And there, gentle readers, you probably thought most of the American presidential election race had already been run. But you would be wrong. It’s only now that the race has finally settled in for the actual, unremitting hand-to-hand combat that will determine who will be America’s president, come 20 January 2013. J BROOKS SPECTOR gives you a handy survival guide to what is going to happen.
With his 'victory' in the Texas state Republican primary the other day, Mitt Romney became the unofficial official Republican candidate for the presidency, surpassing the pledged delegate total of 1,144 needed to win the nomination. We say “unofficial” because, technically, it is the role of the quadrennial national party convention to accept his name in nomination for the party’s candidacy and then have the assembled delegates actually vote to make it official. This year’s Republican gathering takes place over three days, beginning on 27 August in Tampa, Florida.
Come to think of it, the Democrats don’t actually have a formal candidate yet either. Their convention takes place in Charlotte, North Carolina, the week after the Republicans meet for theirs – and they will meet to ratify Barack Obama’s nomination formally as well.
In practical terms, of course, both men are the standard bearers and, in Obama’s case, his running mate is almost certainly Joe Biden, back for a return engagement as vice president. Mitt Romney’s Republicans, meanwhile, will have to wait to hear from their candidate who he prefers as Biden’s counterpart as the nominee for vice president. It is Romney’s choice, period.
While the nominating conventions technically can pick from among anyone whose name is placed in nomination, only Romney’s choice for vice president will be seriously considered and that person will be their party’s nominee. Unlike parliamentary democracies, the American presidential system means presidential nominees have great latitude in picking their vice-presidential nominee, their issues platform, the party’s top executives - unless they are already supporters within the party - as well as the nature of the candidate’s campaign strategy and tactics. In that sense, a political party is really just an extension of the nominee, rather than the other way around as might be the case in a parliamentary system.
The calendar has a lot to say about the pace of a presidential campaign generally. For a while, back in the American winter and spring earlier this year, it was not clear to everyone – many political analysts and reporters included - that Mitt Romney would ultimately move beyond such challengers as Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain, former Senator Rick Santorum, Texas Governor Rick Perry and, more improbably, ambassador Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and even businessman and TV reality show tout, Donald Trump.
Ultimately, Romney’s well-financed, usually well-organised campaign transcended his ambivalent, lukewarm support from many Republican activists and special-interest voters who deemed him insufficiently conservative on a wide range of social issues. Many of these voters were especially unhappy that he refused to repent his record as a moderate governor in usually Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, but they were especially unhappy about his promotion of a statewide healthcare reform measure that had served as a model for the Obama policy so detested by Republicans.
Still other Republicans were troubled by his wealth (and his born-with-a-platinum-spoon-in-the-mouth, a particularly infelicitous turn of phrase that would have made Ritchie Rich sound like a philanthropist) and his religion as a practising Mormon. Many born- again/evangelical/fundamentalist Christians - a bulwark of support for Republicans for the past generation – actually profess to believe Romney’s denomination is a cult.
Regardless of his stumbles and handicaps, every one of his would-be challengers wilted in the end, either from a critical lack of smarts, a failure of personal discipline, rampant confusion on issues or – most crucially, perhaps – the inability to raise enough money to carry on the fight through the full run of primaries. The primary marathon burns money at a rapid rate and fundraising is key.
“Money is the mother’s milk of politics”, the famous American political epigram goes, and the rest of the Republican pack could just never get enough of it for their respective candidacies to stay viable to the end. In finishing first, Romney thus upheld the traditional Republican approach of the party going with the next in line.
Over the next two months, he will face his first really big test in this race – the one that will allow him to remove a rather large one of those seven veils: who will he settle on as his running mate? This choice could well define him in the eyes of the American voter in a way that has not yet happened through the various primary elections and the 18 or so candidate debates that have already taken place within Romney’s party.
The odds of his picking any of the people who ran against him, however, are probably prohibitive, given their collective failures in the primaries to demonstrate their staying power and their particularly harsh criticism of Romney as a candidate.
As he looks to pick his running mate, the Republican bench consists of a mix of various senators and governors who look far too much like Romney himself, and a brace of governors and a senator with Hispanic backgrounds. One of these latter three might well represent a roll of the dice to jazz up his candidacy by making a play for the Hispanic vote, which has heretofore been more Democratic than not.
Then there are a few other more exotic choices: New Jersey Chris Christie, large of girth and sharp of tongue; Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a South Indian American; or even Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state who is, well, black, female, and formidably well versed in foreign policy – the very area in which Romney is clearly at his weakest.
(Not so coincidentally, foreign policy has become a real strength for Obama in all the public opinion polls, even those who are serious sceptics on his economic stewardship.)
But despite some sharp rhetoric and verbal fencing between Romney and Obama already, the American calendar actually makes this period – June, July and most of August – something of a lull for serious campaigning. America is entering the vacation season as schools and universities break for the summer, families are scheduling their annual downtime at the beach or the mountains, and relatively fewer citizens and voters will be paying close attention to the candidates for a while – except, perhaps, for their appearances at county fairs and similar events.
Once the conventions happen, summer vacations end, schools are poised to reopen after Labour Day, and it is the traditional start of the autumn campaign season, right up until Election Day, 6 November. On that date, Americans vote for the president, a third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives, numerous governors, hundreds of mayors and county executives and thousands of state legislators, city councillors, and dozens of other officers across the country.
In this interregnum until the conventions, the candidates and their staffers will not have gone on vacation, even if that was their deepest longing. Instead, they will be in overdrive, at warp speed, pedal to the metal. They will be organising their campaigns, updating computerised databases, computer modelling on the basis of opinion surveys, signing up volunteers, fundraising, and encouraging the support of wealthy would-be funders who are setting up their SuperPACs.
This new campaign activity, now fully sanctioned by the “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling several years ago that okayed unlimited corporate issue-spending as a form of constitutionally protected free speech, allows these purpose-built entities to spend enormous sums on behalf of issue advertising and campaign-style activities - as long as they are not specifically acting on behalf of an actual candidate. For many this is something of a perversion of the democratic process, but it is now a fact of life for this presidential race and both sides are planning to make the fullest possible use of this new tactic.
Another crucial thing candidates will do from now on is to try out lines of attack, the laying out of their campaign narrative and the dispatching of various surrogates – that is, other office holders and highly visible supporters – to see if they can drive home and help perfect the attack lines. While the nation’s attention is only partially on this campaign, it is the perfect time to do these various auditions – trimming and adjusting the resulting approaches for the months ahead.
As this race now begins in earnest, polling data says Obama generally has a razor-thin lead over Romney, but Obama’s once very considerable lead with women is shrinking. The polling data have also shown that a majority of people approve of Obama personally or feel favourably disposed towards him, but do not believe he has been doing an excellent job on guiding the economy back to health.
However, they do tend to feel that Obama has won the day already on international security concerns – including what used to be called “the war on terror.” Killing Osama bin Laden didn’t hurt him – although it just as clearly hasn’t made the sale for Obama with many more conservative voters.
Most analysts agree domestic economic issues will be the core of the voting public’s concerns this year. As far as the Obama campaign is concerned, watch for a heavy concentration of attention on deconstructing Romney’s claims that with his business background, he knows how to nurture economic growth and lower unemployment better than the incumbent president. With so many of Romney’s bolder claims now in dispute –that his corporate experience created 100,000 jobs and that 80% of the companies his investment group became involved with grew their revenue – the Romney forces run a risk of sounding like cheerleaders for poor economic results between now and election day.
Alternatively, if the economy continues to recover, Romney might be left with a relatively weaker position of saying, “well, yes, the economy is recovering under Obama, but we can do it better.”
For Obama, meanwhile, he remains saddled with criticisms about the apparent failure and financial wastage of his administration’s stimulus policies – attacks that will only get stronger during the campaign. Also, there were those costly financial and auto industry bailout he championed – even if by most accounts that latter decision saved one of the country’s key economic sectors from real collapse in the financial crisis.
Moreover, the Obama team must somehow make a better case for his signature legislative victory – the healthcare reform package – in the face of criticism from the left, right and centre. Lurking out there, too, is the possibility that the Supreme Court may rule it unconstitutional before the election, on the fairly esoteric grounds that it represented an unconstitutional mandate burden on citizens.
On foreign policy, the Romney forces will have to somehow square the circle of their candidate’s call for more vigorous defence spending, confrontational approaches towards North Korea, Russia and China on trade and human rights, as well as unwavering support for Israel and opposition to Iran - but all in the face of the candidate’s own insistence on reducing government spending.
For the Obama administration, probably the biggest headaches are how to keep Israel and Iran from getting into a bust-up over a potential nuclear device built by the Iranians, somehow coming to closure in Syria without inciting the Russians, Chinese and Iranians, and precluding the collapse of the euro zone (which, while not a US project, could well drive the world economy into the dreaded double-dip recession). Oh, and there is still that little matter of ongoing US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, but without watching that government crater into a collapse as foreign forces fly home.
In tactical terms, because the presidential election is won state by state for those all-important votes in the Electoral College – a state gets one elector for each of its two senators, plus the number of congressional districts in the state. This means that the big prizes are to win big=population states like Illinois, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and California. But with the exception of Pennsylvania and Florida, these states are pretty well locked up for one or the other party.
As a result, the real election will focus on battleground states like Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and perhaps a few others. In the next few months, as a result, we will see Obama and Romney, their running mates, children, pets, surrogates, entertainment industry supporters and oh so many others, all trying to sway opinion in those battleground states – right up until the election.
At this early point, the Daily Maverick will go way, way out on a limb and predict Barack Obama will probably win by a percentage point or two in the popular vote total, but that the race will be more persuasive in the actual electoral vote split. But don’t bet the farm quite yet on this. Wait on that, just a bit longer. DM
Oh, the heck with it. In this one case, American (and lots of foreign) newspapers, magazines, online services and broadcast networks will have more material than anyone can hope to consume. Still, you can try to read them all, or you can stay with us over the next several months and we’ll digest it for you.
Photo: Supporters cheer as U.S. President Barack Obama takes the stage for a campaign rally at the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa May 24, 2012. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)