US election: Just two days to go and winner very much in doubt

By Rupert Cornwell

After lack-lustre campaign result depends on getting people to polls.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walks past each other on stage at the end of the last debate at Lynn University. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walks past each other on stage at the end of the last debate at Lynn University. Photo / AP

In 48 hours, after the expenditure of billions and an even greater outlay of human energy and toil, it will be done. The longest, largest, most important, gaudiest and, it must be said, on occasion the silliest, exercise in elective democracy on the planet reaches its climax as Americans finally choose between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

It may be asked whether either deserves the prize. Politics is a no-holds-barred trade in which truth and human kindness are early casualties. But rarely has a presidential campaign been as unsatisfying as this one.

The incumbent has been relentlessly negative, the challenger consistently mendacious. Neither has deigned, beyond vacuous generalities, to tell those whose votes they seek what they propose to do if entrusted with office. In 2008, the promise of change was in the air, of youth, novelty and, however naively, a sense of cleansing. In the final stages, the winner was not in doubt.

Four years later, the reverse is true. The air is stale, "change" has been stripped of meaning, and of novelty there is next to none. The contest has pitted a Democratic President who has fallen back to earth against a Republican who, at least until these past few weeks, was deemed to be running the worst campaign in modern times, failing to excite swathes of his own party, let alone the electorate at large.

And all this against the backdrop of what feels like a recession even if technically it isn't one; when Americans, by nature optimists, tell pollsters by a two-to-one margin the country is on the wrong track, when the concentration of wealth is greater than at any time since the crash of 1929 and when social mobility - a core element of the American Dream - is less than in scorned, sclerotic Europe. The mood is weary and expectations low.

With just two days to go, the winner is still very much in doubt.

Yet the oddsmakers favour Obama to win. Polls show support evenly split between the candidates, but when asked to name who they expect to win - a more accurate guide to the outcome than "who do you want to win?" - a clear majority of Americans say Obama.

That may reflect the fact that while the candidates are even nationally, the President is ahead in a vital handful of states that will decide the outcome. It may also reflect the fact that Obama has been a pretty competent President. He's made his mistakes but by and large he's been a safe pair of hands. His administration has been remarkably scandal-free. He may not be very good at buttering up recalcitrant legislators, but he was not to blame for the blanket opposition from Congressional Republicans from the day he was sworn in. Yes, he hasn't quite lived up to that absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize of 2009, but he's made no foreign blunders either. "GM is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead", isn't a bad way to sum up one's record.

The problem has been his campaign, both the lack of substance and the style. Obama has been trapped by his very rationality. After the tribulations of the last four years, he knew vague promises that things would get better would not suffice. Nor would reliance on Americans to accept he had inherited a terrible hand. So his team went negative, dismantling Romney and replacing 2008's national movement with a steely focus on the swing states.

Inevitably, it wasn't pretty. But, thanks in good measure to Romney's ineptitude, the strategy worked and until October 4 he seemed to be coasting to a straightforward, if forgettable, win. Then came the first debate, which turned the campaign on its head.

A glide to re-election turned into a desperate race. Then came Sandy.

By common consent, Obama had a good storm. Big government, so reviled by Republicans, proved to be of some use and the praise lavished upon him by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey - who had delivered the keynote speech at the Republican convention - allowed the President to wrap himself in the mantle of bipartisanship.

Whether Sandy has changed many minds is impossible to say. Ditto the jobs news on Saturday, better than expected and suggesting recovery is slowly gaining steam. But in a contest this close, even one extra vote is precious.

Politicians always proclaim they are winning an election until it's certain they have lost. But usually a losing campaign's collective body language betrays the truth. Not this time. Both parties seem convinced they will win.

Everything depends on the "ground game", getting supporters to the polls. But Wednesday could be a very long day. The results from the most close-fought states could be delayed by recounts or validation of provisional ballots which, like Florida 2000, might end up in the courts. Nor is an electoral vote tie, 269 to 269, impossible.

Conceivably we could see the reverse of 2000, this time with the Republican winning the popular vote while Obama sneaks the Electoral College and thus the White House.

A Romney win would suggest that America's shift to the right continues and the Obama years were a short-lived interruption. But victory for the incumbent would not signify an era of government run riot (Obama has shown scant appetite to take on Wall Street and big business). It would be acceptance of his argument that government has a role to play, and that after so devastating a crisis no President could restore the economy quickly.

Should Obama win, he will probably be dealing again with an obdurate Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Even if the Democrats retain control of the Senate (likely but not certain), they will fall far short of the 60-vote super-majority needed to pass anything important. Conversely, a Democratic Senate could thwart Romney at every turn, not least his vow to repeal Obama's healthcare reform.

The presidency is a job for which nothing can prepare you; how a candidate will perform in office can only be guessed. In Romney's case, his constant shifts of policy, his lack of any discernable ideology, make predictions doubly difficult. But tensions will probably quickly surface between his party's conservative wing and his own instinctive pragmatism. If Mitt Romney is anything, he is a results-driven businessman, the executive out to clinch a deal, who will not waste time banging his head against a brick wall. That was how he ran Democrat-dominated Massachusetts, and that is how, one suspects, he would run America.

If Obama wins, a no less intriguing question arises: of where a supremely rational and competent man, who will never worry about an election again, would seek to take America. At the very least, victory would consolidate his legacy, ensuring the survival of his biggest, if flawed, achievement, giving America something close to universal health care.

This campaign may have been ugly, but the rewards of victory are huge. The 2008 winner was facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, from which recovery would be slow at best. This time, the prospect is of steady growth, expanding employment and an improving national mood, for which the 2012 winner will take the credit.


- Independent

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