US election race baffles the punters

dennis-altman-big Professor Dennis Altman


First published in The Age on 12 January, 2012.

Unless something quite unpredictable occurs, the US presidential election will pit Mitt Romney against Barack Obama. Not only has Romney won the early contests, but the Republican establishment is consolidating behind him, and the right will swallow their dislike of his Mormonism, his apparent liberalism, and his record as governor of Massachusetts out of their hatred for Obama.

With at least three other Republicans remaining in the race, Romney will quietly accumulate the delegates he needs to go to the party's convention in August, where his rhetoric will switch from proving himself to Tea Party crackpots to winning over more moderate (and less engaged) voters.

Meanwhile, President Obama will increasingly engage in an expensive and calculated campaign blitz aimed at holding on to his 2008 support. Ironically, Obama seems to be becoming bolder as the campaign approaches: major cut-backs in military spending and increasing attacks on the Republicans as the party of the rich and privileged will play well with Democrats who view him as weak and conservative.

Since the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan defeated the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, presidential elections have split evenly between incumbents (or their heirs) and challengers from the other party. History favours an incumbent to win, but it also suggests the state of the US economy presents real problems for Obama.

Remember that the US system means presidents are chosen nominally by an electoral college, in which the votes of each state are determined on a winner-take-all basis. Obama could lose more than half a dozen of the states he carried in 2008 and still win this year. Some of those states, especially Indiana and North Carolina, had been solidly Republican for the past 40 years.

The two parties have solid bases: Republicans in the south, and the Democrats on the two coasts.

As usual, the real battle will be for large midwest states such as Ohio and Missouri, plus the patchwork state of Florida with its concentration of loyalists on both sides. Romney may pick a Hispanic vice-presidential nominee to win votes in Florida, Colorado and New Mexico, which Obama won last time.

Assuming no imminent foreign policy crisis, the election will depend on two things: whether undecided voters blame the congressional Republicans more than the President for the state of the economy, and how many potential supporters the candidates can motivate to vote. Just over 60 per cent of potential voters turned up in 2008, and in some states Republican legislatures have made voting more difficult, assuming this will advantage them.

Romney will clearly campaign along Reaganite lines, demanding smaller government, lower taxes and the magical properties of private enterprise to restart the economy. He is somewhat vulnerable as the son of a millionaire whose business practices have come under scrutiny, but he is campaigning against a president whose economic policies have not been particularly successful.

Of the states with the highest unemployment, only a small number - Nevada, North Carolina, Florida and Michigan - are in doubt. But Romney will concentrate on them, and on former Democratic bastions such as New Jersey and Minnesota.

Voting for a president is also voting for a certain image of America, which explains the jubilation felt by so many when a young African-American with a radical past broke through conventional assumptions. Rekindling that excitement is difficult for Obama, but no one has claimed Romney is a charismatic candidate.

He will, however, be seen as safe, prepared for the job, and able to re-energise American business. Expect a Republican campaign that promises a more aggressive and dominant United States, and remember that American campaigns do not revolve around policy details in the way to which we are accustomed.

Does it matter to Australia? Certainly Obama has established genuinely warm relations with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and is committed to our region of the world. But the most important issue for our wellbeing is whether the US economy recovers, and it is a matter of dispute whether either candidate can do much to ensure that.

Remember, too, that in November all House of Representatives and a third of the Senate seats are up for re-election. It is quite possible that Obama will be re-elected but with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, even if some Tea Party freshmen are defeated.

Predictions in politics are notoriously unreliable: at this point in 1992, George Bush snr was expected to be re-elected, which helped Bill Clinton win the Democratic nomination; and in 2008, it seemed as if John McCain might win up until September, when the scale of the global financial crisis revealed his ineptitude in discussing the economy.

It is impossible to predict what events might intervene in the next 10 months to change the electoral calculations. I wouldn't bet either way at this point.

Dennis Altman is professor of politics and director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University.