Who will win the US election? Coming into the final day of the campaign, the lifeblood of political junkies – polling numbers – continues to defy easy categorisation.
If any nationwide trend could be discerned from the mass of information across all 50 states of the Republic, it might be said that Romney edged out in front at one point, but no longer. (As I write this article, the latest news suggests that Obama is now reclaiming the lead).
Even if a majority of Americans decide to vote against him, Obama has maintained the lead in enough of the vaunted “battleground states” to secure victory in the electoral college. This is causing all manner of confusion among poll-watchers. Many of the more respected politicos have reluctantly weighed into the debate with wildly divergent views of the American electorate: do we trust the state numbers which predict an Obama victory, or go with the deadlocked national polls? Conservatives crow about the fall off in early voting among registered Democrats, suggesting that momentum isn’t being conveyed in local surveys. Liberals point to the relatively static nature of Obama’s lead over the last year, and argue that the volatile numbers don’t reflect his underlying advantages.
If Obama is the favourite, it’s due to outlying regions bucking national trends which are weighing him down elsewhere. Curiously, this phenomenon doesn’t simply break down according to past voting habits; rather, it appears to be strikingly unpredictable. Given that Obama won Ohio by just over 2 points and Colorado by more than 6, why has the former remained firmly in his column, whereas the latter is more hostile territory?
To start with, like never before in American politics, voting preferences align with identity – whether it be race, age, or gender – and the most glaring discrepancy lies among minority voters, who favour Obama by an average of nearly three to one. The most decisive shift has come from ethnic Latinos, a movement which will doom the long-term prospects of the Republican party unless it is corrected. But already, in the multiethnic America of 2012, this one-sided nature of non-white support means that while the President might govern over a divided polity, he campaigns from a position of strength. In Ohio, Obama enjoys something approaching 97 per-cent support among African Americans: if this had been replicated in 2004, John Kerry would have seen his 118,000 voting deficit in Ohio turn into a 92,000 surplus. For this reason, despite its long-standing conservatism, North Carolina remains competitive, and Nevada can be wholly written off as a swing state; its lopsided demography puts Obama ahead without much difficulty.
To be sure, white voters constitute a decisive share of the electorate in other states, and they are poised to offset much of Obama’s strength. Indeed, Romney manages to stay competitive in the national polls by chipping away at what are referred to as “aspirational voters”: self-identified moderates increasingly sympathetic to the Democratic party over the last two decades, who nevertheless remain somewhat suspicious of labour unions and redistributive taxation. These voters typically work in newer, start-up industries, and were relatively satisfied with the expansion of credit and rising property prices during the Bush years. The squabbling in Washington over the debt crisis has turned them off politics, and the poor economic outlook confirmed their defection. This explains why Obama is struggling to hold onto 2008 gains like Virginia or Colorado.
But while it might be expected that a lagging economic recovery would depress Obama’s white vote across the rest of the country, his lead is resilient in those industrial pockets which benefited from some of his administration’s more heavy-handed interventionism. In particular, the goodwill over his rescue of the American auto industry has filtered down through the chain of suppliers in Ohio’s industrial sector; he may have lost the high-technology suburbs with his talk of stagnating middle class and the need for higher taxation, but the manufacturing heartland in Ohio and Iowa is representative of a mid-western strain in American politics which responds well to issues like job security. Throughout the budget battles of 2011, Obama held back from hammering away at the Republicans over the worsening level of income inequality in American society, in large part because he feared losing upscale supporters from his coalition. But his electoral map can take the hit, and since the beginning of the year, the Obama campaign team has waged its side of the ad war on the basis of Romney’s work at Bain Capital, cutting jobs in local businesses, as well as his opposition to the auto rescue.
It now appears that Romney was mortally wounded from this onslaught, hence his desperate attempt to claiming that American car manufacturers are haemorrhaging jobs to China. Despite this, he has proven unable to reverse that first, damaging impression; some wavering white voters were reassured after his superior performance in the first debate, but the rot has well and truly set in throughout the mid-west. Obama saved many of their jobs, and they will reward him for it.
If Obama wins, it will be in large part because his strong numbers in the face of strong disillusionment among ordinary white voters. But this suggests that any coalition of his will not last beyond the moment; the remnants of the industrial belt and such a high degree of minority voters are unlikely to be united behind any Democratic Party candidate ever again. Moreover, the political agenda in Washington will inevitably turn after the economy begins to grow at a rate that is self-sustaining; once it does, “aspirational” voters will again be up for grabs.
As a result, the future of American politics should be found in the more affluent suburbs of Colorado, Arizona and Virginia. That was what Obama aimed for in 2008, and he’ll likely shift his agenda in that direction over the course of his second term. So, here’s a tip: if the Democrats are pinning their hopes on Ohio in another four years, they’re on track to lose. But this time, they might just get away with it.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey