100 Days Out
This weekend marks 100 days until Election Day here in the United States, and this arbitrary milestone invites us to take stock of where we are and how the race currently stands. In so doing, it is necessary to get away from the talking-head punditry that incessantly – and often inaccurately – drives the day and get our feet onto firmer ground.
For starters, we need to acknowledge that this is an election taking place in a country that is deeply polarised. According to aWashington Post analysis, the traditional swing-voters that tend to decide most elections compromise only 9% of the electorate. Most Democrats and Republicans are already firmly in their corner and are very unlikely to move before November. This is not a volatile race prone to significant daily fluctuations, but rather a very steady one, with gains almost certain to be incremental at best.
With this in mind, we can ignore much of the daily cable chatter, as well as sites like Politico and Huffington Post. Whilst much of what these outlets offer is interesting – at least to a political junkie – it is also largely irrelevant. Only when a single story maintains media attention for a sustained period of time – Romney’s Tax Returns, being a good example – does it start to contribute to an overarching narrative and seep through to the voter on the street, and even then the effect is minimal. People believe what they want to believe.
To get a more accurate sense of how the electoral landscape looks it is helpful to turn to those who put their faith in the power of numbers, not punditry. Of these, the New York Times’ Nate Silver, author of FiveThirtyEight.com is perhaps the best. An economist by training, Silver shot to (relative) fame in 2008 when his election model predicted 49 out of 50 states correctly in the presidential race, missing only Indiana which went for Obama by 0.9%. He also correctly predicted the outcomes of all 35 Senate races that year too, thus establishing himself as a man to be listened to.
So how does he see that state of play this year? As of time of writing, Silver gives Obama a 65% chance of victory in the fall, against Romney’s 35%. This is Romney’s best figure since late June and shows he has gained some ground in recent weeks. Nonetheless, Romney’s lead in Florida – a state he must win to have any chance of being elected – is delicate, and well within the margin of error. What is more, Ohio, the state most likely to be the ‘tipping point’ in November, is leaning increasingly towards Obama. If Silver’s calculations are accurate, and they are about as accurate as anyone working in the US right now, then the President holds a significant lead, and in an election unlikely to change dramatically, this leaves Governor Romney facing an uphill battle.
However, there always remains the possibility that unforeseen circumstances could yet turn this race on its head. If Europe fails to get its house in order and proceeds to drag the US back into recession, the President, fairly or unfairly, will have to shoulder the blame. Then again, if the American economy turns out strong jobs figures in September and October, as it did in the early months of this year, then the President will almost certainly pull away to victory on a late surge of approval.
Romney may capitulate and be forced to release more than two years of his tax returns. He faces increasingly loud calls from Republicans, not to mention Democrats, to do so. But while the Governor is many things, he is not stupid. He must have calculated that releasing the information would be more damaging than not doing so. (The current theory is that Romney lost so much money in the 2008 crash, that he was able not to pay any tax – or at least, a very, very low rate of tax – on his 2009 earnings.) The chances are, therefore, that he will not waver from his current position of adamantly refusing to release more.
Finally, even without Europe collapsing or Romney capitulating, the televised debates, the rules of which were announced on Wednesday, could potentially tilt the balance. Romney may have an edge in this area, being well-drilled from a prolonged primary season where he took part in no fewer than nineteen debates. Obama, by way on contrast, has not debated since October of 2008. Then again, it all comes down to it on the night, and with the second debate taking place with a town hall format, Romney’s inability to connect to the average voter may be exposed in front of an audience of millions.
This said, the impact of the televised debate is generally over-hyped, and both candidates will look to escape unscathed rather than score a clear victory. In such a hostile and polarised political environment a knock-out punch is near impossible, but a glaring error could prove costly. More likely than not, the debates will teach us little new and will serve only to harden the lines on either side of the political divide.
For the majority of the country that has already decided which way they are going to vote, the next three months will only act as an example of how broken American politics is, as both sides spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win over a few hundred thousand voters in ten key battleground states. Those who have not made up their minds will more likely drift, with reluctance more than enthusiasm, into one camp or the other, and probably only then in the final few weeks.
The state of the race is stable and 2012 looks set to plod along towards its inevitable and momentous conclusion.