The Two Turning Points in the 2012 Presidential Election

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.

American Politics: All Campaigning, No Governing

With just a little over a month to go until Election Day, and with the first in a series of Presidential Debates looming, the focus of the American electorate should be upon the issues at stake in the 2012 election. However, instead it finds itself thinking of events 4 years from now and more specifically, on the figure of Hillary Clinton. This week, and not for the first time, former President Bill Clinton has, in his own unique manner, revealed a singular truth about American politics. Either deliberately or otherwise, Clinton has in a stroke raised the spectre of a Hillary Clinton presidency and revealed an intrinsic flaw in the American electoral psyche: The political system is focused on campaigning, not governing.

By admitting that he had no idea whether his wife would seek the presidency in 4 years, Bill Clinton effective fired the starting pistol for the Democratic primary season of 2016, 2 months before the result of the 2012 election has even been announced. This has been exacerbated by a growing sense that this race is over; that Romney has blown whatever chance he had in a series of ill-advised statements, a lack-lustre convention and by failing to run a policy-driven campaign. Currently trailing by anything up to 7% in key, must-win, swing states, his success now rests on matters out of his control.

It has long been the case that a second term American president becomes a lame duck in some respects, almost as soon as he has been returned to office. It is in the nature in politics that power abhors a vacuum, and as soon as one election is over, eyes turn to the next. The knowledge that a second term president is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term inevitable leads to questions being asked in regard to his successor, and accordingly, a diminution of his stature as advisers begin to think of their own futures and initiate a process of seeking to ally themselves with the next potential president.

This could be seen as being the $2 billion problem at the heart of American politics.  It is too focused on campaigning and not on governing. Vast sums are being spent to sway a tiny number of undecided, Independent voters to vote on, or before, November 6. Despite the sums involved, turnout is unlikely to exceed 55%. As politics becomes more and more about gaining power and les and less about holding and using power, the electorate are becoming less and less interested.

This endless process ensures that rather than thinking about what is best for the nation or its citizens, politicians constantly have to focus upon their bid for re-election. This is bad enough in the presidency, but it is endemic within the House of Representatives, with its two-year term in office, which ensures that candidates have to fundraise for re-election from their first hours in post. This is simply no way to run a 21st century superpower. All too often in recent years, the flaws in the 17th century basis of American democracy have been exposed, be it in electoral processes, voting regulations or terms in office. The American Constitution was designed to frustrate, and in this, it is certainly succeeding, but not necessarily in the ways intended.

These inherent problems are compounded by the lack of an obvious incumbent for the Democrats in 2016 (assuming an Obama victory in November). By retaining the services of Vice President Joe Biden, Barack Obama has effectively made him the presumptive candidate in 2016. Is that really what the Democratic Party wants? By Election Day 2016, Biden will be 73 and no more ready to be president than he was in 2008. One of the great successes of this Administration to date has been securing Obama’s safety and thereby keeping Biden from the Oval Office.

Retaining Biden may have been viewed as an act of political loyalty by Obama, but it lacked any strategic vision.  An opportunity existed to bring on board a strong and credible candidate for the presidency in 2016 and give them the all-important incumbency and presumptive nomination status that would go with the position.  Instead, Obama has saddled himself and his party with a Vice President who brings nothing positive to the ticket and actually hurts the party in the lead up to the next election. Rather than being able to coalesce around an incumbent and obvious front runner, the party machine will need to endure another anxious primary season and endless speculation over the potential nominee, a process that Bill Clinton kick started this week.

If the Democrats prevail on November 6, then the Republican posturing will also begin in earnest, with serious questions to be asked as to how they managed to blow an election that was there for the taking. Issues of personality and policy need to be addressed head-on if the party is to return to the White House in 2016. Its best bet for doing so, it would appear is via Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, a young talent who appears to epitomise much of what the American Dream has come to mean in the 21st Century. Oh, and did I mention he was from Florida? One need not still have nightmares about Election 2000 to be aware of this significance. Oh, and did I mention he was from Cuba? With America’s rapidly changing demographic the importance of this should not be underestimated.

After the fireworks of 2008, 2012 has proven to be a rather uneventful election (so far). With the personalities and politics that will doubtless dominate the next four years, it appears likely that 2016 will prove to be far more interesting and dynamic. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it already, which is, of course, exactly the problem in American’s campaign focused political system…