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It is not usual for Mother Nature to unleash her fury at the most powerful nation in the world—the United States of America—especially when it is in the middle of electing its next president. But Superstorm Sandy did exactly that, barely a week before the crucial polls. Gushing in at over ninety miles an hour and hitting many parts of America, it killed 11 people, ravaged buildings and power lines, and brought normal-day life, business and hectic political activity to a temporary standstill, forcing Americans to take a breather.
Analysts will debate, political parties will criticise and presidential hopefuls will curse Hurricane Sandy much after November 6, when the US voters will decide whether to give President Barack Obama another four years in the White House or replace him with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. However, as it barrelled towards America’s East Coast, wreaking havoc from Washington to New York, it brought back memories of George W. Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina which had ravaged the country’s Gulf Coast in 2005. That in mind, Obama couldn’t afford to take his eyes of the crisis. Romney, on the other hand, couldn’t risk appearing callous about the threat to American lives. David King, a senior lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, expects the storm to help Obama: “President Obama is being seen as a leader in the response, and it’s not something Governor Romney can criticise.”
“This campaign is a referendum on Obama. People tend to vote someone ‘out’ of office. Romney’s goal is to show him as a failure.”
However, before Sandy put the wind back in Obama’s sail, he and Romney had been engaged in a costly, bitter and bruising battle, spending billions of dollars to woo voters. The campaign rhetoric has tended towards the vicious. Romney surrogates haven’t been above resorting to the old dirty tricks, making veiled references to Obama’s race and casting doubts about his citizenship. Romney himself has criticised Obama’s handling of the economy, his healthcare law and has even sought to score political points by condemning the president after a US ambassador and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya.
The Obama campaign, in turn, targeted Romney’s record as the head of private equity firm Bain Capital at a time when it was investing in companies that were shipping American jobs overseas. (Romney insisted he had left Bain then). Obama has ridiculed Romney’s shifting policy positions and his tendency to contradict himself, dubbing his ailment ‘Romnesia’.
“This campaign is a referendum on President Obama,” says King. “People tend to vote someone ‘out’ of office. Candidate Obama won largely because the American public could not stand another four years of Republican control. The goal of the Romney campaign is to get Americans to believe that President Obama has been a failure.” President Obama’s job has been to help Americans believe ‘It wasn’t as bad as people think.’
The economy in general, and the unease about high unemployment and low growth in particular, are likely to be decisive factors in the election. “A lot of people who voted for Obama last time and are not voting for him this time are particularly unhappy about the economy and not willing to give him another four years on that basis,” says Brian Gaines, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
“Romney, just like Obama, will do his utmost to exhaust political channels with Iran; force will be the last resort for him as well.”
The battle for the White House is being fought in a handful of states. The US electoral map is divided into Republican or ‘red’ states, Democratic or ‘blue’ states and battleground or ‘swing’ states that are too close to call. Both candidates have lavished time and money on these states. “We have seen more of the candidates than any state except Ohio. There has been more attention than most voters in Florida want,” says Christopher Mann, assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami. “Florida is, in many ways, a microcosm of the country in its politics, with a part of the state that is very Republican, a part that is very Democratic and the middle which is the swing area that will determine the election outcome. In Florida, we have a national election in a more intense dose.”
But the election is crucial not only for American citizens, it is also important in many ways for the world. Millions outside the US are watching as keenly what a second-term Obama presidency would mean or how different US policies would be under Romney were he to be the next President.
“Here in the Asia Pacific, the big question is whether the US can sustain its promised strategic pivot to the region, regardless of who the next president is,” says former Australian diplomat and commentator Rory Medcalf. “Can the US maintain military power and credibility in the face of a rising China, even while dealing with so many challenges at home and in West Asia?”
For many in West Asia and the Arab world, Obama has so far been a disappointment, despite his initial promise to ‘heal the wounds’ in the region. But Iranian expert and scholar Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a little worried, though he feels the difference would not be dramatic. “Obama has pursued a rhetorically balanced, if diplomatically aggressive, foreign policy towards Iran. But his administration has the acumen and expertise to charter a cautious course, whereas Mitt Romney’s teams, naive as they present themselves, are likely to pursue a rather more confrontational foreign policy, not only toward Iran but also toward Russia and China.”
“Many who voted for Obama last time are unhappy about the economy and unwilling to give him another four years on that basis.”
There are also fears in many quarters that, if Romney comes to power, he may take a much more hard line towards Iran which could well lead to a war, bringing further miseries to the volatile region. But former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami argues that despite the rhetoric, not much will change as far as US policy in West Asia is concerned. “The US has vital interests in East Asia and the Pacific, and it is bound to shift the focus eastward,” says Ben-Ami. Ruling out the possibility of a war at the outset, he feels, “Romney, just like Obama, would do his utmost to exhaust the ‘political channel’ with Iran; force will be the last resort for him too.”
In India too, policy planners are watching the US elections with interest. According to South Block, whoever wins the presidential elections, there is unlikely to be much change in the new administration’s attitude towards India. “There is a bipartisan support for building strong and close relations with India, and I don’t think that will change,” says an Indian diplomat. But despite the growing convergences between the two sides, some areas continue to worry the Indian leadership. America’s reassertion of itself and making Asia the pivot of its strategic policy may lead it to seek more engagement and participation from India. While that is not something New Delhi is averse to, its worry comes from whether possible tension between the US-led bloc and China would be a good thing. India would like to cooperate with the US on several fronts but is not keen to get into alliances that could strain Sino-Indian ties. Nor does it want any other country to ratchet up issues in the South China Sea to heighten tension in this important sea lane. However, despite differences on Iran and issues like Syria, the Indian leadership is hopeful that even a change in the US administration would not be against New Delhi’s interest.
Back to the election, US presidents are elected not by the popular vote, but by the Electoral College, created in 1787 to balance power between small and large states. Each state is worth a certain number of electoral votes, based on its population. On election day, a candidate must win 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. Al Gore learned that lesson the hard way in 2000 when he won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote and the election to George W. Bush. That year, electoral irregularities in Florida resulted in a protracted recount of ballots and earned the state a good deal of political notoriety. “Given how close the election is and the nightmare of the 2000 recount between Bush and Gore, everyone is really looking forward to November 7 as long as the outcome is decided,” says Mann. “For most people in Florida, their worst nightmare is that we become ground zero again for some sort of snafu.”
“A poll accurate on Oct 31 might be wrong on Nov 6. Obama has more of an advantage in the Electoral College than in the popular vote.”
Romney has virtually ignored Massachusetts, a staunchly Democratic northeastern state where he served as governor. Obama, on the other hand, is expected to easily win his home state of Illinois. “Illinois is definitely in Obama’s bag,” says Gaines. “The city of Chicago is more of (Obama’s) home base, but as you move into the southern part of the state, really just when you leave the Chicago suburbs, his popularity is lower.”
Obama was leading Romney in polls prior to the start of the presidential debates in October. The president’s poor performance in the first debate on October 3 changed the face of the race. “The first debate was a crucial moment when many Americans began paying close attention to the campaigns,” says King of Harvard University. “President Obama came across as tired and poorly prepared. Governor Romney seemed energetic and reasonable. So the race tightened up right after that.”
But polls are not always a reliable indicator. “A poll that might be quite accurate on October 31 may still be wrong on November 6,” says Gaines. And despite the fact that most polls now show Romney leading Obama within the margin of error, political pundits predict the latter will eke out a narrow win. Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, used a statistical forecasting model in July to predict Obama would win the popular vote by a margin of 1 percentage point. “Obama does seem to have a larger advantage in the Electoral College than in the popular vote,” he says. “Romney would need to win the popular vote by at least 2 points to guarantee a win in the Electoral College, and that’s unlikely.”
The Obama and Romney campaigns, mindful of the fact that voter turnout will be key to deciding their candidates’ presidential prospects, have devoted their time and energy to ensuring that their supporters turn out on November 6. As Mann puts it, “America suffers from a large share of eligible voters who are turned off by politics and don’t show up on election day. The name of the game in this presidential campaign is about making sure those voters show up.”
Colors of the presidency
The Republican-Democratic division of the political spoils
The US presidential election is an indirect vote. The citizens get to elect members of the Electoral College, the size of which varies according to the population of the state. Members of the Electoral College in turn vote the presidential candidates, mostly reflecting the mood of the voters who elected them. Whichever party gets 270 Electoral College votes—more than half of the total 538—wins. In individual states, Electoral College seats get apportioned en bloc to the party that gets the majority popular vote. So in, say, California, which has 55 seats, even if the Republicans get 23 and the Democrats 22, a gap of just one, all 55 seats go into the Republican kitty.
Also called battleground or purple states, these are a group of states in which neither of the two main parties, the Democratic or the Republican, has a majority support. Voter loyalties are almost evenly distributed, with a crucial bloc of ‘undecideds’. Political differences can be less stark. So the delegates who make up the Electoral College too can switch their loyalty. These states—Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, New Hampshire and Iowa—become the target of the two big parties in the presidential elections. As opposed to ‘safe states’ which traditionally vote for one of the two major American political parties, the swing states play a crucial role in deciding the victory of a candidate because of their unpredictability.
There are nine incumbent Presidents who have lost
By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington and Pranay Sharma in New Delhi