Can Romney Spring an October surprise?

The presidential debates are the Republican’s last chance to seize the initiative from Barack Obama. A strong performance and the race could be back on overnight

Dispatches US Politics

Studies have shown that people like to vote for the winning side in elections, over and above what their political convictions are, and the mere appearance of seeming to be winning may be worth as much as a 2 per cent spike. In a country where elections are knife-edge close so often, this might even prove the difference between victory and defeat. In sheer presentational terms, the Democrats easily outshine the Republicans. Their national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a slickly professional affair, with barnstorming performances from Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton and a perfectly adequate one from President Obama himself. By contrast the Republicans seemed worthy, honest but pedestrian in Tampa, Florida; hardly ready for prime-time.

  (credit: Mark Taylor)

Studies have shown that people like to vote for the winning side in elections, over and above what their political convictions are, and the mere appearance of seeming to be winning may be worth as much as a 2 per cent spike. In a country where elections are knife-edge close so often, this might even prove the difference between victory and defeat. In sheer presentational terms, the Democrats easily outshine the Republicans. Their national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a slickly professional affair, with barnstorming performances from Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton and a perfectly adequate one from President Obama himself. By contrast the Republicans seemed worthy, honest but pedestrian in Tampa, Florida; hardly ready for prime-time.

In 2004 George W. Bush took a 2 per cent lead over John Kerry after the Republican convention, and held it throughout the rest of the autumn. Democratic pollsters are hoping that can be repeated, especially as polls show that the crucial vote-indicator question-“Who do you think would best manage the economy?”-now shows Obama and Romney neck-and-neck, whereas it had been tilting positively for Romney up to the conventions.

Although a slim majority of Americans believe that the US “is on the wrong track”, the percentage has collapsed since May, when it was the opinion of nearly two-thirds of the country and a serious worry for the Obama campaign. The amounts of money raised in August evened out, with $114 million for Obama against $112 million for Romney, whereas the previous three months had seen it heavily tilted towards the latter. The fact that each campaign has spent $40 million on TV ads in Ohio alone up to the beginning of September shows how important is the state of which it’s said: “As Ohio votes, so votes America.”   These polls were taken before the lynching in Benghazi of the US ambassador to Libya-the first American ambassador to be assassinated since 1979-yet even those events are unlikely significantly to change the 52-39 per cent lead that Obama has over Romney among Ohio voters over who would best handle foreign policy. Obama’s decision to undertake the May 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden may well turn out to have won him this election, despite his cack-handed approach to foreign policy in almost every other area of it — especially the Arab Spring.

Yet there are several indications that this election is actually far from over. Romney’s first hope must be that people are simply lying to pollsters, and not wanting to seem racist by admitting that they are planning to vote against America’s first black president. He will take solace from the fact that Republican Governor Scott Walker’s victory in the recent Wisconsin recall vote was predicted by the polls, but not his healthy margin. In each of the 1980, 1994 and 2004 elections the polls turned out to have been skewed significantly towards the Democrats.

Romney’s second cause for hope is that in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, Obama’s job approval rating is hovering at or below 50 per cent, which is hardly healthy for a president seeking re-election in a recession. Likely first-time voters, who went 66 per cent to 32 per cent for Obama in 2008, are much more evenly distributed this year at 49 per cent to 41 per cent, while white voters are leaning further to Romney today than they did to John McCain four years ago. (Obama has the black vote completely sewn up, with some polls suggesting numbers approaching 95 per cent, and Obama also does much better — by a 10 per cent margin — among women.)

Nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty today, according to US government statistics, and there have been 42 consecutive months where unemployment has been over 8 per cent, a figure that is far higher among blacks and Latinos. With 23 million people struggling to find work, more than during the Carter Administration, a sense that Romney and Paul Ryan might get the economy going again could overcome the fact that Obama is seen as more likeable personally than Romney. The scare tactics adopted by the Democrats — “The Republicans would destroy Medicare,” says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly — might not work if the Republicans spend enough money getting the truth across, and there’s every indication they will. Similarly, America might have outgrown the kind of naked class warfare that induces Bill Clinton to state of the Republicans: “They’ll hurt the middle class and the poor and put your future on hold to give the tax cuts to the folks who’ve been getting it all along.”

When in fine pantomime style Clinton asked the Democratic convention about Obama, “Are we better off than when he took office?” the audience all yelled, “Yes!” The truth could not be more different, and therein lies Romney’s best hope. A house worth $200,000 in 2008 is typically worth around $140,000 today; many 401(k) retirement funds invested in equity have fallen in value by up to 40 per cent since Obama won the last election. No amount of Democrats shouting “Yes!” can convince Americans who look at their net assets today and know that the true answer is no. Whether that persuades them to go out and vote for Romney is another matter: in Ohio 4 per cent more voters believe Obama is more trustworthy on the economy than Romney; in Virginia it’s tied, and in Florida Romney leads on that question by 1 per cent. For all too many Americans, Romney, as one wag put it, “looks like the guy who sacked your dad”.

It seems incredible that a man who was CEO of one of America’s most successful companies, who made a personal fortune of over $200 million from his business acumen, who turned round the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and whose whole career seems to personify the American Dream, is lagging on the question of economic competence behind a former community organiser from Chicago who publicly derides entrepreneurship and individual enterprise, and who hadn’t run any enterprise before entering politics. Yet this is modern America, a country now only a few paces away from becoming a fully-fledged welfare state on the European model. And the next step of those few paces will be taken when and if Obama is re-elected on November 6.

Romney was undoubtedly the best of the Republican candidates, but it was an extraordinarily weak field this year. In 2016 the Republicans are likely to be fielding Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, possibly Bobby Jindal, and doubtless several others of similarly outstanding calibre. This year, however, the Republicans must work with what they’ve got. So what are the positive signs for Romney, besides the woeful economy, lacklustre Obama job approval ratings and hopes that people are fibbing to pollsters?

Every president who has won re-election since Andrew Jackson has won a higher percentage of the vote in his second election than in his first. That is clearly not happening with Obama. Furthermore, Obama is not a good hand-gripping, touchy-feely politician, and he does make gaffes, though the mainstream US media loathes having to report them. His campaign theme of inequality as “the greatest challenge of our time” has singularly failed to excite Americans, except those on the Left.

There is also still more than enough time for what in US politics is termed the “October Surprise”. In the past these have included Henry Kissinger announcing “peace is at hand” in Vietnam 12 days before the 1972 election, the indictment of Caspar Weinberger on Iran-Contra charges four days before the 1992 election, the leaking of George W. Bush’s 1976 drink-driving conviction two days before the 2000 election, and the financial meltdown in October 2008. These “surprises”, which are often carefully controlled and well-planned explosions, can be devastating if not managed correctly. So far the Obama administration has been deft in its handling of its two worst scandals — over the Solyndra stimulus cash misappropriation and the Fast and Furious guns-for-drugrunners affairs — but anything can happen in an October Surprise.

The best October Surprise for Romney would be a really good showing in the three presidential debates, which start on October 3. Whereas the conventions were watched by 29 million Americans, the debates are expected to be watched by over 60 million, more than twice as many people and a really significant proportion of the electorate. If Romney is forthright, courteous yet hard-hitting, as he occasionally showed he was capable of being during the many candidates’ debates when running for the Republican nomination, then the whole election could be flung wide open. A few fluffed lines by Obama, who is not as practised or quick on his feet as Romney presently is, could put Ohio back in play literally overnight. If Romney grasps the opportunity to lay out a convincing alternative vision for the future of the United States, of a country strong, free and above all solvent, and avoids getting hit by too much of the mud that Obama will undoubtedly fling, then the swing states might well swing back his way. He is an intelligent and articulate man, and these debates represent his last chance to win over a public that is still sceptical about him. If he were able to come through them with enhanced likeability numbers, especially among his problem areas of women and Hispanics, the White House could be well within Romney’s grasp again. The chance of becoming the most powerful man in the world must be worth taking the odd risk. If his numbers are still looking bad in Ohio, Florida and Virginia on October 3, he will have to ditch his cautious approach completely.

Another wild card in this election are those millions of left-wing Americans whom Obama has disappointed repeatedly since they ululated ecstatically over his absurdly hyperbolic promises of hope and change four years ago. Guantánamo Bay is still open; the ocean levels haven’t receded; Wall Street wasn’t genuinely discomfited, let alone occupied, and Obama wasn’t the radical revolutionary they’d hoped he would be. If significant numbers of disappointed left-wing voters punish Obama by not turning out in 2012 he could well lose, but he is probably right to rely on their loathing of the Republicans to herd them into the polling booths once again in November. A reluctant vote counts just as much as an enthusiastic one.

So the answer to my opening question is: yes, Romney could indeed still win — but only if fortune favours him and he is brave.