Obama v Romney: Let the games begin
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.
With 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.
American 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.
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.
Obama 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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