By Ernest Corea
With six months to go for the presidential election, both sides are in full campaign mode. Punches and counter-punches are being exchanged with an enthusiasm that sometimes slips over the line into fury. From time to time, an unscripted line unexpectedly roils a campaign from within. A good example was Vice President Joe Biden’s recent assertion that he is “comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Education Secretary (Minister) Arne Duncan, separately, agreed with Biden.
Biden and Duncan’s view was at odds with President Barack Obama’s position that his view was evolving. He was expected to make a definitive statement sometime in the summer. In the light of BidenÄs assertion, he could not take cover behind a state of evolution.
So he came out in a matter of days and told an ABC television interviewer: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” In the same interview he said that he had discussed the issue around the dinner table with his wife and daughters. He said he had heard from service members who, even after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, felt constrained because they aren’t allowed to get married. And in the end, the President said, he believes it’s important to “treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
So the show goes on, and campaigning continues with gusto.
One of the ironies of presidential electioneering, however, is that the election which takes place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years – Nov. 6, this year – does not actually produce a president. That responsibility falls on the “Electoral College,” a group selected from the constituent states of the union.
As Crystal Ball, a periodic newsletter on political and electoral matters issued by the University of Virginia’s Prof. Larry J. Sabato puts it: “The London Olympics isn’t the only venue for world-class sport this year. Political gold is waiting to be won in November, and the only way to grab the top U.S.A. medal is to master Electoral College math.
“It is both deceptively easy and maddeningly complex. A candidate has to accumulate 270 votes in a tiny universe of 538, but those 538 will be generated by 130 million votes cast in 51 separate entities. A game that looks like checkers is really multi-dimensional chess.”
The 538 voters constitute the Electoral College. Each party in each state that has a candidate running for president selects its Electoral College candidates ahead of Nov. 6. Each state also has its own rules for allocating Electoral College members to the presidential candidates, based on their standing in the popular vote. In most states the principle applied is “winner takes all.”
The number of Electoral College members per state is in proportion to its population, Thus, California gets 55 Electoral College members, Idaho 4.
This disparity makes it possible for a candidate who does well on his Electoral College math to lose the popular vote but win a majority of Electoral College members and thereby be declared president by the Electoral College. That’s how George W. Bush, with a ruling in his favour from the Supreme Court, was declared president in 2000 although Vice Present Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote.
Beyond the Auto Bailout
The Obama and Romney campaigns will be hardest at work in the combination of states through which each candidate seeks an Electoral College majority. Ohio is one of them. So it was in Ohio that Romney told a television reporter that he would “take a lot of credit” for the bailout of the auto industry which is one of Obama’s major achievements.
Romney had argued against a bailout of the auto industry in a 2008 article headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”. He had also repeatedly claimed that a Government loan to automakers would spell the doom of the auto industry. He did, however, suggest a “managed bankruptcy”, which is what Obama undertook and followed up with loans of the kind Romney opposed. The Obama campaign pounced.
In a conference call to reporters, Ohio’s former Governor Ted Strickland pointed out the huge gap between Romney’s claim and reality. Some commentators called Romney’s “inexactitude” a case of chutzpah; some said there were other words to describe such a claim.
Strickland piled it on. He said: “It’s not that we are just picking on this guy. He seems to be so wishy-washy and to pander so much.” Strickland said that Romney’s “exaggerations” went far beyond the auto bailout. “Romney also talked about remembering a parade that happened years before he was born. He falsely claimed that his dad marched with Martin Luther King. He’s lied about his hunting record and the guns he didn’t own.”
Union leader Bob King joined Strickland, saying: “Romney has made a long list of absurd statements, but this one (on the auto bailout) might be at the top of that list. The statement is tone-deaf and blind to reality.”
Hitting out in another, unrelated, area, a group outside the Romney campaign but opposed to Obama came out with a harsh television ad claiming that Obama was exaggerating his own role in the death of bin Laden and thereby diminishing the contribution of the armed services while boosting his own reputation.
This ad is considered a possible launch of a process known as “swift boating” which was used with great success against Senator John Kerry when he ran for president. The technique is to select a known success of the opposing candidate and then present it to the public using images and commentary that disparage the opponent and diminish his accomplishment.
Feeding A Frenzy
Meanwhile, Obama sent the Houses of Congress a short-term agenda for quick action with potential long-term benefits. The White House described the agenda as Obama’s “to do” list for Congress. The list has five items:
1. Reward American jobs, not outsourcing.
2. Refinancing for responsible homeowners.
3. Tax credits for small business jobs.
4. Clean Energy Manufacturing.
5. War Veterans Job Corps.
A White House statement said that “these initiatives all have bipartisan support, and the President believes that they will help create an economy built to last. An economy that supports secure American jobs and makes things the rest of the world buys – not one built on outsourcing, loopholes, or risky financial deals.”
Congress did not immediately respond directly to the president’s proposal, but in the Senate, Republicans blocked debate on a Democratic proposal that would maintain interest on student loans at 3.4 percent for another year. Unless the current rate is extended no later than July 1 it will double, adding to the already heavy burden of repayment that students bear.
At this early stage, two contending calculations on the present state of Electoral College support have already appeared. The website Real Clear Politics has Obama at 253 electoral votes and Romney at 170, with 115 undecided. The Huffington Post has a tally of Obama – 294, Romney – 170, with 74 still undecided.
These are preliminary figures and the final tally that emerges after Nov. 6 could be very different. As the campaigns continue, Obama confronts a number of obstacles to holding his perceived advantage. First, is the amount of anonymous money that is flowing into negative advertising against him. The dollar amounts likely to be spent on this program are expected to break all records.
Second, is the carefully calibrated attempt to deny Obama his successes and make voters forget that although he inherited the Great Recession, his policies have helped to created 4.2 million jobs. “Swift Boating” may be part of this attempt.
Third, is the legislation that has been adopted and continues to be adopted in several states inhibiting voter registration and making it more difficult for minorities and other who are part of Obama’s base from voting.
Fourth, is the fact that some of the “case” that is presented against him reportedly consists of lies. For instance, his patriotism has been questioned because, it has been said, he has gone around the world apologizing for US actions.
His critics have not produced a single example of such an apology because none exist. Many seasoned campaigners believe, however, that if a falsehood is repeated often enough people begin to believe it.
Sixth, the “birther” issue (the false allegation, disproved with documentary evidence, that Obama was not born in the US and is therefore not eligible to run for and serve as president) is being raised again, feeding the anti-Obama frenzy that afflicts a particular segment of the voting public.
It’s going to be a fascinating campaign year.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.