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Obama in trouble
In 23 days, we may be welcoming a new leader of the free world. US President Barack Obama quite possibly sealed his fate with his abysmal performance in the first presidential debate earlier this month. It was a shocking upset that dismayed his supporters here in the US. Every time he looked down, looked away, looked distracted and looked uneasy, Republican candidate Mitt Romney scored another point.
And those points are adding up. Successive poll since the first debate have shown gains for the Republicans and losses for the Democrats. Favourability ratings of the candidates have shown a similar trend; Romney is up even among women. The lead held by the Democrats has shrunk. Should this trend continue, Mitt Romney will be the next US president.
On the ground since the debate, two types of Democrats have emerged. One group is utterly disappointed in the President, dismayed at the prospect that he might lose the election and angry that he allowed it to happen.
Another larger group is far more complacent. They see that debates don’t traditionally win elections and that polls are no reliable indicators of who the winner will be. Obama still has an edge when the electoral votes are added up. More importantly, they don’t feel any sense of urgency even to vote. This complacency has long dogged the Democratic Party and it takes a rare man to overcome it, like Obama did in 2008.
This is where Republicans have a significant advantage: their ability to galvanise support from their members, to get them angry and riled up and to take action. It is why they dominated the mid-term elections and why it is possible they’ll outvote the Democrats on November 6.
The rhetoric they’ve repeated has stuck. One poll showed that 17 per cent of Americans believe Obama is Muslim (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). Obama has waged a war on religion. Obama is a socialist. Obama was not even born in the United States.
Polls don’t always predict an election victory but the current trend is noticeable and Republicans are emboldened. And while it’s traditionally held that “debates don’t win elections” that view may be changing as the independent voter block in the US swells.
There is a lot of talk in the American media about “swing states” and “independent voters.” The independent vote is especially important in the US where 40 per cent of Americans identified as “independent” last year (Gallup)—the highest in recorded history.
This election year, voters identifying as Republican have increased in numbers since the last election in 2008 (39 per cent to 43 per cent); those identifying as Democrats have dropped (51 per cent to 47 per cent) (Pew Research Center). Yes, the Democratic Party still holds a lead here but that lead has narrowed significantly. What matters even more is the party’s ability to get more of the independent voters. Persuading independent voters is not merely important, it is imperative.
It is almost fashionable to call oneself “independent” here. It’s like saying you’re agnostic: it sets one apart from the rest, makes one look intelligent, like a critical thinker unmoved by rhetoric or bloodline. And while some independent voters lean one way or the other, at least half of them are genuinely unattached to any party and make different decisions every election.
These are the people, so many of them now, that the parties must appeal to. Given the overwhelming negativity here when it comes to the slow economic recovery and the 12 million people out of work, it is quite possible more of these independent voters will lean towards Romney.
The way one appeals to the independent voter is to position oneself as much to the center as possible. Romney is currently doing just that. To gain the Republican nomination, he positioned himself steadfastly to the right: a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, choosing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe vs Wade and thus criminalise abortions, etc.
But anyone following Romney’s journey to his candidacy would know how he has changed his positions on every topic under the sun: healthcare reform, immigration, gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, the poor...
Just in the past week, he has declared he’ll pursue no action on abortion legislation. He said he’ll honour Obama’s “deferred action” on the children of undocumented immigrants (temporary work visas), despite earlier decrying it as “amnesty.” He also said his 47 per cent comment was not merely inelegantly stated (as he first said) but was, in fact, outright wrong.
Tomorrow he might officiate a gay wedding. Romney is riding a wave that Obama allowed to swell. He’s doing everything, including blurring his own principles, to move to the center and thus appeal to the independent voter. The Obama camp is pouncing on every changed position but it matters little. People are hearing what they want to hear and that’s what matters. In this moment in time, Obama is in trouble.
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