Are the swing states embracing Obama again?

President opens up lead against all Republican candidates in key battlegrounds.

The re-election of Barack Obama may well be back on. After watching the economy tank and the president struggling to make his promised sweeping reforms, many American swing voters were in a state of intense deliberation -- Obama 2.0 or something new?

But the economic picture is improving - and while jobs continue to be created and unemployment falls, the Republicans are involved in bitter exchanges and political gaffes, leaving Obama's opinion ratings continually improving.

Dana Milbank recently wrote in the Washington Post that:

While Romney embraces the birther billionaire Donald Trump, he has ceded to Obama the political center. The day after Romney indelicately announced that he was "not concerned about the very poor," Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast about his affection for the Rev. Billy Graham and about "the biblical call to care for the least of these -- for the poor; for those at the margins of our society.

It now seems that the Obama campaign is gaining momentum in the areas that matter most -- key swing states.

Fox News conducted a poll late on Wednesday. It analyses voters in 10 battleground states -- Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia and it would seem that in those states, which are key to his chances of re-election, he is performing better than the Republican alternatives.

Dana Blanton at Fox News explains:

The swing-state voters back Obama over Romney by 8 percentage points and Santorum by 9 points.

Obama tops Paul by 12 points in the poll. Gingrich lags farthest behind Obama, as voters in these key states prefer the president to the former Speaker by 20 points.

Chris Stirewalt adds:

It's getting harder for Republicans to argue that their protracted nomination process isn't doing serious damage to their chances of unseating President Obama in the fall.

The latest FOX News swing state poll has some sobering news for the Republicans. Not only do both of their current frontrunners, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, trail nationally (Romney trails by 5 points in all states, Santorum by 12), but they lose in the 10 key states that are likely to decide the election.

It is arguably Romney's poll demise which is most striking. A few weeks ago Romney appeared to be the the certain winner of the Republican nomination race. The data now suggests a very different story. In states such as Florida, where Republican voters tend to consider themselves as moderates, he does just fine. But among the Republican core voters, he is treated with suspicion. Rick Santorum, who was seen as lagging behind before his recent wins, is now arguably the most viable winner of the GOP race.

On the Guardian website Michael Cohen explains pointing to two polls that paint a bleak picture for Romney and give hope to his Republican rival Rick Santorum:

What should be most daunting for Romney is the Rasmussen and PPP polls track likely voters, rather than simply registered voters. Romney's polling numbers within the GOP remain where they've been for much of the year - around 25-35% support, and rarely much higher.

To beat an incumbent, the stars need to be clearly aligned in one's favor. There is very little to date that suggests this is the case for Mitt Romney.

He remains the Republican candidate who Republicans might support if they have to - but that guy in the sweater vest seems like he might be more fun.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times