The President will now have little opportunity to win over the few remaining undecided voters. At this point, he must hope that events proceed in his favour – no campaign trail slip-ups, no international incidents – and that the core of his support set aside any grudges they bear over broken promises and actually turn up on election day.
When it comes to national elections, the press love a tight race. Which might explain the excitement that followed the first US presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama. After weeks of gaffes from Romney which verged on campaign suicide, there was at last a glimmer of hope that he might actually stand a chance on election day. Obama’s inexplicably poor performance allowed Romney to portray himself as energetic and full of ideas, no matter how much these ideas contradicted his previously stated policies. To put it simply, the quality of argument in a televised debate matters much less than the quality of presentation, and on this front, Romney scored a resounding victory.
The excitement among the press at this turn of events was mirrored by fear among Obama’s Democratic base that their candidate had somehow become complacent. But if anything, it is complacency among that base that poses the greatest threat to Obama’s re-election. Certainly, it is difficult to envision the kind of turn-out which resulted in Obama’s landslide victory in 2008. While it is very unlikely that a significant proportion of those who voted for him then will switch allegiance to Romney, the fact remains that Obama has not given his base that much to cheer about over the past four years, so mobilising them to get out and vote on November 6 may prove challenging.
And here we have a routine dilemma in two-party politics: a candidate’s firmest supporters are those to whom they have to worry least about appealing. After all, committed liberals, no matter how neglected they feel, are hardly likely to vote Republican. But there does exist the risk that demotivated and disillusioned voters simply will not show up on the day. And there is certainly a section of such voters among those who supported Obama in 2008. They point to a series of broken promises over, for example, Guantanamo Bay, drug policy, and a watered down healthcare package. But the administration has decent rebuttals for each of these examples: initial optimism, verging on naivety, over the prospect of closing Guantanamo was swiftly undermined by an uncooperative congress, and the issue simply has not arisen during the election. Promises to end the ‘War on Drugs’ have been totally reversed, with the administration taking a harder line than its predecessor on issues like states’ sanctioning the sale of medical marijuana, but the administration can easily paint this as a niche concern, and certainly not an issue for the election. And while the public option failed to materialise during the run-up to the flagship healthcare reforms, despite considerable evidence that Obama had the political clout to force this element through had he so wished, the fact remains that the package which passed will make an enormous difference in ensuring coverage for millions of Americans.
It is a simple fact of two-party politics that where there is no disagreement between the parties, an issue is highly unlikely to receive much coverage. It is in this way that the Guantanamo and drugs war issues have been largely forgotten about in the national debate. Similarly, the fact that half of the American deaths in Afghanistan have occurred under Obama’s presidency has elicited little concern, while the same applies to the dramatic escalation of drone strikes over the past four years. Yet these are issues which matter to liberal Americans, supposedly Obama’s safest supporters.
But there are some reasons for optimism among his base. Perhaps his decision to speak out in favour of gay marriage in May was a signal to these supporters that they had not been forgotten. And perhaps a second term will allow him the freedom to pursue some of the policy areas which he had trumpeted four years ago, but which have been neglected since.
Of course, with a mere two weeks remaining before election day, there is little Obama can do at this point to reinvigorate his base. Instead, he must shore up his appeal to those few remaining undecided voters. His performances in the second and third debates will have helped; both were much more reminiscent of the man so much of the world came to admire four years ago, and his supporters will hope that this renewed energy will last for the final sprint to the finish. The lethargy and disinterest exhibited in the first debate was replaced with a welcome aggression, as he sought to point out the numerous areas of policy on which Romney’s views have changed to suit his audience.
For his part, Romney has represented something of an amorphous fog of policy during this campaign, seeking to be most things to most people but leaving very little by which genuine intent can be discerned. Recent weeks have seen a significant move to the centre, on issues such as taxation of the wealthy and healthcare for those with pre- existing conditions. His marquee policies, such as widespread tax cuts funded by the closing of loopholes, have been poorly explained. All too often, his responses during the debates made reference to “the way I think it ought to be”, with little elaboration. While he certainly dominated the first debate, the town hall format of the second suited Obama much more. And despite his best efforts during the third debate to return to his most fertile ground, the economy, its focus on foreign policy was always going to be prove challenging for the Republican contender. His attempts to paint the incumbent’s response to the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi as weak and uncertain were successfully parried with accusations of inappropriate political point-scoring. And the notion of the president being soft is unlikely to fly among a public who celebrated in the streets upon the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Given Romney’s gaffe spree in the past month, including the effective dismissal of 47% of the voting public, victory should be well within Obama’s grasp. Yet the candidates’ poll ratings are currently even, with some even predicting a tie in the electoral college. The President will now have little opportunity to win over the few remaining undecided voters. At this point, he must hope that events proceed in his favour – no campaign trail slip-ups, no international incidents – and that the core of his support set aside any grudges they bear over broken promises and actually turn up on election day.
Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey