Predicting US presidential elections is a mugs game – you never know what the hell is going to happen which gives us election prognosticators a number of built in excuses if we’re wrong!
From the outset, we must remember that the US system is unlike parliamentary ones in that the voter will often vote for one party in Congress while going the other way for president.
A few weeks ago I was predicting Obama in a walk but now I’m not so sure – except I am sure if you get my drift. This schizophrenia comes because my underlying gut feeling is for Obama but he’s not been what I expected and hoped.
He hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay concentration camp and in fact he’s made it worse by getting the army into homeland security. The military now has the power to arrest security suspects and hold them as long as the “crisis” lasts – without habeas corpus or any hearing at all. What are or are not “persons” subject to this new law is unclear. Someone will have to explain to me how this differs from the Gestapo, Stasi or the Soviet Union’s NKVD.
This is no idle concern – Americans are bred to the notion of “due process” and its most staunch supporters tend to be Democrats not Republicans (the legislation passed the Republican controlled Senate by 97-3). The bad news for Obama is that many in his party will feel this keenly; the good news is that it was Republican in origin … yet more bad news for Obama because despite his promise to veto it, he signed the Bill. While Democrats may not vote Republican over this, they may stay home on Election Day,
On June 28 the President received the good news that the Supreme Court upheld his public health legislation with Justice Kennedy surprisingly dissenting and Chief Justice Roberts even more surprisingly, casting the tie breaking vote. The question is, was this really good news politically? Had the Court struck down the legislation it would have given Obama the ability to run against the Court blaming the court’s Republican majority for taking health care away from the people.
Having said that, the Republican nominee to be, Mitt Romney couldn’t wait to condemn the Court’s decision giving Obama a key issue knowing that his legislation and what it promises are popular with “middle America”. In fact, at this writing many Republican journalists, including the ultra “right” David Frum, are calling Romney’s hasty condemnation a political mistake. I agree.
US politics is strange. It was the Bush II administration whose laxity in supervising the “money industry” gave rise to the huge problems of 2007 and the subsequent recession yet Obama is being blamed for either doing too much in the way of government bailing out stricken companies or not doing enough. It’s the same oddity of American politics that allowed Bush II, a draft dodger, to paint John Kerry, a decorated war hero, as a coward.
There are two possible defining moments to come. First we have the nominating conventions less than two months away. There was a time, not long ago, when the nominating convention had some zing to it. Except for a sitting president no candidate went into the Convention with the nomination a slam dunk making the race for the top great fun and excitement as the candidates fought for votes. Since nearly all states now have “primaries” about to be anointed nominee is known long before the Convention begins.
The conventions will still have an impact and each candidate hopes that his performance will attract favourable attention amongst voters. It is here Mr Obama has the chance to use his clearly superior speaking ability to advantage.
The other defining moment will be the TV debates which have often made the difference. There was Nixon in 1960 victimized by bad makeup and a five o’clock shadow; one remembers Gerald Ford saying, in 1976, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration“, and of course, when Reagan’s age came up in his debate with Walter Mondale, he killed them with "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience”. Ouch!
Then there was this memorable moment in the vice-presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle
Quayle: "I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency."
Bentsen: "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
There is the question of religion. The faith of a candidate hasn’t been in issue since Roman Catholic John Kennedy won in 1960 but it may be, albeit a muffled one, in 2012 especially in the fundamentalist Christian South where Romney’s Mormonism is held to be not just a different branch of Christianity but rank and dangerous heresy. In the same region race is still a big issue. Although the South is Republican and has been since Nixon, Obama will work some southern states – Florida especially – vigorously with some hopes. Immigrants, mostly Latino and many illegal, will also play out and it should, marginally, help Obama.
I mentioned at the outset that American presidential elections are different to what most of us are used to. It’s, in golfing parlance, match play, not medal. The actual election is done by the Electoral College. Each state sends the number of delegates it’s entitled to as mandated by the election to the College which then make the formal choice. (So far the College members have always voted as the election indicated and I have no idea of what would happen if they didn’t!) It doesn’t matter therefore, if one candidate has a huge majority in a state or a very thin one – the state sends all its electors to the candidate who wins the most votes. It is by no means unheard of for the presidency to go to the candidate who did not win the overall popular vote.
There is the matter of vice-presidential nominees. This is an area that scares the pants off of me and should do the same to everyone. A beat of the heart kept the crook, Spiro Agnew and spelling challenged Dan Quayle from the White House and Sarah Palin would have been the heir apparent had John McCain won in 2008. Rather than look for the best person for the job, the presidential nominee (whose choice it is in practice) thinks of flattering a region, sexual or racial balance or other reasons unconnected to more serious considerations.
Of considerable concern to both candidates is the possibility of a third and even fourth party. A past spoiler for the Democrats like Ralph Nader or a member of the Tea Party for the Republicans is a serious concern. Not all can be as fortunate as Harry Truman was in 1948 when he saw his Democratic Party splinter in three yet still won.
To date there hasn’t been a deciding issue unfold and who knows what it will be if it does? Michael Dukakis was leading in the polls in September 1988 only to have George H.W. Bush’s campaign discover that Dukakis, as Massachusetts governor, had freed a black murderer named Willy Horton thus lobbing both crime, and not very subtly, racism in as the main issue.
My tummy still tells me that Obama, the better speaker and debater will win but we can only guess what the issues will really be, if there will be a Ford like gaffe or some other kind of defining moment. And as that master of the malapropism, former baseball great, Yogi Berra pointed out, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.