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The Two Turning Points in the 2012 Presidential Election

November 3, 2012

When the 2012 presidential election is analysed retrospectively, I believe that 2 events will prove decisive. First were the debates. All too often they have been dull, lifeless affairs. This year, however, we witnessed real excitement, high drama and three debates that greatly helped shape the course of the race in its final weeks. The first debate was a clear victory for Mitt Romney, the second a tie and the third… well as with all these things, it is possible to take from an event what you bring to it. Opinion was divided, but my calculation was that even if Obama won on points, he failed to land a knockout blow, and on foreign policy this was telling.

Obama’s performances away from an autocue have alternated between petulance and perfunctory. His attempts at humour have backfired and his efforts to assert his stance as president have oftentimes appeared to be condescending. Throughout the debates he sought – and on two out of three occasions secured – the support of the moderator. Obama’s dithering over the Benghazi tragedy did little to inspire confidence. His inability to present a comprehensive strategy for the next four years, in over fours hours of debates, was equally troubling. The president’s performances in these debates raised questions as to the real nature of his abilities. Four years ago, many hailed his arrival on the political scene as a breath of fresh air. Here, it was proclaimed, was a new type of politician who could get things done, reposition America and initiate a new era in U.S. politics. Four years later, much has occurred to diminish this reputation. In retrospect it is clear, as it was to many at the time, that almost any Democrat was going to win the presidency in 2008. Arguably, Obama’s great victory came not in November 2008, but in the previous summer when he secured the nomination.

In recent weeks I have considered the presidential debates for The Commentator and for Sky News. I have sought to present a considered perspective on the events and to highlight that even when the debates could be considered a tie, this itself could be considered a triumph for Romney, due to Obama’s inability to derail the Republican’s remarkable last gasp surge. This has caused my vision and sanity to be called into question by those who felt that Obama’s performance was superior and sufficient to restore his lead in the polls. I have been referred to as a Theatre Critic for focusing upon the candidates’ performance in the debate and less on specific policy details.

So, what was the impact of the debates on the polls? Gallup had Romney up by 6 points nationally, 51 to 45 percent. This has been compounded by a Real Clear Politics prediction that placed Romney ahead in the Electoral College for the first time in the contest by 206 to 201 with less than two weeks to go and ahead in Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina. With the polls swinging in Romney’s favour, the only question appeared to be whether there was enough time before the election for the momentum to carry him to victory in the key swing states he needs to win.

This was not yet a done deal, but the world was blissfully unaware how close Obama appeared at this stage to becoming a one-term president. This possibility was woefully under-reported in the press and it was revealing how many highly respected political scientist, historians, and supposed experts are openly dismissive of the possibility of a Romney presidency, putting aside their professional training to discount the slightest possibility that Obama could lose.

And then Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. Usually when political scientists and pollsters consider the implications of the weather on voter turnout in elections, they do so with rainstorms in Ohio in mind, not the risk that the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States might be reduced to rubble by a storm, the like of which is hard to imagine. There was little doubt that heading into the final week of the campaign, Mitt Romney was in the ascendancy. His debate performances had been solid and he had continued to build upon the momentum he developed from the first debate in Denver. Discussion and analysis of the vice presidential candidates, or of the final debate suddenly seem a long time ago.

The Obama campaign appeared desperate to get as many supporters to the polls as early as possible, lest they be convinced by Romney’s hopeful message in the final days of the campaign. Even the President himself voted early, in an historic first. The White House’s nightmare, of a continuing Romney surge, peaking on Election Day, appeared to be a distinct possibility.

Whist is it still a little early to be certain, it appears to be a distinct possibility that Barack Obama will owe his re-election to the mayhem and chaos that has been delivered upon the Eastern Seaboard, and on the millions of Americans who lives have just been blown apart. In times of crisis it is to the President of the United States that the people turn. Not to his challengers, or to the Speaker of the House. The eyes of the nation and indeed the world have been fixed on Barack Obama, and in the past 48 hours he has been seen to rise to the occasion.

When Republican Governor Chris Christie (until not to long ago, a serious candidate as Republican VP) is seen greeting the President warmly and praising his efforts to assist in the recovery operation, it is difficult not to sympathise with the Romney team. With power out in many key districts, one wonders if the election results could easily be called into question on Election Night. They have come so far, closed an almost insurmountable gap in voter intent, only, it appears, to be undone, quite literally, by an Act of God.

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