By Rajesh Rajagopalan
With just about six weeks to go for the US Presidential elections, the race shows all signs that it is probably too close to call. Opinion polls are all over the place with even experienced opinion poll analysts expressing frustration. That should be good news for President Obama. No incumbent President with the kind of economic numbers and job approval ratings that Obama has should have had even a prayer. But Obama is lucky: he is facing an opponent who is running an inept campaign that could be compared to the kind of presidential campaigns that Democrats once used to run (think Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis).
So, despite unprecedentedly poor economic conditions, President Obama is maintaining a slim but undeniable lead not just among registered voters but also likely voters as well as the all important state-wise electoral college count. His lead is growing, again slightly, in key battleground states such as Ohio, West Virginia and Florida. Real Clear Politics (RCP), which aggregates different state polls, shows President Obama leading in ten of the twelve states it classifies as battleground states. Romney leads only in Missouri and North Carolina. Even Wisconsin, the home state of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, seems to be moving more solidly towards Obama, despite moving towards the Republican ticket immediately after Romney picked Ryan as his running mate. And the momentum seems to be favouring Obama because the many of these state polls are now no longer within the margin of error, which they were even a few days back. For Mitt Romney, the electoral college path to the White House is beginning to look more difficult.
It might be too early to call the elections, however. Six weeks is a not very long but it might be long enough for Romney to turn things around. They key advantage that Romney has is that there appears to be little doubt among most Americans (but particularly the electorally crucial independents) that Obama has failed. According to RCP, Obama’s job approval ratings is showing some marginal positive movements but is still hovering at less than 50 percent, with similarly high disapproval ratings. In fact, the President’s approval rating has not crossed the 50 percent mark since January 2012. Romney and the Republicans do not have to convince the American voter that it is time for Obama to go – they just have to convince them that Romney has the answer. To the frustration of the Republicans, this relatively simple task is what Romney seems just unable to do. If the election were to be held today, it is very likely that Obama would win simply because more Americans are simply not sure that Romney would not make the situation worse. Romney’s advantage is that he only has to make the case for himself rather than against Obama. Not easy, but doable.
Another advantage that Romney might have is that the opinion polls so far might not be very accurate. Indeed, they might be understating support for Romney and overstating that for President Obama. Many polls tended to focus on registered voters rather than on likely voters. Because there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, this tends to skew such polls towards Obama. On the other hand, more and more polls (indeed, now most of them) have focused on likely voters rather than registered voters but it has not improved Romney’s situation very much. If ‘likely voters’ are also picking Obama, the statistical anomaly might be less significant.
But one thing that such polls do not measure (and I am not sure if there are other polls out there that measure this) is the level of enthusiasm among voters. Conservatives are increasingly hoping that the ‘silent majority’ will play a big role in this Presidential election just as they did earlier this year when the Republican Governor of Wisconsin faced a recall election. That election also appeared difficult to call, but Republican Governor Scott Walker won by a bigger margin that he had in 2010, when he won the Governorship. In November, this should worry Obama. His supporters are far less enthusiastic for obvious reasons. It is difficult to rouse yourself to go out and vote for a candidate that you feel has fallen down on the job. They might not be sufficiently disappointed with Obama or convinced by Romney to vote Republican, but Romney’s purpose would be served if a lot of them simply stayed at home. One thing that Romney can count on is that however much the Republican rank-and-file might be unenthusiastic about his candidacy, they will go out and vote. This is a key variable but it is unlikely that we can anticipate election day turn out before the fact.
Of course Romney faces three major hurdles before that: the presidential debates. Normally, when facing an incumbent, the challenger has some advantage because standing next to the President in a debate makes the challenger also seem presidential. It gives the challenger gravitas. But it might not work very well in Romney’s case. Romney is stiff in front of cameras and crowds, a great disadvantage for an American politician. He is a poor debater, and on key issues such as foreign policy, he is prone to gaffes. Obama has his own problems (wonkishness, for instance) but they pale in comparison. The best that Romney can probably hope for is that he survives without doing himself significant damage because there will be very little time to recover.
However this election goes, the Republican party needs to rethink the direction it has been taking. If defeating an incumbent as wounded as Obama is so difficult, there is something seriously wrong with the Republican message and not just Romney. Indeed, it might possibly be better for the future health of the party if the Romney lost the election because that could become a catalyst for such introspection.
(Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is a Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)