Analysis: Obama – Romney, the fight begins now

Joseph Sanderson 2 May 2012

As Churchill famously said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” The warm-up acts -pizza mogul Herman Cain, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, and social conservative former Senator Rick Santorum – have left the stage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian perennial candidate Ron Paul have missed their cue to leave, and, cartoon-like, a hook is emerging from stage left to drag them away.

It’s time for the main event: in the red corner, the challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; in the blue corner, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, President Barack Obama. And this one looks set to last all twelve rounds.

The road for Romney so far has not been easy. Despite running to the right of John McCain in 2008, the re-energised Republican base this year has meant that Romney was the centrist candidate this year. The primary was characterised by voters who could settle for Romney, but were not particularly enthusiastic about it.

Although for the most part his campaign was well-run, the Romney camp has committed a few unforced errors – a handful of inartful sound bites that made the wealthy Romney seem a little out of touch with ordinary voters. An extended primary campaign also forced Romney to emphasise certain positions that could harm him in November – his anti-amnesty views on illegal immigration may harm Republicans’ chances with the growing Hispanic vote in the Southwest, including vital swing states like Nevada.

But neither is the incumbent without baggage. Sluggish economic growth and persistently high unemployment has been the hallmark of the Obama administration. Economists will for years to come debate why. Would things have been worse without the huge increases in government spending? Has the uptick in new regulations under Obama led to a paralysing uncertainty that discourages hiring and capital investment in the private sector?

It is too early to tell, but one thing is for certain: in the past, incumbents running for re-election with unemployment so high have struggled. It is not for nothing that the Romney campaign has adapted Saatchi & Saatchi’s famous 1979 ‘Labour isn’t Working’ poster to refer to Obama.

Obama promised fiscal responsibility after a profligate Bush administration but he has increased the national debt by $5 trillion (or about one third of GDP), potentially alienating independent voters concerned about the US’s fiscal future.

Republicans in Congress have shrewdly chosen to focus on government waste recently, placing the public debate where Romney wants it to be. Obama’s flagship health insurance reform law is unpopular, and may be struck down by the Supreme Court as beyond the federal government’s role.

Most commentators predict a brutal campaign. Both candidates have been furiously attempting to raise millions and a series of court decisions has made it much easier for advocacy groups (including poorly disguised alter egos of the candidates, known as SuperPACs) and trade unions to launch advertising blitzes.

On the ground, Obama has kept the strong organisational network he built in 2008; the Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping that the grass-roots Tea Party groups that appeared as a reaction to ‘Obamacare’ can provide engaged volunteers to get out the vote in November.

The battle has begun. Much could change between now and November – strong economic growth could help secure Obama’s re-election or a scandal could give Romney the edge. The Supreme Court, which has cases on the health insurance reform, illegal immigration, and ‘positive discrimination’ pending, is a wild card that could help or hinder either side.

For now, commentators and bookmakers think Obama is the slight favourite, but Gallup tracking polls have recently hovered close to a statistical tie. This could be a close one.

Joseph Sanderson