Happy Election Day!

Well, it’s finally here, after billions of dollars and years of campaigning, the President of the USA will be decided tonight (hopefully).  I had hoped to blog more about this incredibly close election, but unfortunately I have been struck down with some sort of lurgi which has made even leaving my bed difficult.  I was even going to do a live-blog this evening.  Ah well, bad timing.

In light of that, this is just a quick post with a few predictions.

President

The Presidential race is both very close and not that close at all.  The popular vote will be extremely tight, possibly less than 1%, as Romney runs up big victories in the deep red states.  However, the polls suggest, and my prediction is, that the Electoral College vote will end up being:

Obama 303 – 235 Romney.

To reach this number, I believe that Obama will win Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa and Colorado.  I should add that both Virginia and Colorado are incredibly close and could go either way.  But even if they do both turn red, Obama still wins.  So the election is close because all of the margins in each state are close, but if the polls are correct the final EV total will not, by historical standards, actually be that tight.

Senate

The Senate is currently controlled by the Democrats with a 53-47 majority (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats).  I don’t believe there will be any change.  Yes, seats will swap, but they will equal each other out.  The close states will be Massachusetts (where I believe Sen. Scott Brown will lose his seat), Virginia (where Fmr. Gov Tim Kaine (D) should be successful), Wisconsin (where Rep. Tammy Baldwin might squeak out the smallest of margins against Fmr. Gov.  Tommy Thompson (R)) and Indiana (where Rep.  Joe Donnelly (D) should win helped by his opponent’s crass comments on rape).  For the Republicans, it looks like they should pick up a seat in Montana (defeating Sen.  Jon Tester (D)) and the open seat in deep red North Dakota.  Although not close, they will also win in deeply Republican Nebraska in the seat Sen. Ben Nelson is retiring from.  Also watch Maine: former Governor Angus King is running as an independent, but hasn’t said which party he will support in the Senate (he’s the heavy favourite).  Everyone assumes he is a closet Democrat, but no-one really knows.

The House of Representatives

I don’t follow these races in anywhere near the detail of the two above, but I expect the Republicans to hold on to the House, with a possibly slightly reduced majority of around 40.  This is mostly to do with redistricting, which has placed a lot of Republican incumbents in very safe seats.

I’m going to have to go back to sleep if I want to catch any of the action tonight, enjoy the Election – and let’s hope we have a result – either way – by this time tomorrow!

 

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Who’s winning the 2012 Presidential Election?

In 4 days America will finally choose who will be President for the next 4 years.  In an election which has seemingly been running for an eternity, the end is finally in sight.  So, what is the state of the race?

Make no mistake, President Obama has rescued what could have been a disastrous end to his re-election bid.  When the curtain fell on the first debate in early October, the reaction from pundits (and the public) was one of shock: how could the President have put in such a lacklustre performance in the most-watched debate in American political history?  The damage that performance did, not only to his reputation, but to the relative standing of his challenger, was profound and long lasting.  Whilst the remaining two debates were strong for the President, neither of them was as one-sided as the first and neither of them fully repaired the damage done.

It has taken an act of nature, Hurricane Sandy, to seemingly push Obama back ahead in the polls.  With almost universal approval of his handling of the crisis and particular praise given by both a high profile Republican, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and the independent Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, it seems like Obama has taken his chance to rise above politics and to show the public why he should be re-elected.

However, before I break out the bunting to celebrate another four years of President Obama, a dose of realism is required.  The race is still close and, as always, it is in the Electoral College where real interest lies.

As I’ve stated previously, Obama has guaranteed himself 242 EVs, needing 270 to give him victory.  So, 26 are required.  Let’s look at how he gets there:

1)    The Florida path.  If Obama wins Florida, it’s over.  Florida has 29 EVs on its own, giving Obama the Presidency.  The polls in this most famous of swing states show a statistical tie, reflecting perhaps the severe economic climate in the state where the rate of unemployment and house foreclosures are extremely high.  Although Obama won Florida in 2008 by 2 points, Romney has invested serious time and money in flipping the Sunshine State.  The state has a lot of conservative retirees and a rapidly aging population, which offers Mitt Romney hope, but the outcome could hinge on the turnout amongst Florida’s enormous population of Hispanic (mainly Cuban-American) voters, who usually overwhelming support the President.

2)    The Mid-West/Eastern path – either:  Iowa (6EVs) + Ohio (18EVs) + New Hampshire (4EVs) or Virginia (13EVs) + Ohio (18EVs).  If Florida goes for Romney, Obama’s back-up options begin here.  Considering that all 4 of these states voted for Obama in 2008, this is a very attractive alternative.  As with Florida, the result in all of these states is likely to be closer than in 2008, but Obama looks strong in Ohio (where his bailout of the car industry is very popular) and in Iowa, which Obama won by 9% in 2008.  Crucially, both of these scenarios involve Ohio.  It is difficult to see how Mitt Romney wins the Presidency without winning Ohio (in fact, no Republican has ever won the White House without it), and explains why both candidates made multiple campaign stops there yesterday and have spent many millions of dollars in advertisements.

I am also interested in the race in Virginia.  It has been underreported this cycle, but Virginia used to be a solid Republican state, voting to re-elect President Bush in 2004 by 9%.  However, Obama won it in 2008 by 7% himself.  The demographics of the state are changing fast as the suburbs of Washington DC in the north bring an influx of Hispanic and Northern Democrats to the state and this time the Old Dominion appears to be on a knife-edge.

3)    The Atlantic Seaboard path:  North Carolina (15 EVs) + Virginia (13 EVs).  North Carolina voted for President Obama in 2008, but by less than 1%.  Personally, I think it is unlikely that NC will go Democrat this time and Obama himself hasn’t campaigned there since the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte in August, reflecting perhaps a lack of optimism about his chances.  However, it offers yet another possibility for the Obama campaign.

4)    The Western path:  Nevada (6 EVs) + Colorado (9EVs) + ?.  I have put this last on my list of potential paths to 270 EVs not because I don’t think either of these states will go for Obama, Nevada almost certainly will and Colorado is a true toss up, but because they are not enough on their own to get him over the line.  But added to a state like Virginia in the East, or Ohio in the Mid-West and the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are once again in the hands of the President.

As you can see, Obama’s possibilities in the Electoral College are multitudinous.  Romney, however, needs to first stop Obama winning Florida (which I would say he is favourite to do), but then he must also stop Obama picking up the 26 EVs he needs from a combination of Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado and New Hampshire.  This has always seemed very unlikely to me and I still don’t see how it is possible for him to do so.

Of course, one way of Romney increasing his chance of victory is to “expand the map”.  In other words, to try and steal a state out of the 242EVs I have already ‘given’ to Obama.  For example, later today Romney will visit Pennsylvania in an effort to win its 20 EVs (incidentally Sen. John McCain did the same in 2008 and still lost by 11%).  The campaign has also started to run adverts in Michigan and previously solidly Democratic Minnesota, which has voted Democrat in the last 9 elections.  Depending on your point of view, this either betrays confidence that Romney can appeal to voters in these previously Democratic states, or desperation because they feel that Ohio is lost and that without Ohio, their path to the Presidency is narrow and full of potential pitfalls.

In the end, it may be that many of these swing states are won by tiny margins.  If they all break one way on election night, we should have a clear winner.  However, if all the states look like being close (especially if they are close in different directions) the election for the most powerful man in the world will once again end up being fought out between the estimated 5000 lawyers employed by both campaigns.  As the old electoral official’s prayer goes, “Lord, let there be a landslide”.

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A stormy end to the election?

With the worst of Hurricane Sandy now past, and with less than a week to go until election, both candidates are facing different challenges between now and Tuesday.

There’s a concept in American politics called the “October Surprise”.  As federal elections always take place in the first week of November, an October surprise is a news story with the capacity to fundamentally change an election at a late stage.  A famous example is the revelation in October 2000 that then Gov. George W Bush (R-TX) had been arrested for drunk driving in his youth.  With the race close this time, there was some speculation as to what this year’s October surprise would be.  Although these types of stories are usually some kind of scandal involving one of the candidates, it seems almost certain that this year the October surprise has been provided by Mother Nature in the form of a Hurricane.

Sandy provides challenges for both candidates.  For President Obama, his re-election bid could hinge on whether he is seen to have reacted well under the pressure of the devastation on the East Coast.  One of the President’s primary jobs is to protect the American people, and this gives him the opportunity to be seen to do so.  No doubt mindful of the criticism that President G.W. Bush received after the hopeless reaction of the Federal Government to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Obama has been trying to be seen to be in command from even before this storm hit.  Generally, it appears that his attempts have been successful, with even Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey (one of the worst hit states), a staunch supporter of Mitt Romney, going out of his way to praise the President’s reaction to the crisis.  Obama’s ability to rise above politics, appear Presidential and to give eloquent speeches on television remain one of his key attributes – attributes which couldn’t be more useful at this moment… a week before the election.

For Romney, the challenge is different.  First, he needs to be seen to be putting campaigning aside for the good of the people.  Any crass attempts to criticise the President now would seem un-Presidential.  Second, he needs to find a way to remain relevant.  Unlike the President, he doesn’t have a high profile job to do whilst the storm and the subsequent clean-up is occurring.  Maintaining the momentum he undoubtedly had is going to be tough.  Third (and linked to the second point) he needs to somehow remain in the news.  Television, news websites and newspapers across the country (but particularly in states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire) are dominated by news of the storm, and to a lesser extent news of President Obama’s response, not by what Romney is saying on the campaign trail.  Whilst the race is close, Romney is still behind and so needs to be putting his case loudly.  The storm has fundamentally reduced his opportunity to do so.

So, how could the storm affect the election?  Usually conservative candidates around the world like bad weather on election day.  This is because, generally speaking, people who vote for conservative parties tend to be richer, more middle class and more able to drive to the polling place.  However, people who vote for left wing parties tend to be poorer and less able to get to vote if, say, public transport is down or schools are cancelled (leaving them unable to afford childcare).  Whether this is an issue or not depends on how quickly public services are restored in the week ahead.

So, whilst the bad weather would seem to advantage Romney, if Obama’s supporters can’t get to vote, this is not necessarily the full picture.  In many American states (although not all), voting has actually been open for a couple of weeks.  If turnout is lower on the day, then the early voters will make up a larger proportion of the electorate.  The good news for Obama is that he is widely thought to be a long way ahead in early voting (by up to 20%).  His campaign has long promoted early voting as a way of getting those low income people (who, for example, might have to work next Tuesday rather than vote) to the polls.  Indeed, the President himself voted early in Chicago last week to emphasise this point.  If election day turnout is lower in states like VA or NH next week, Romney might be in trouble.

Overall then, it is not clear how this particular October surprise will affect the election.  Whilst President Obama appears to have stopped campaigning in an overtly political manner, he has now found himself with an excellent platform to show himself as a capable leader to the public, as long as the Federal response to the storm is good.  If this sways even 1% of the electorate in swing states, Sandy could have blown the President back into the White House.

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The Second Presidential Debate

Last night saw the third debate of the 2012 general election cycle but only the second such debate to feature the Presidential candidates, President Barack Obama and Fmr. Gov Mitt Romney (R-MA).  The first Presidential debate two weeks ago (which I wrote about here) ended with a resounding victory for Gov. Romney as he dominated a debate which, frankly, was Obama’s worst television performance since the early days of the 2008 Democratic primary race.  Following this debate, and even following the Vice-Presidential debate last week which Vice-President Joe Biden was widely seen to have won, the dominant story in American politics has been about how Romney was resurgent in the polls, even to the extent that in some polls, he was shown to be in the lead.

It was vital then that the President re-asserted himself and showed some fight, determination and projected his desire to be re-elected.  What happened was exactly that – an excellent performance from a man who looked like he knew that his future (which once looked so secure) was on the line.  From the beginning of the debate, Obama followed a simple strategy.  Connect with the questioner (the format was different from previously, in that members of the public asked the questions), list the achievements of his first term and how they applied to the question and then politely (or not so politely at some points) savage Gov.  Romney’s record.  It was a masterpiece to behold and the flat, listless performance from the President two weeks ago was largely repaired by the consistency of the attacks on his Republican challenger.

There were a few moments in particular which I think will resonate with the electorate.  First was the President’s response to criticism of his administration in relation to an attack last month which killed the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.  The central charge brought by the Republicans in the aftermath has been that it took nearly two weeks for Obama to admit that this was a terrorist attack, rather than a protest over a supposedly anti-Islamic video circulating on the internet.  To me this seems like an arbitrary distinction, but it has resonated over the last week and was discussed heavily by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) in the VP debate.  This time, Obama was strong in his response, accusing Romney, effectively, of lying to try and gain political advantage from the Ambassador’s death.  The crucial moment however, was when the moderator, Cindy Crowley, told Romney that he was incorrect to assert that Obama did not refer to it being a terrorist attack in the days following the attack, when in fact he did.  This really threw Romney off his stride and drew two rounds of applause from the audience (who were meant to be quiet), seemingly in support of the President.  It will be interesting to see how Romney returns to this in the final debate, which is all about foreign policy.

Second was an exchange on Energy policy.  The video is here.  The important point about this is not the content of the debate, but the body language between the two candidates.  It stuck me at the time, and even more so on repeat watching, that these two candidates really dislike each other.  Whereas American political debates are usually very stage-managed (and relatively inoffensive) here both men are talking over each other, intruding on the other’s personal space and generally displaying their true feelings.   It has been widely thought for a while that President Obama thinks Mitt Romney is a charlatan (and he’s not alone in that view), but to see it on display in front of 60 million people was quite extraordinary.

Finally, two smaller points – the aspect of the debate which has really caught fire on twitter is when Mitt Romney, in response to a question about promoting women in the workplace, referred to having “binders of women” whilst looking for qualified candidates for his cabinet in Massachusetts.  This slightly bizarre phrase is now doing the rounds, I’m not sure how much damage it will do, but it has been taken by many (and well as his suggestion that women should finish work early so they can get home and cook dinner) as showing how out of touch he is.

However, the moment of the debate which has been replayed the most on TV is when Mitt Romney tried to defend his investments in Chinese companies by saying that he had a “blind trust” which managed his investments.  First, who in the general population knows what a blind trust is for goodness sake?  Second, he then tried to accuse Obama of having similar investments in his pension – repeatedly and aggressively asking the President if he had looked at his pension.  Obama’s response was priceless:  “You know, I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long”.

All in all, this was a very strong debate by the President (if you get the chance, watch the highlights here).  It wasn’t a disaster from Mitt Romney, he was solid (albeit he got quite flustered and testy with the moderator) and he made some good points, but all in all this was exactly what was required to get Obama’s re-election bid back on track.  The polls taken after the debate showed that the majority of people surveyed thought that Obama won – whether this translates into a wider poll increase for the President remains to be seen.  But it was essential to stem the Romney recovery and taken with Obama’s advantage in the Electoral College it confirms him as the clear favourite (with only one debate remaining) to be re-elected come November 6.

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Could the Presidential Election be a tie?

As the polls tighten following last week’s first debate, I thought I’d put together a piece about the possibility of a tie in the Presidential election.  This possibility, alien to UK voters with a parliamentary electoral system, is possible because of the Electoral College (“EC”)  method of choosing the US President.   As those of you who have read my piece on the EC will know, there are a total of 538 electoral votes (“EVs”) available in the EC.  Of course, this is an even number.  So, what is the likelihood of a 269-269 EV tie and, crucially, what happens then?

In short, it is unlikely that there will be a tie.  Currently, Ladbrokes has the tie at 33/1 and there have only been two ties in US history, in 1800 and 1824.  However, unlike in previous recent elections, this year there is a plausible path to this nightmare scenario.

As The Votemaster points out this morning, if all the states which have voted for the Democratic Party candidate in the past 5 elections once again give their votes to Obama (only Wisconsin seems debatable at the moment), Obama has guaranteed himself 242 EVs.  If you add to that total New Mexico’s 5 EVs (which are pretty certain for Obama), he gets to 247 EVs.  If Obama manages to win the key state of Ohio (where he has a comfortable poll lead) and secures its 18 EVs, he gets to 265.  Add in New Hampshire, where the polls are close (and where Romney lives for much of the year), but which still favours Obama, and he reaches that magic number – 269 EVs.  If Romney then somehow manages to win (in descending order of likelihood) North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Iowa and Nevada, we have ourselves a tie at 269 EVs a piece.

Before we look at what happens then, this scenario underlines – as I’ve discussed at length previously – Romney’s structural problem in the EC.  Yes, it is possible that he wins all 6 of these swing states, but the polls (even after the debate) are very close in all but, arguably, North Carolina.  In fact, I would argue that Romney is still behind in Nevada, Iowa and Virginia.  If he loses ANY of those three states, and Ohio goes for Obama, he’s toast.

But let’s assume Romney pulls it off and secures an unlikely draw, what happens then?  Well, the constitution does provide for this in the 12th Amendment, brought in after the first tie in 1800.  The procedure is as follows.

Once all the votes have been cast by the electorate, the actual electors assigned by the states to represent the correct number of electoral votes for that state meet in their state capitols to cast their votes.  So, for example, in Ohio there are 18 people who meet to cast their votes – representing Ohio’s 18 EVs.  These electors are expected to vote in a manner which reflects how their state voted, but only 26 states require their electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote in that state.  This leaves room for so called “Faithless Electors” who, for a variety of reasons, cast their electoral vote for the “wrong” candidate.  For example, an elector in Illinois might vote for Romney, even though Obama carried Illinois comfortably.  This has happened reasonably regularly in American history (including in 2000 and 2004), but it has never mattered.  In the event of a 269-269 tie, it could decide the election.

Assuming all the electors are “faithful”, the results of the ballots are opened by the sitting Vice-President (Joe Biden) on the floor of the Senate.  As soon as it becomes clear there is a tie, the Constitution mandates that the responsibility for deciding the President falls to the 435 members of the House of Representatives.  The Senate has responsibility for choosing the Vice-President.

In the House, each state delegation gets one vote.  So, for example, the 53 newly elected representatives who together represent California would have to decide between themselves which candidate would get California’s one vote.  As you can imagine, this would be a messy process.  However, as the Republicans will almost certainly have more members of the House than the Democrats after these elections (and because, by and large, the Republicans have more congressmen from smaller states, who would have the same voting power as larger states), it seems very likely that the House would give Mitt Romney the 26 votes (a simple majority of the state delegations) he needs to become President.

In the Senate, the process is simpler.  Here, each Senator gets one vote.  A simple majority (51) decides the Vice-President.  As it seems likely that the Democrats will control the Senate after these elections, it is likely that they would vote for a Vice-President Biden.

Therefore, in the event of a tie in the EC, there could be the almost unthinkable scenario of a Republican President, Mitt Romney, and a Democrat Vice-President, Joe Biden.  Whatever you think about the coalition in the British Parliament, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  The result of this split in the White House would be uncharted territory and almost certain to end in tears.  However, it would certainly be fascinating to watch!

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The (Veep) stakes are high

Tonight sees the second instalment of the 2012 Presidential Debates – not between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney – but between their running mates and Vice-Presidential candidates, current Vice-President Joe Biden (D) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Usually, the Vice Presidential debate is a bit of a sideshow.  After all, polls and studies have shown that very few people change their vote based upon who is nominated as the potential VP.  In 2008, for example, the choice of then Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) to be Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) running mate was a disaster, but in the end probably did not change the election that much.  That election was decided on the economy, not on whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be VP.

Sometimes, these VP debates can be the most fun to watch, simply because the pressure is (relatively speaking) off.  One of the most quoted, and most famous, exchanges in Presidential debate history took place in the VP debate in 1988, when then Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) famously replied to then Sen. Dan Quayle’s (R) comparison of himself with former President John F. Kennedy (D) with, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”.  However, come inauguration day, it was Dan Quayle who was sworn in as Vice-President.

The feeling now is that tonight’s debate might be different.  I posted last week about the first Presidential debate and my impression that Mitt Romney had got the better of it.  Having watched it again, and having read a lot of other blog reaction, my view is unchanged.  The view of the American public seems pretty similar, Pew Research (a respected polling firm) had a poll out this week showing that 66% of their sample thought Romney won, compared to only 20% for Obama.  It also seems that Romney has received a corresponding boost in the electoral polls as well.  That same Pew poll had Romney up nationally by 4 points, a massive 12 point swing from the previous pre-debate poll.  (As an aside, the state polls, whilst they have tightened, do not seem to be following the same trend – Obama still crucially leads in most of the swing states).  On re-watching the debate, my astonishment at the opportunities Obama let pass to attack Romney is undimmed.

What this all means though is that Romney’s previously moribund campaign is resurgent.  Obama is on the back foot, with his campaign wasting crucial time putting out stupid adverts about Big Bird.  Joe Biden needs to stop the bleeding and chalk up a debate victory for the Obama campaign.

How likely is this to happen?  Well, the BBC has put together a helpful (unusually, because in the normal course their American politics coverage, with the exception of Mark Mardell, is pretty hopeless) guide to the candidates, which I won’t repeat here for brevity.  Do read it though if you get the chance.  The crucial point is that Biden needs to attack Paul Ryan who, as the author of one of the most radical and unpopular budgets in recent history, should be a prime target.  Ryan’s budget is stunning, if only for its callous disregard for those who are not white, rich and healthy.  In a nutshell, he provides for a huge cut in Government services (particularly medical provision for the old and poor), with the money raised being channelled into a massive tax cut for the richest 1% of Americans.  When questioned on TV in the past weeks, he has been unable to explain either the maths or the rationale behind this proposal.  He is also a novice in national debates, having never run for even a Senate seat in the past.

However, whilst Biden can be a convincing and passionate debater, he is also quite undisciplined and more than capable of putting his foot firmly in his mouth.  Obama must be praying that the knowledgeable, likeable Joe Biden turns up tonight, rather than the Biden who has made a string of sometimes quite amazing gaffes.

Biden is a master of foreign policy whilst Ryan has a reputation for being the king of economics.  The stage is set for a cracker of a debate, with Biden on the attack and Ryan forced to defend his plan, whilst still making the case for a Romney Presidency.  Make no mistake, this particular VP debate is important and does matter.

My hunch is that Biden will come through, but Ryan is no Sarah Palin – he is a smart man, albeit with very controversial ideas.  I’ll be back with an update/post-mortem tomorrow.

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Obama loses the debate: but will it change the election result?

Yesterday morning it appeared that Mitt Romney was heading for a resounding defeat to President Obama in the autumn.  Not only was he facing a daunting deficit in the Electoral College (as explained in my last post), but he seemed incapable of avoiding a string of debilitating mistakes by him and his campaign.  In particular, a video emerged showing him giving a speech to a room full of millionaire donors to his campaign in which he dismissed 47% of Americans (let’s face it, poor Americans) on benefits as “victims” incapable of taking responsibility for their own lives.  He went on to say that it would not be his job to care about those people, an amazing admission about nearly half of the electorate by a man who needs their votes.  Mistakes such as these have severely damaged his reputation and the ability of his campaign to get their message out about why he should be elected President.

Therefore, the debate last night at the University of Denver was one of the few chances left in which Romney could gain momentum in his push for the White House.  And by and large, he seems to have achieved this.  As most of the regular readers of this blog know, I am a big supporter of President Obama and it gives me no pleasure that he was roundly defeated last night.  The conventional wisdom this morning seems to be that Romney was better prepared, made better arguments with the information at his disposal, came across as more knowledgeable and (shockingly) was more likeable.  It was, as one pundit put it, “an easy one to call: Romney won in a landslide, while Obama appeared flatfooted, tired, and somewhat detached”.

However, it seems to me that the hysterical reaction in some parts of the blogosphere has been massively overdone.  Andrew Sullivan, for instance, has stated that this debate could cost Obama the election.  Nonsense.  I agree that this debate was not Obama’s finest hour.  In particular, in attempting to seem Presidential and ‘above the fray’, he missed several opportunities to land a punch on Romney and his Republican Party’s extreme ideas.  In particular, when the debate turned to tax early on, he made no effort to remind Americans that Romney himself (worth an estimated $260m) paid only 14.1% tax in 2011 – less than almost all American middle-class families – and that under his tax plans millionaires like himself would receive a huge tax cut paid for by cutting Government programs relied on by the poor.  Equally, in the second half of the debate, Romney himself talked about entitlements (which in America is taken to mean Government programs such as Medicaid (which helps the poor with healthcare costs) and Medicare (which assists the elderly)), but Obama missed an open opportunity to mention Romney himself dismissing people who benefit from these programs in the now infamous “47% video” I refer to above.  Even Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Congressman from Utah said: “I never would have guessed that you could go 90 minutes [in the debate] and not hear about the ’47 per cent’ comment”.

However, the idea that this debate on its own will fundamentally change the nature of the election is absurd.  Yes, I expect Romney to gain a small amount of ground in the polls as some undecided voters see a strong debate performance (in which, frankly, he looked Presidential) as a reason to give him the benefit of the doubt in November.  However, history teaches us that debate performances rarely, if ever, change the course of an election, in the absence of a serious mistake.  Obama made no such mistake.  He may have been underwhelming, but he didn’t say anything disqualifying which will seriously damage his chances.

Romney is still behind.  Although the polls will no doubt tighten, he is still polling 7% behind in Ohio (a state which no Republican nominee has ever lost and still gone on to win the White House) and he is behind in Colorado, in Florida, in Virginia, in Iowa, in New Hampshire and shows no sign of making a comeback in Wisconsin or Nevada.  Realistically, he needs to win most, if not all, of these states to have any chance in the electoral college.

Also bear in mind that this was always likely to be Romney’s best debate.  The economy is weak and this was a debate all about domestic policy.  Obama has not debated anyone for 4 years whereas Romney spent a good portion of this year in 20 debates for the Republican nomination.  The remaining two debates are a bigger challenge for the former Massachusetts Governor.  The next one, in New York, is a different format – where members of the public put questions directly to the candidates.  Romney doesn’t deal well with the public and can often come across as aloof and stilted.  Obama is much more natural in these situations.  He will also have been stung into action following last night.  The final debate is about foreign policy, where Romney has no experience and he will be up against the man who ordered the operation to kill America’s number 1 enemy – Osama Bin Laden – and who has brought the hugely unpopular Iraq war to an end just as he said he would.

So, when you read today that Romney won the debate, know that he definitely did, by a comfortable margin.  However, if you read that it has turned the election, that Obama is in serious trouble because of it, or that – as I read somewhere this morning – Romney’s favourability rating went up 30% during the debate, know that is nonsense.  He still, as I’ve said before, has a lot to do to get the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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The Presidential race: a dead heat? Maybe not.

If you’ve been following this election at all in the newspapers, no doubt you will have read that the race between President Obama and Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney is a “statistical tie”, or “a dead heat”.  I don’t deny that Gallup currently has Obama ahead by only 1% (the same result as a New York Times poll yesterday), and that a Reuters/Ipsos poll released earlier this week had the candidates tied at 43% each (although who the other 14% are planning on voting for is somewhat of a mystery).

However, these polls – often quoted by the media – do not tell the full story, as they are polls only testing the popular vote nationwide i.e the voting intentions of voters chosen randomly across America.  This is fine as far as it goes, but as you will know if you read my piece “Going to Electoral College”, the popular vote is not the method by which America chooses its Presidents.

So, if the race isn’t really a dead-heat, what is the state of play?  Put simply, Obama is ahead.  Not by much, but significantly ahead.  How can this be when the popular vote is tied?  The answer, as always in Presidential politics, lies in the Electoral College.

As in previous posts, I need to make an assumption about the base support of each candidate.  Even using the most sceptical assessment of the states each of the nominees is bound to win, come hell or high water, Obama is guaranteed 18 states, worth a total of 232 electoral votes (EVs).  Likewise, Romney is guaranteed 22 states, worth 181 EVs.  In order to be elected President, a candidate needs a majority of the 538 EVs on offer – 270 EVs.

So, you can start to see the genesis of Romney’s problem.  Already, without taking any swing states into account, he is 51 EVs behind Obama.  Why is this when he is guaranteed more states?  There is a PhD thesis in this question alone, but it boils down to the different demographic groups each party attracts.  Generalising somewhat on all of the following assumptions, the base for the Republican party is white, old, deeply Christian, working class, uneducated and disproportionately male.  These voters tend to live in rural areas, which is why the Republicans win many small, rural states by wide margins.  However, the Democrats appeal to younger, ethnic minority, atheist (and other non-Christian religion), college-educated, single, disproportionately female voters.  Those people tend to live in urban areas.  A state with more urban areas will have a higher population.  As EVs are allocated proportionately based on population, Democrats win states such as New York, California and Illinois, all of which have EVs to offer equal to 5 or 6 small rural states on their own.  Thus, in this election, Obama has a significant in-built advantage.

Therefore, the guaranteed states total 413 EVs, leaving a total of 125 EVs in swing states, where the balance between urban and rural voters is more even.  If as the polls suggest, the race is a “dead heat”, the candidates should, logically, split these EVs 50:50.  If they do, Obama wins.  Even if they split these EVs 60:40 in favour of Romney, Obama wins with 282 EVs.  Romney needs to win the swing state EVs by 72% – 28% to squeak over the line.

Now, I am aware that this is a simplistic analysis and that each swing state has its own dynamic and each swing state is worth a differing amount of EVs.   However, if you do look at state polls taken within the 12 or so swing states, Obama has been ahead in 8 or 9 of them for the past year, quite the reverse of what Romney requires.

But the central point is the same.  Next time you read in the newspapers that the race is a dead heat; you are really reading that Obama is heading for a second term.  Until Romney opens a substantial lead in the popular vote polls, and until he starts to show signs that he is leading in a significant number of swing states, he is finished.  I’m not saying he can’t do it, or that he won’t do it, but he’s got a long hard struggle ahead.

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Romney’s VP: Rolling the dice

History shows how difficult it is for a challenger to unseat a serving President.  Even weak, unpopular Presidents such as George W. Bush managed to win a second term.  Part of the reason for this is that the President has the ability to set the agenda.  For example, in this election, Obama managed to change the narrative of the campaign for a whole week simply by issuing an executive order changing the rules regarding immigration.  A challenger has no such power.  The only way he (it always has been a ‘he’) can drive the news agenda is through a big announcement, such as the decision of who to pick as his running mate – and potential Vice President.

In this way, Mitt Romney has sought to change the tone of this election by picking Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his running mate.  In the past week, it had been rumoured that Romney had chosen Ryan as his  VP, but make no mistake, this is a big surprise.  The whole of Romney’s campaign has been cautious, reflecting the personality of the man himself – his basic strategy had been that hammering Obama on the economy, whilst proposing little of substance himself, would be the path to electoral success.  For this reason, it was expected that he would choose a “boring white guy” (like himself) such as Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) or Fmr. Gov Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), who would pass that most important of Vice-Presidential criteria, whether they are able to “first, do no harm”.  However, in his own way, Paul Ryan is as risky a pick as Sarah Palin (R-AK) was for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008.

Why?  In some ways, there is no comparison between Ryan and Palin.  Ryan is as serious and thoughtful a politician as Palin was vacuous and unfit for public office.  However, this is where the gamble that Romney has taken begins.  Ryan has been entirely responsible for drafting and promoting a Republican budget (in his role as Chair of the House Budget Committee) which is as radical as anything ever seen in American politics.  Amongst other items, it seeks to totally re-cast the relationship between the Federal Government and the individual, particularly in respect of the Medicaid program – which is effectively where the Federal Government provides healthcare for the elderly.  By replacing this program with a system of vouchers (where the Government gives credits for the elderly to buy health insurance), Ryan has challenged one of the most popular entitlement programs provided by Washington.

Of course, any major reform (and there is no doubt that Medicare (and Medicaid – the equivalent program for poor people) are in need of substantial and wide reaching reform) is open to attack from those who do not agree with the thrust of the reform proposed.  By picking Ryan, Romney has allowed the Obama campaign to run ads (which are almost certainly being drafted as we speak) claiming that “Romney would end Medicare”.  These ads will be particularly effective in states with a high percentage of old people, and in particular, in Florida – a crucial swing state.  Do not underestimate how damaging this claim (which is credible in the light of Ryan’s proposals) will be.

I like Paul Ryan.  I don’t agree with almost anything he says, but he is a serious politician, who believes that he holds elected office to make the Government function better – unlike many who seek to maintain the status quo.  However, he could be a disaster for the Romney campaign.  By picking an ideas man, someone who is not afraid to argue his corner and to suggest unpopular reforms to popular programs, Romney has placed himself on the defensive.  If he loses Florida, the path to the White House is almost certainly blocked.

So, briefly, why has he picked Ryan?  Well, the base of the Republican party – so far to the right wing – adores him almost as much as they despair of Romney himself.  Romney has changed his position so many times that no-one in the Republican party really understands what he believes, and what he would do as President.  But with Ryan, they know they have one of their men on the inside – and the Romney campaign (very uncharacteristically) has placed a huge bet that by motivating the Republican base, he can pull off that most uncommon of electoral tricks – unseating a sitting President.  This is not a pick of a man who thinks he is winning the election, this is a pick of a challenger who needs a game changer.  Whether Ryan can provide that… we’ll have to watch this space.

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Going to Electoral College

For the last three posts, I have been chronicling the various Senate races taking place across America this November.  I will continue to cover these as the primaries take place in the states, but for now, I want to turn to the main event – the Presidential Election.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard that Mitt Romney has now all but confirmed his position as the Republican nominee for President.  This has looked inevitable for a number of months, but once Rick Santorum dropped out in early April, it became a formality for him to be nominated.  As a result of this certainty in the Republican nominating process, the general election campaign has started in earnest, with President Obama starting to ramp up the attacks on Romney.

With this in mind, I thought that an interesting topic for a blog would be the process by which either Romney or Obama will be elected President in November.

In America, unique amongst all democracies, the election for the Head of State is decided by the use of an institution called the Electoral College, which was invented by the Founding Fathers and codified in Article 2 of the Constitution.

Now, the Electoral College itself is not really that important, it is simply the body which puts into effect what the voters decide using the process set out in the Constitution to elect members of the College.  Once the election is decided, and the winner in each state is determined by a simple majority of the vote cast in each state, the members of the College elected by each state meet in their respective state capitals and cast their vote for the candidate who wins their state.  This is a rubber stamp process and, with a few historical exceptions (so called “Faithless Electors”), the members of the college have no discretion to vote for anyone other than the popular vote winner of their state.  The ballot boxes are then sent to the House of Representatives.  The sitting Vice President presides over a joint session of Congress, which counts the votes, and the candidates with the most votes from around the country win the Presidency and Vice-Presidency respectively.

What is more interesting is how the members of the College are elected.  Each state (and the District of Columbia, which is effectively Washington DC, which is not in a State) has the right to elect a certain number of electors – with the number based on the population of the state in question.  The number of electors is decided by adding the number of Representatives a state sends to the House of Representatives (which is the measure based on population) and the number of Senators (of which each state has two).  The District of Columbia, which doesn’t have any Senators, is also given credit for having two for the purposes of this process.

What this means is that no state can have fewer than 3 Electoral Votes (EVs) in the Electoral College, as each state has at least one Representative and two Senators.  Even states with tiny populations, such as Wyoming, Alaska etc, get 3 votes in the Electoral College.  The largest state, by some distance, is California, which has 55 electoral votes courtesy of its huge population; which gives it 53 Reps as well as its two Senators.  Since 1964, the total of all the EVs from all the states (and DC) has been 538 votes.  As a simple majority of all the EVs from around the country is needed to win the Presidency, 270 EVs is the magic number.  It is possible for there to be a 269-269 tie, which has happened twice, but not since 1824.  It would be mega-exciting if it happened again, but it is pretty unlikely.

I think a picture is required here, so this is how the Electoral College votes were assigned in the 2008 election – Obama v McCain:

This election was a pretty large win for Obama – 365 EVs to 173 EVs.  Although the map looks disproportionately red (Republican), this is because the Republicans always win the Mid-West states, which are geographically enormous, but have very small populations (mainly because they are predominately corn fields).  As these states only have small numbers of EVs, they are not particularly important in the Electoral College process.

There are a number of criticisms of the Electoral College as a means of electing the President.  The primary one is that it creates the notion of “swing states”.  What this means in practice is that about ten states are vital to either party’s chance of having their nominee elected President.  This is because these are the states which are pretty evenly split ideologically, rather than the other 38 or so, which are very Democratic or Republican.  The effect of this is that 95% of the campaigning in the election is done in these states, whilst the rest of the country is largely ignored.  So you have massive states like California and New York (which will always elect the Democrat) completely ignored in the election process in favour of much smaller states like Missouri, which are evenly split.  This would not happen if the election was determined by a popular vote.  Suddenly, states with massive populations would become vital at the expense of smaller states.

So, which are these lucky (or unlucky, depends whether you like elections or not) states?  You’re going to have to believe me on this one – but I can guarantee you that Obama will certainly, come hell or high water, win states which total 197 EVs.  Similarly, Romney will win states which total 159 EVs.  Add to that number states which, baring a landslide, will be won by either party – 24 for Obama and 22 for Romney.  This takes their basic totals to 221 EVs for Obama and 181 EVs for Romney.  This gives Obama a significant advantage.

Therefore, the election is only fought over 136 EVs.  Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to win approximately 25% of the total electoral votes.  If you happen to live in these states, there will be no respite – every television programme will be constantly interrupted by political adverts, not a day will pass with your door unknocked or your phone unrung.  Such is life in a swing state.

These states are currently*:  Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Pennsylvania and that most famous of all swing states, Florida.

There are other criticisms too.  It is undemocratic – in that electors in small states such as Wyoming (3 EVs for a population of 532,668, a vote for every 177,556 people) get a lot more for their vote than in California (55 EVs for a population of 34,756,666, a vote for every 631,939 people).

It can also lead to the unedifying spectacle of the winner of the national popular vote losing to the winner of the Electoral College.  Most famously, this happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote in the whole of the country by 533,000 votes, but lost in the Electoral College by 5 EVs.  This happened because Gore won most of the big states, like NY and California by a huge margin, but lost some crucial, smaller, swing states by a tiny margin.  As all of the EVs for a state are awarded to the winner, no matter how small the margin, he lost the election to George W. Bush.  This “winner takes all” nature of the Electoral College also works to discriminate against third parties.  For example, in 1992, a third party candidate, Ross Perot, won 19% of the popular vote, but didn’t get any EVs, because his support was spread across the states, and wasn’t concentrated enough to win any one state.

Having said all that, there have been various attempts to reform the Electoral College, all of which have failed.  I personally like the system because it adds intrigue and is interesting for nerds like me.  However, I can see its flaws – and think that it will be reformed eventually, although not for the foreseeable future.  One idea that I quite like is for EVs to be assigned proportionately – so if Obama wins 60% of the popular vote in California, he would get 60% of the EVs.  This would discourage the idea of swing states, and spread the election around the country, which can only be good for the democratic process.

* I will do a piece later in the electoral cycle about how these states will give their EVs – but that’s for another post.

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