A battle like no other

US election 2012: The race to the White House will be a very tight one, predict pollsters
Last Updated 13 October 2012, 18:12 IST

The battle lines are drawn. The swords have been unleashed and the rhetoric is at an all time high as the D-day approaches - the 57th US Presidential election scheduled for November 6. Barack Obama - the incumbent - looks confident to carry on for a second and final four-year term. But his challenger – Mitt Romney- is quite charged up after the first presidential debate in which, according to most viewers, Romney emerged the winner.  

Obama appeared completely lost in the debate - leading comedian Bill Maher to joke that he was probably on dope. But the Democrat combo of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had a recovery of sorts after the latter was at his combative best against his Republican challenger Paul Ryan in a televised debate.

Elections, and indeed politics, are a battle of ideas. So it would be interesting to see on what issues the elections are won. At one level, it’s a referendum on Obama’s performance in his first term as President. It is perhaps a mandate on his landmark Healthcare law - which despite huge protests - was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Obama came in with a lot of hope. Change was the catchword of his previous campaign.

And it’s true that the White House has never looked this different before. However, the larger question is whether he has justified people’s faith in him. 

Obama came with so much goodwill that it was always a trip downhill from the day he assumed office. But it remains to be seen how far he has come down. The slogan for Obama this time is “Forward” because that’s the way he wants America and his future to go. Romney, however, chose to appeal to a more patriotic theme with his slogan “Believe in America”. The Obama camp has been trying their best to put out a positive message as Biden said in Democratic National Convention – “Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive”. But the killing of Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, has taken away a lot of the sheen of the “We got Osama” rhetoric.

The economy, as many polls have shown, is the single most important issue in the electorate’s mind.  And employment is part of this larger question. What should worry Obama the most is that unemployment figures in the last 43 months have remained over 8 per cent. Obama was hit by the two economic crisis of 2008 and 2011. So the biggest indictment of the Obama administration is that they have not been able to revive the economy. Obama could not emerge as a modern day Franklin Roosevelt who drove US out of depression.

Whereas Romney, with a personal fortune of some $250m, claims to be employment generator  to thousands of Americans when he was heading Bain capital. The Obama campaign has been trying to burst this image by stating that Romney had outsourced a lot of the jobs overseas and has painted him as an outsourcer-in-chief. Obama also targeted Romney for not releasing his tax returns.

Different plans

Both the candidates offer different plans for the economy. The Romney campaign, true to Republican ideology, has been asking for a smaller government,  lower taxes, cut in spending on entitlement programmes such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Romney has also promised to repeal Obama’s healthcare law. 

Things didn’t help Romney when, unaware that his speech is being recorded, told in a private function that 47% of Americans didn’t pay taxes and still received various welfare benefits and all of them would vote for Obama. With that Romney came across as anti-poor, insensitive, elitist millionaire. While Obama continues to believe that the state has to continue to play a larger role and invest more in health education and infrastructure. He wants to maintain most of the tax rates and only seeks to increase the tax rate of the rich.

Foreign policy is another topic which is important for US elections. Iran’s nuclear programme and the policy on Israel has already been widely debated. Romney has accused Obama of being too “soft” in his foreign policy while dealing with countries like China, Russia and Iran. Obama, meanwhile, continues to stress the importance of dealing with foreign policy issues more tactfully than aggressively. So the 2012 election is not merely about personalities but one about who stands where on major issues.

Social values

However, “social values” of the candidates have also played a huge role in US elections.

Topics like abortion, gay marriage have always been a topic of debate. Romney has advocated for a ban on gay marriage, even civil unions of homosexual couples and also wants a ban on almost all cases of abortion. Obama has always been pro-choice on the topic of abortion and in 2010 had supported gay marriage.

On the topic of immigration, Romney takes a much tougher stance than Obama and wants to deport all illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Obama has demonstrated his resolve in promoting diversity by appointing the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the first black attorney-general. The non-white population has been rising in America and it would be difficult for Romney to win if he does not capture some of the share of votes.

Despite his recent success at the debate that saw Romney overtake Obama in the Gallup poll, many political pundits still feel that Obama has a slight edge. One of the main reasons for this is that America has the habit of giving its president one more chance at office. In the last 70 years, only three presidents —Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush senior—have been shown the door.

The swing states

Another reason that seems to favour Obama is that he seems to be doing better at the swing states. The US President is not selected on the basis of the maximum number of votes people cast in his favour but by the number of seats that he gets in the Electoral College. There are 538 seats in the Electoral College and for a candidate to become president, he has to win at least 270 seats. So you can have a situation in which Romney actually polls more votes than Obama and still Obama wins the elections.

This is an understandable proposition as the Presidential election should reflect what the people of different regions want. However, the method by which the seats in the Electoral College are awarded has been quite controversial. All the 50 states, except two follow the winner-takes-it-all method where a candidate who wins the majority of seats in a state is awarded the whole bunch of seats in that state.  Hence in the 55 seats of California, if Romney wins 30 and Obama 25, the entire share of 55 seats are awarded to Romney.  This looks patently unjust and there have been many attempts to make constitutional amendment to change the format of electoral representation.

The prime problem with this system is that some states would always be more pro-democrat while others more republican-oriented. Even if there is a significant difference of share in the percentage of votes in one state, unless it can gain a majority of seats, the extra votes the candidate gets becomes absolutely irrelevant. So the battles for these states are a foregone conclusion and candidates pay little attention to states which they consider “safe” or “hopeless”. States are, hence, neatly classified as Red states and Blue states and it’s the few states that swing either ways that decide the elections. The battle then shifts to what are known as “swing states.”

Some of the major swing states are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, N Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. In fact there is a popular adage that whoever wins Ohio goes on to become the President.

So one might see the overall rating of Obama and Romney across the country fluctuating between various ends after every week. But what matters is who gets the swing seats. But if there is a very strong wave in favour of a candidate, the battle for America goes beyond the swing states. Such a strong wave has not been evident for either of the candidates so far, even with the elections being just a few weeks away. 

However, the reactions to next two presidential debates - to be held on October 16 and October 22 - could signal the mood of the country. And the people - as they say – will have the last word.

(The writer is a Graduate Fellow at the Law, Governance and Development Initiative at Azim Premji University)

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(Published 13 October 2012, 18:10 IST)

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