Why Obama could still lose in November

Worsening jobs figures, Romney's ad blitz and low approval ratings are reasons for Obama not to be complacent.

A somewhat blithe consensus has built up around the view that Mitt Romney is destined to lose the US presidential election. Prediction markets Intrade and Iowa Electronic Markets have the incumbent on 70.3% and 72.4% respectively to win, whilst Nate Silver, a superstar election seer, has Obama a huge 76.1% favourite. But for all the President’s advantages, and they are admittedly formidable, a good deal of uncertainty remains going into the final six weeks of the campaign. Here are three reasons why the race is more unpredictable than most pundits appreciated.

1. The economy, stupid. Long before the Clinton campaign coined that famous maxim, politicos have known that the single most important factor in presidential elections is the state of the economy. Ronald Reagan’s question to the nation in 1980, "do you feel better off than you did four years ago?" was widely thought to have skewered the hapless incumbent Jimmy Carter. Romney is clearly looking for the same tactic to work in 2012. The irony of Carter’s predicament was that in fact about ten million jobs had been created during his presidency – his misfortune was that the recession began in his re-election year, creating the impression of failure at the worst possible time. Obama’s job creation numbers are far worse than Carter’s: the economy has (narrowly) lost jobs since his election and only 4m of the 9m jobs lost in the recession have been recovered. Moreover, no president since Roosevelt has been re-elected with unemployment at more than 7.2% (it is currently 8.1%). But, like Roosevelt, Obama inherited a horrendously underperforming economy and, as with Roosevelt, the economy appears to be improving as his re-election approaches.

The danger for Obama, however, lies in the precariousness of the jobs growth figures. Some point out that the unemployment rate has been flattered by discouraged workers dropping out of the labour market. And the weak jobs growth figures from September – along with the current level of the ISM - have set up a tense end-game for the Obama administration. With two more months of data to come, Obama could be hugely damaged should those figures turn negative in the run-up to polling day.

Chart 1: US unemployment

2. This is the year of the super-PAC The incumbent funding advantage in presidential elections usually works in two ways: firstly the incumbent simply raises more money in most years due to their greater familiarity with donors and the tendency of backers to prefer a proven winner over an insurgent challenger; secondly, they generally avoid the costly battle for their party’s nomination that drains the challenger of cash before the real contest has ever begun. Both these advantages hold this year too (Obama had raised $600m in total to Romney’s $335m by the end of July), but they should be greatly mitigated following 2010’s controversial Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. the FEC. This ruling essentially eliminates the restrictions that existed on individual and corporate donations to "political action committees"; as a result, deep-pocketed donors, of which the Republicans seem to have rather more than the Democrats, will be able to target unlimited ads at the key swing states in the final weeks of the campaign.

The impact of these super-PACs was huge during the Republican primary, with Mitt Romney’s Restore Our Future super-PAC vastly outspending his rivals and destroying big poll leads, like Newt Gingrich’s 20-point lead in Florida, with a deluge of negative ads. Of course, it won't be so easy for Romney to squash President Obama in this manner. For one, he has his own super-PAC, albeit one less well-funded. It also remains unclear whether the Republican super-PACs have raised anything like the kind of funds some were predicting (data going up to 31 July showed a relatively modest $140m between them). But their eventual impact is impossible to predict, which leaves open the possibility they could make a critical difference in the crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio come November.

3. Approval ratings still dangerously low. Obama’s approval ratings are nowhere near high enough at this stage to justify complacency. Most analysts expect the bump he enjoyed following the Democratic Convention to fade by the end of September, which should erode much of the lead that appears to have excited prediction markets. Chart 2 shows the difficulty Obama has had in maintaining his approval ratings at levels comparable to those of the last four Presidents to enjoy re-election in the US.

Chart 2: Presidential approval

My view is not that Romney is more likely to win the Presidency - I don’t think he will. Obama’s approval ratings may be relatively low but they are significantly higher than those of Presidents Carter and Bush at this point in their unsuccessful re-election campaigns. He is also leading to varying degrees in states worth 332 electoral college votes (270 are needed to win). However, once one adjusts the current polls for the convention bounces and allows for the not inconsiderable likelihood of more disappointing economic news between now and the election, Romney’s task is not quite the Herculean labour that many seem to think.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Barack Obama meets with supporters at OMG Burgers on 20 September in Miami, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.