Romney's final stumbling block?

Latest polling shows a dirty fight in South Carolina may be all that's holding him back from Obama.

Having squeezed through Iowa by 8 votes and won convincingly in New Hampshire, the road ahead looks pretty clear for the former Massachusetts Governor. He has campaigned pretty much ever since 2007, and now it seems as though Mitt Romney has finally seen off all of his challengers and is focussing his sights on the presidency.

One by one, Republican candidates ranging from former Speaker Gingrich, through Herman Cain the CEO of a pizza chain, Congresswoman Bachmann and Texas Governor Perry to former senator Santorum have each had their own surge (and decline) in the polls as Republicans tried to find someone that is not Mitt Romney. The problem with Romney -- or so think many Republicans -- is that he is not seen to be conservative enough for them. He's a moderate. And so they courted Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and Santorum. All the while, Romney's ratings remained fairly constant. That was another criticism: despite having the most money and arguably the most name recognition, Romney was not "energising the base" and there was no groundswell of support for him. It was said he was Mr 25 per cent.

Our Ipsos poll for Reuters of Republicans, released on the day of the New Hampshire primary, had Gov Romney on 30 per cent -- his highest since we began tracking in June 2011. The poll also shows that he has the best chance of defeating Obama in November. In a match up of Romney v Obama, the Republican is just 5 points behind the President. Ron Paul is the next closest but trails Obama by 7 points.

So what does Romney have to do now to seal the nomination? The answer is simple, and the same as it has been for a while: Don't mess up. The fabled "big mo" (momentum) is clearly with him, as is the money which is vital if the race drags on. South Carolina -- the next Primary -- poses a threat in a few ways. First, voters there are more conservative than in New Hampshire and this is a demographic in which Romney suffers. However, South Carolina tends to be more "establishment" in its taste, preferring well-known and established politicians unlike "outsiders", as preferred by Iowa.

Second, campaigns have a history of turning dirty in South Carolina and you can be pretty confident that Gingrich, Santorum and Paul campaigns are preparing attacks to bring down Romney in South Carolina. They'll attack him for "being liberal", flip-flopping on abortion, the similarities of his Massachusetts healthcare plan to that of Obama's controversial reform, and the current popular attack is to highlight his time at Bain where they say his job was to fire people; with high unemployment a big issue in the US that does not look good. It is unlikely, however, that these attacks will do enough to stop his move to becoming the nominee. Losing South Carolina may not even be too damaging to his campaign -- especially as he is financially and organisationally the best equipped for a long race of attrition.

Rick Perry will need to do very well in order to stay in the running. Having almost dropped out after placing fifth in Iowa and focussing his attention on South Carolina -- a state in which the more conservative Texan should feel more comfortable -- his fortunes lay heavily in the results of the next primary. Speaker Gingrich too will need to think long and hard about his chances if he misses out on the top spots. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are more likely to stay in and make this race last that bit longer before we can call Mitt Romney the Republican Presidential candidate for the 2012 race to the White House.

Tom Mludzinski is Deputy Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.