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US2012: finish line in sight

Opinion,J Brookes Spector
J Brooks Spector
Opinion

On Tuesday, American voters finally get their say, in an enormous communal exercise of civic virtue.

In his The Making of the President books covering the American presidential elections from 1960 to 1972, Theodore H White loved zooming in on the moment candidates finally ceased their endless criss-crossing of the continent and the answer hung in the balance. The announcement of the winner would follow, thereby pointing to the uniqueness – and the beauty and ugliness - of the American political style and system.

Now, of course, so many more countries have their own increasingly open, increasingly free elections, the American story line is a bit less unique. But, regardless, since 1788, despite civil war, economic catastrophe, foreign attacks and the occasional invasion, as well as more distant foreign conflicts, every four years America has gone through the exercise of picking one man in which to invest its dreams, aspirations, desires – and maybe fears. Now, once again, the country has reached that river to cross yet one more time.

After an exhausting, debilitating, even dispiriting struggle that had at least nine putative claimants to the nomination at one point, the Republican Party faithful finally held their collective noses and embraced Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, saviour of the 2002 Winter Olympics and vulture capitalist, as their champion.

Much of the party remained unenthusiastic over this choice. He wasn’t a social conservative, his economic values sometimes uncomfortably mirrored those of the big banks and financial houses, he was a Mormon and he had never effectively warmed up to the libertarian temperament of the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Regardless, as one would-be candidate after another imploded or was battered by the Romney juggernaut, by the end of things, Romney’s superior campaign organization and his plentiful finances ensured he made it across the finish line even before the party had formally assembled in Tampa, Florida.

That convention was threatened by a major hurricane, forcing the party to slice one day off its gathering. Perhaps that should have been a foreboding of things meteorological yet to come. Romney picked budget hawk Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, looking beyond the other presidential aspirants and other, more familiar GOP faces. The convention itself was almost a flat-line affair, with Clint Eastwood’s surreal, increasingly weird conversation with an empty chair (as a stand-in for the president) the enduring image from the meeting.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama, the incumbent, had an easier (unchallenged) road to his party’s nomination. But his electoral circumstances still seemed uncertain, at best, through the summer. With the economy in the doldrums, his assertion of national economic stewardship remained challenged through the summer and on into the autumn. At his party’s convention, however, his chances were bolstered somewhat by his wife’s warm, evocative speech about Obama as a person, rather than as a politician.

And when former President Bill Clinton gave an astonishing podium performance, some of the rhetorical master’s political mojo magic seemed – as least for that moment – to transfer to a president and candidate who had begun to seem more bowed, battered and diminished, four years into office, than anyone would have suspected at his inauguration in January 2009.

As the general election campaign began in earnest after the Labour Day end-of-summer holiday at the beginning of September, the candidates and their many surrogates sought to round up those elusive voters in the so-called “swing” or “battleground” states. As most readers now understand, the American presidential election is really 51 separate plebiscites – one in each state and in the District of Columbia (Washington). Except for Maine and Nebraska, the winning candidate in each of these states gains the full electoral weight of that state – roughly the relative population size of that state. Since there are 538 electoral votes a winning candidate must earn in 270 of the electoral votes.

Most states are now rather reliably Democratic or Republican leaning in the aggregate. As a result, the Northeast, much of the upper Midwest and the Pacific states are generally safely Democratic. Similarly, the South, the Midwest and the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states are now fiefdoms of the Republican Party. The wild cards in this equation are Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado and possibly one or two other states. As a result, because the electoral votes from Virginia, Florida and Ohio represent what may be the margin between winning or losing the presidency, both candidates have assiduously courted voters in those states. Since no Republican candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio, that state’s citizens have been subjected to an unremitting barrage of television and radio commercials, Internet ads, pleas and importuning via social media, email, phone calls, and live rallies. For the Republicans, at least, the demographic geography of Ohio and Florida make them virtual must-win states, and the party has lavished its attention on potential voters there.

The candidates met in three televised encounters, sometimes misleadingly called debates. The first was designed to focus on domestic issues – the federal budget, tax policy, and the government’s functions and structures. The second was a town hall format with a handpicked gathering of officially certified undecided voters asking whatever questions they wished, while the third was supposed to focus on foreign policy and international security issues, although both candidates tried really hard to steer it back to the domestic policy issues presumed to be the key to voter appeal.

Obama gave a reasonably good impression of someone who was virtually absent in the first debate, his responses to questions from moderator Jim Lehrer or in rebuttal to points from Romney were lacklustre and took much of the air out of his sense of finally being on the winning curve. In the second debate, Obama came back into his own to a significant degree, and then made something of a slam dunk of it in the final debate; nevertheless, on the basis of the first performance, Romney had established himself as a legitimate contender. He had shown himself to many to be presidential - having crossed some intangible threshold in many minds. The momentum worm had turned.

Obama’s performance in the next two debates slowed that progress, but it took yet another meteorological intervention, the most implacable of potential October surprises, to help return the momentum substantially Obama’s way.

Super Storm Sandy struck the Mid-Atlantic states – Delaware, New Jersey and New York – with astonishing impact, right at the end of October. This forced a hiatus in campaigning as Obama returned to the White House to help oversee the response of the federal government to the calamity, leaving Romney compelled effectively to suspend his campaigning for that period as well. For Obama, this was something of an unanticipated but deeply appreciated gift. Even a staunch, famously acerbic Republican like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie found himself effusively praising Obama’s efforts as president, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, offered a late endorsement as well on much the same grounds. These comments, played over and over again on the television news and tweeted and re-tweeted to others were the kind of freebies a candidate could not purchase.

In terms of the issues, foreign policy was not expected to be the determinant of this election. Indeed, as Democrats had successfully locked up national security as a Democratic plus with the death of Osama bin Laden and a reasonable end to the US military involvement in Iraq (and soon enough Afghanistan as well), Republicans tried hard to build the deaths at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September as proof of the president’s incompetence or worse. But in the waning days of the campaign, Romney moved away significantly from those charges by some in his party, sensing perhaps that there was no traction from it among the still-undecided voters.

More broadly, the third debate showed Romney’s increasing shift away from the kinds of positions that had finally won him the support of his party’s more conservative wing. Through much of that third debate the Romney approach was essentially to agree with Obama’s foreign policy prescriptions and efforts, thereby painting himself as a man of the middle.

This ultimately was a clear demonstration of a central truth of American politics that victory comes from embracing the core of the political spectrum – if for no other reason that that’s where the votes are. By the last weekend before the election, Romney had even transformed himself – verbally at least – into being the candidate of “real hope and real change”, an eerie echo of Obama’s own “hope and change” campaign theme just four years earlier.

To a considerable degree too, the economy argument had been prised out of Romney’s hands. In the past two months, the nation’s unemployment rate dropped below that heretofore-magic 8% number, and a range of other economic indices began to show a slow, deliberate but increasingly steady revival. Revised figures, in fact, showed more job growth over the past six months than earlier figures showed when they were initially released. Still other results showed a growing number of new and re-entrants into the labour force – a key determinant of economic recovery. Other Romney charges over the automobile industry bailout at the beginning of the Obama administration were significantly rebutted by the manufacturers themselves, lessening still further the impact of some of Romney’s key assertions.

So where are we now? As the votes are about to be cast, the incumbent and the challenger are neck-and-neck in the popular vote, even as polls also show the president is marginally ahead in many of those key battleground states. If that holds true, the American people will likely have Barack Obama in the White House for another term – but only just. In the Senate races, it is likely the Democrats will continue to hold onto a majority – but again only just. In the House of Representatives, however, the perception is the Republicans will hold a slightly diminished majority.

But the only poll that counts is the one tallied from the actual votes on Tuesday, 6 November. And for that, 200-million Americans get to commune with their inner selves as they make their respective choices. And so much will still depend on how well the two parties get their respective supporters out to the polls and how the weather affects people’s interest in standing line to cast that vote. Stay tuned.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.

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