Obama v Romney: Let the games begin

Last updated 08:54 16/04/2012

US primary elections are like The Hunger Games, with a group of political savages duking it out as sport for the entertainment of the masses, while their final foe hides up a tree in the forest like Katniss waiting smartly for the rest of the pack to thin themselves out.

fightingWith Rick Santorum surrendering last week, the main election was instantly under way. Broadcast journalists and newspaper writers have been going so hard on this new narrative it has been easy to forget that there once was a never-ending primary season at all. Why, I saw Newt Gingrich on the TV today (he still hasn't dropped out) and it took me a few seconds to clock exactly why he was there.

Obama and Romney were like two hobbled prizefighters, and now they're free to passive-aggressively cluck at each other and entrance the country with their elegant double-talk.

I think Obama wins this election. The polls are close, but a combination of Romney's weak charisma, prevailing trends, Electoral College maths and national demographics point for me to a fairly comfortable win. This is not an endorsement. It is just how I see it. 

So in honour of the start of general election season, I bring you what I see as the most important four talking points.

(Healthcare I've discounted, because no one really knows which way the Supreme Court will break, and I've read too many editorials coming down on too many sides of how that ruling will affect the election.)

If Romney wins, it is a weak economy that gets him across the finish line.

Unemployment is at 8.2 per cent, which is a fifth higher than when Obama took office. This would seem to be the ace in the hole for Mitt Romney, positioned as a renowned economic fix-it guy. If Obama wins, this would be the highest unemployment rate for a re-elected president since Roosevelt.

But this way of looking at it isn't particularly fair. Reagan was re-elected in 1984 with 7.2 per cent unemployment and won the popular vote by 18 per cent. Surely this cushion would have survived a few extra ticks upwards on that figure? And the numbers are moving in the right direction for Obama in time for the November election: GDP growth projections have been raised, and the unemployment rate has fallen by 1 per cent in the past six months after staying static for much of 2011.

Still, it's a severe issue and tough for many Americans: 40 per cent of all unemployed have been out of work for six months or more, and a lot of people have left the workforce entirely. Mix in factors like the stubbornly high foreclosure rate, low house prices and sensitivities over petrol prices that Republicans are doing a good job of (incorrectly) blaming on Obama, and I think that dissatisfaction over the economy, especially if some of the improving numbers head south again, has the best chance of sweeping Romney into the White House. 

Obama's edge in popularity with women, Latinos and Independents and in the Midwest and swing states is a huge advantage for him.

romneyAmerican elections don't work on the popular vote. They work on the Electoral College, where each state is assigned a certain number of "seats" and a candidate needs to win 270 of them for victory. 

Obama routed McCain in the Electoral College, and Romney will make definite inroads on that. He would even if the election were to be held tomorrow. He'll probably win back states such as Virginia, Indiana and Missouri, maybe New Hampshire, and he could even pull in the occasional upset in a state such as Maine.   

But Obama is up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida,Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina. If he holds serve in traditional blue states (New York, New Jersey, California) he could lose a couple of these prized swing states and still win.     

This electoral map advantage is predicated on Obama's popularity in some key demographics.

For example, Republicans are sagging in popularity with Latino voters, at a point where they are expanding as a voting bloc.

Latinos broke two-to-one for Obama in the 2008 election; they are estimated to make up 10 per cent of the 2012 vote, with one recent survey putting Romney's support at only 14 per cent among Latinos

In a recent ABC poll, Obama led Romney among women by 19 per cent, but trailed in men by 8 per cent. A gap in gender preferences usually balances American politics out; men vote Republican and women Democrat. But an estimated 10 million more women than men voted in the 2008 election, so to have such a disparity in the support levels of men and women is significant for Romney. 

obamaObama is also up by six points among independent voters, but with a higher number of undecided voters than in a lot of other polls.

Consistency of messaging is going to be a huge issue for Romney

This election match-up is less than a week old, and all I hear already from Democrats is Buffet tax, Buffet tax, Buffet tax... The aforementioned tax would mandate a 30 per cent minimum effective tax rate for all earnings over $1 million. It won't change the world deficit-wise but it is a simple idea and effective economic populism, and is extremely popular, polls say, with Democrats and Independents.

Romney, on the other hand, has to try to win the political centre, while appeasing an increasingly right-wing Republican base. Social issues are going to be a difficult road for Romney to win ground on. America is divided on gun control. Gay marriage splits the country, but most Independents support it. Most Americans support legal abortion, and most Americans support private health insurers having to provide coverage for birth control in their plans.

Many forget though that Romney was a popular-ish, practical and bipartisan governor of the very-Democratic Massachusetts. Romney does well in the centre, but forcing him to play both to the centre and to the right wing is going to be a distraction in the face of a cohesive and popular Democratic Party message. 

Romney needs to bridge a big enthusiasm gap if he's going to gain momentum over the president.

This coming election reminds me a lot of 2004.

Obama is a divisive president, in a divided country. His approval rating has bottomed out but it has never collapsed; it averages out now at about 47 per cent, a point behind where George W. Bush's approval was at the time of his re-election. 

And there's the matter of his opponent. I've used more enthusiastic language about my dentist than was used in some of the endorsements of Romney by his peers. Jon Stewart has done us a favour and compiled some of the choicest of them. I'll let him do the talking. Voter turnout in the Republican primaries has been a lot lower than in 2008, as much as 90 per cent even in Washington state. This echoes again the 2004 election, which had a very low turnout in the primaries, where there was another slightly lacklustre "hey, well, I guess he just has to be our guy this time" candidate.

In the 2008 primary election campaign Slate wrote an article that sums up my hunch that undercuts a lot of the numbers I've put forward. Elections inevitably fall into a narrative of Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny always wins.

Because elections are about serious things, but they're also a little bit about falling in love. And America needs to fall a little more in love with Mitt Romney.

Can you see that happening? I can't.

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bjammin   #1   09:25 am Apr 16 2012

"Obama is a divisive president,"

A very good article, James, but I would take issue with this particular description. Obama himself has NOT been divisive. He has been pragmatic and accommodating, excessively so according to many liberals and progressives in America.

The modern GOP, especially its moderates, are forced to continually reestablish their conservative bonafides with the minority (but very vocal) Tea Party fringe. Therefore, THEY are the ones who have pursued the divisive path, voting as a bloc against everything, (even legislation they originally helped draft), and effectively seeking to delay an American economic recovery, as they know this is their only chance of beating Obama. Fair play to them, its their job to try and win back power. But lets be clear about who the divisive ones are here.

Blue   #2   10:06 am Apr 16 2012

Go Ron Paul!

cm   #3   10:33 am Apr 16 2012

When Obama came into office, not much really changed. If he gets ousted, not much will change either.

Both Dems and GOP make a huge song and dance about issue that don't really matter. While what they say might be different, their actions are pretty much the same.

Neither are going anywhere near tackling USA's biggest single problem: debt.

Keep an eye on it...   #4   11:11 am Apr 16 2012

Oh dear. The complete shut-out of one man in particular continues. The absence of his name anywhere within this article - and the inclusion of Newt "Dig a Financial Hole" Gingrich's, no less - despite his capacity to continue drawing crowds and cash is indicative of the majority of the 'in depth' reportage forged out of hot air by most media commentators on this subject. They won't be the only ones getting a hell of a shock when the tally of actual delegates cuts through the warm and fuzzy illusions of the virtual counts currently bandied about. If you think Mr. Romney has clocked up over 600 genuine votes so far on his march down to the National Convention in Tampa and is guaranteed a free pass to battle Obama's subtle tones of Communism-cum-Fascism, do your homework. Turtle soup is going to be gulped down in late August, and Mitt is just going to have to play the hair in it...

lil   #5   03:26 pm Apr 16 2012

@ #4: If you're talking about Ron Paul, you're just adorable. He's not getting anywhere, so why mention him? What's Paul got, like 50 delegates compared to Romney's 600? Somehow I don't see a late surge.

But hey, don't stop belieeeeeving...

Mikey   #6   03:26 pm Apr 16 2012

Gosh. This one disappeared off the front pages of Stuff rather quickly. What a pity, you seem to have summarised the situation really well James. My partner and I are both political junkies, and are timing a six-week roadtrip around the US to coincide with the countdown to the election. US politics leaves me both shocked and awed. It seems so full of both glitz and bombast, with substance sometimes struggling to gain a foothold over perception. And everything seems so ludicrously polarised. The prospect of frontline exposure is thrilling, but also kinda nerve-racking. My suspicion is that, like all things, the media portrayal (particularly the one we get in this corner of the world) is not the whole truth and I am looking forward to a peek behind the curtain.

My reading of the current state of affairs is pretty similar to yours. In all things political though, things can ebb and flow to a remarkable degree. And particularly, I think, we politics is so personalised around two individuals. A wrong word here, a dodgy Minister here and things can change fairly quickly.

And then of course, there is the economy. I think both sides are going to be grappling over every single financial marker like it is a loaded gun. And I think we can expect all sorts of data squishing and extrapolation to support all sorts of claims. Romney's "90% of recent job losses have been by women" (and so women should vote for me) statement is surely only the start.

It is going to be a fascinating (and possibly exhausting) few months.

Mark   #7   05:06 pm Apr 16 2012

Obama is trying to be the first president in history that is attempting to trample over religious freedom, which wont go down well in a religous conservative country.

Obama doing his best to get unemployment down by discouraging people from even looking for work.

The U-6 unemployment rate is just over 19% and a record high of nearly 88 million Americans have given up on getting a job.

Obama's budget flamed out in Congress going down an impressive 414 to nil. Who says Democrats and Rebulicans cant work togther. Obama has run 4 consecutive deficits of $1 trillion dollars a year and the CBO states that if Obama spending plans continue the US economy will collaspe by 2027.

Obama canned the Keystone pipleline and has reduced oil driing on fedral lands. He has blown billions of dollars of taxpayers money on green scams that has enriched his friends.

Obama is going to allow the largest tax hike in history occur if he becomes president again and Americans know it.

Obama cant run on his record so just blames everyone else for his own failings. He has an enemies list so long it would make Nixon proud.

Jonathan   #8   05:40 pm Apr 16 2012

@bjammin (an homage to the antiquated Taupo surf store?): When James (rather cleverly) compares Bush to Obama he is referring to the voting public's passionately antithetical opinion of the President.

Great post, James.

Keep an eye on it...   #9   07:55 am Apr 17 2012

@lil#5 - Thank you for illustrating my point about the lack of homework being done. Where did you get your information about Romney securing 600 delegates? Fox News? Perhaps CNN? Unfortunately those counts are as misleading and misguided as the antisemitism charge that gets laid on thick over Dr. Paul's reputation by people who have no clue about how the real world's gears turn. I'll walk you through some of the basics.

The delegates who are being pinned by the media to those running for the nomination are not usually bound by a declaration stating exactly who they will vote for at the National Convention. This means that a dedicated group who have read up on the often complex set of rules that accompany a state's voting procedure can stick around long after other voters have gone home and get registered as potential delegates. The more of them that register, the better their candidate's chances are to sweep the state clean for what counts the most in the race of 2012: delegates. Who can you think of with a dedicated and organised following that may be willing to stick around for hours after a vote count to qualify for delegation duty? Hmmm...and guess what? They have.

Paul Harris, Mark Wachtler, Thomas Mullen and David Greenberg have written great articles about the technicalities of Dr. Paul's strategy. Have a look yourself, if you can spare the time, and we will compare notes on who is being the most adorable (which is code for naive, I take it).

Ero-Senin   #10   08:15 am Apr 17 2012

@ Mark #7

The American far right will need more than the same old talking points and hyperbole to win this one, I'm not saying I don't believe Obama has made mistakes that is worthy of critiscism but I find it hard to take in a lot of the Republican arguement without acknowledging their own 8 Years of spending like a drunken sailor. It's like a bunch of tenants who have been kicked out of leaving the spot in a wreck then stand outside yelling at the new tenants for not fixing most of their own mess.

Where's the old guys like William F. Buckley, Jr from the opposition that would engage in more informative debating but kept off the personal side?

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