he is currently one point ahead.)
Keep in mind that the American system does not have a direct popular election of the president. Rather, in the 'Electoral College' system, it's the state polls that ultimately count. Winning a majority of 270 of those electoral votes in the individual states, not a majority of the popular vote, is what actually wins the White House.
So it is theoretically possible for Obama to win the electoral college, and yet Romney wins the popular vote by a slight margin. This divergence has occurred before, in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. For example in the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Gore received 266 electoral votes and Bush received 271, and so Bush became the next president. However the final popular vote tally was 50,999,897 for Gore, to 50,456,002 for Bush - leading to widespread consternation among Democrats that they had been cheated.
At this point in the race, most of the electoral votes are already clear - going for either Obama (in strong 'blue states'), or Romney (in strong 'red states'), owing to lopsided majorities in those states. So the 2012 election outcome now boils down to several swing states, that will ultimately decide the election. The eight swing states most likely to determine the outcome, because the numbers there remain close, include Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.
If we look at the polling averages in those swing states over the past month (which I've listed in parentheses after each state), and compare 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 an Obama win would have him sweeping the upper Midwest, including Ohio (where Obama leads by 1.9 per cent), Pennsylvania (O, +4.8 per cent), Michigan (O, +5.0 per cent), Illinois (O, +15.0 per cent), Minnesota (O, +7.3 per cent), Wisconsin (O, +2.7 per cent) and Iowa (O, +2.0 per cent). He has effectively already won the Northeast states (with the exception of New Hampshire), and the Pacific West states (California, Oregon, Washington), and is likely to also prevail in New Mexico (O, +10.5 per cent), and Nevada (O, +2.8 per cent) in the West, where he has been ahead for months now. Using a conservative electoral model that assumes he might ultimately lose New Hampshire, this would still give him at least 277 electoral votes, enough to be re-elected to a second term.
For his part, Romney has all along had strong, often double-digit leads in the South and the West - that over the past month has extended to the marginal swing states of North Carolina (R, +5.6), Virginia (R, +0.1), and Florida (R, +1.8), as well as Indiana (R, +12.5) in the upper Midwest and New Hampshire (O, +1.4) in the Northeast (which in past elections has gone marginally Republican). But that would not be enough to overtake Obama, so if present polling trends in the states extend through November 6, Obama will be re-elected.
What governing configuration would Obama have to work with?
The narrow victory in the electoral college, plus a razor-thin margin in the popular vote (which might still tip in favour of Romney), would not provide a recipe for easy consensus around his policies in the second term, in the absence of a clear mandate. Just imagine the massive Tea Party demonstrations that would ensue, if Obama wins the presidency, but trails in the popular vote count!
If present state and local polling trends continue through the next two weeks, Obama would again have to stare down a hostile Republican majority in the House (about 238 Republicans, 197 Democrats), and Republican Governors in a majority of the states (32 of 50). He would probably have a slight Democratic majority in the Senate (current polls suggest about 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans, 2 Independents), but he would also have to do some bargaining across the ideological divide in order to push through legislation in the House, and somehow get a right-leaning, conservative Supreme Court to approve. So if he wins, after all that effort to get re-elected, the 'prize' is another four years of political deadlock in a deeply ideologically divided nation.
In his Gleaner column tomorrow, John Rapley will explore some of the economic and policy consequences of an Obama-Biden win.
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 a former Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.