WITH one week to go to election day in the United States, the hurricane bearing down on the east coast, predicted to be a “superstorm,” is an apt metaphor for the political storm swirling across the nation.
Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney and their running mates are now totally engaged in the final sprint, with a major focus on the key battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. The race is neck-and-neck, with just the smallest indication emerging this week that Obama has finally staunched the flow of undecided voters to Romney – a flow that began immediately following the president’s pallid performance in the first debate, continued despite his strong performance in the second debate, and was halted only after the third debate highlighted Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience and expertise.
Although the Gallup polls are consistent outliers and continue to have Romney in the lead, most surveys now show Obama and Romney locked in a dead heat and a Reuter/Ipsos poll released on Saturday had Obama ahead by two percentage points. More importantly, Obama appears to have the upper hand in the states where it matters. At the weekend he had a four-point lead in both Virginia and Ohio and a one-point lead in Colorado. The New York Times calculates that Obama is assured of 243 electoral college votes compared to Romney’s 206.
Obama is relying on winning among younger, female and minority voters, while Romney’s key constituency is older, white voters. Romney’s ability to eat into Obama’s constituency is small. Polls show Obama beating Romney among African-American voters with a staggering 94 per cent favouring the president and zero per cent favouring his opponent. Among the twenty-four million eligible Hispanics it is predicted that 71 per cent will vote for Obama, largely on the basis of Romney’s stand on immigration. The minority vote will be critical in some key states, and that’s why the Democrats are so focused on getting out the vote and the Republicans so keen to erect barriers such as voter ID requirements. It is disconcerting that this presidential election is more polarised along racial lines than any since 1988.
Romney’s efforts to attract women are consistently undermined by the (dare we say it?) misogynist rantings of Republican candidates such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Women are nervous about Paul Ryan’s stated opposition to abortion in all cases, distrust Romney’s flip-flops on abortion, and are unhappy about Republican plans to take away funding from Planned Parenthood and to oppose the requirement that health insurers cover contraceptive services. Although polls disagree on the exact magnitude of the gender gap, the consensus is that it rivals the twenty-point difference in 2000, when Al Gore won by eleven points among women but George Bush won by nine points among men. Indeed, if only women voted, President Obama would be on track for a landslide election, at least equalling his margin of victory over John McCain in 2008. If only men voted, Romney would win by a margin similar to the one Ronald Reagan had over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Huge sums of money are being invested in the relatively small number of votes still up for grabs – just 12 per cent of registered voters, according to polls – with some estimates suggesting that the advertising spend is equivalent to $1000 for each one of them. At this stage both campaigns still have more than $100 million cash on hand to spend. In Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters, young staff crunch gigabytes of data to determine where this money should go – for Spanish language media in Florida and Nevada, perhaps, or more staff on the ground in Iowa. No potential constituency is too small to be ignored. The Romney campaign was so confident of victory in North Carolina, for instance, that last week it pulled staff from there to go to Virginia. But Obama analysts have discovered that since 2008 there has been a 51 per cent increase in African-American registration in North Carolina, so they are optimistic and are sending more resources for what now promises to be a real fight in that state.
Everyone remembers that in 2000 the Bush–Gore election came down to just 537 votes. And everyone remembers, too, that these were absentee votes. So the race is also on to reach out to Americans living overseas. There has been a major push in Israel, where typically two-thirds of the expatriate vote supports the Democratic candidate. But this year conservative groups, dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s positions on Israel and the Middle East, have acted to increase the number of American Israelis who are registered and therefore likely to vote. In 2008 about 30,000 votes came from Israel; this year 75,000 people are eligible to vote.
Although it is anticipated that by 6 November some 40 per cent of votes will already have been cast, the push for votes will continue unabated. From 15 October to election day, an estimated one million political commercials will air, or about 43,000 per day. Negatives ads will overwhelm those with a positive message by a ratio of seven to one.
It’s hard to know now what the candidates can do to appeal to the undecided. The majority of Americans say they do not need any more information before election day. Romney’s problem, as highlighted in all three debates, is that his policies are little more than buzzwords, slogans and declarations that he knows how to fix the problem, whatever that problem is. He’s running a hopey-changey line, which is not working, and he and Ryan are trying to avoid policy details so as to keep vague the extremism of their economic and social commitments. Romney’s campaign reveals more about what he will do to win rather than what he will do to govern if he wins.
While the president has not been as forthright as many would wish in promulgating his agenda for a second term, neither has he been a policy-free zone. And if he sometimes struggles to convey the importance and impact of the significant achievements of his first term in office, he has been greatly aided by former president Bill Clinton, who has played the role of explainer-in-chief on issues such as healthcare reform.
The ability of the next president to deliver on his commitments and to address the fiscal policies coming out of Washington will be largely determined by the outcomes of the congressional races, where campaign spending, especially by outside groups, is mushrooming. It is now estimated that the total cost of November’s elections (for the presidency, House of Representatives and Senate) will be $5.8 billion.
In the House, where only about sixty seats are considered competitive, it looks as if Democrats may make some gains, but it seems unlikely they can pick up the twenty-five seats they need to wrest House control from the GOP. Meanwhile the Senate, once thought likely to go Republican, is now leaning the Democrats’ way. Republicans need a net pick-up of four seats to take control if Obama is re-elected, three if Romney wins.
This is arguably one of the most polarised and polarising elections, and yet the winner will have to deal with the fact that America cannot have another four years of partisan gridlock if it is to tackle the ongoing economic malaise and be a strong international power. Ironically, one measure of the ability of the political parties and their candidates to make this happen will be how they respond to the meteorological havoc currently beating up the nation. For the record, President Obama has vowed that authorities will “respond big and respond fast.” Romney, meanwhile, is on the record stating that federal disaster relief for tornado and flood victims is “immoral” and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be privatised.
Lesley Russell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute at the Australian National University.