The US midterms: protest voting or conservative revival?

What can we expect from today’s election results?

It's been a long and a noisy election – and today, as voters across America go to the polls, there's been no let-up in the campaigning, from rallies to radio phone-ins and those incessent negative ads. Only Delaware was spared a 30-minute ad from the Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell: her team left it too late to buy network airtime, and the public access channel that was supposed to run it just plain "forgot". Twice.

President Obama, who's been staying put in the White House since the weekend, called in to four radio shows and taped an interview for American Idol's Ryan Seacrest, hoping to boost Democratic turnout in a handful of key battleground states.

In his place, out on the ground, Michelle Obama has been stumping alongside the embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in Nevada, pleading with voters to be patient about the pace of change, before heading to Pennsylvania to lend support to Rep Joe Sestak in his tight Senate race.

And Bill Clinton, who seems to have been everywhere in the past few weeks, was back in Florida – in case the Democrats' Alex Sink can slip through in a two-way Republican fight.

But – unless all the polls are suddenly proven wrong, and barring any last-minute surprises – today's election looks like producing the worst results for the Democrats in at least 60 years.

Some pundits have cautioned that this may not turn out to be the expected Republican rout – but according to the latest Gallup poll of 1,539 likely voters, the GOP has built up a 15-point lead.

The survey predicts Republican control of the House of Representatives is "highly likely" – the party needs 39 seats to take over, and Gallup says the party's gains could be "anywhere from 60 seats on up". Thirty-seven seats in the Senate are up for election this year: Rasmussen Reports predicts that the Republicans will pick up 25 of these – not enough to take control of the upper house – but GOP leaders are already talking confidently of "finishing the job" in 2012.

Dozens of races are considered too close to call. Some early signs could come from the first polls to close tonight – with key races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York pointing to the size of the Republican sweep, though it'll be several hours before the outcome of some crucial seats is clear.

There are plenty of senior Democrats in danger – not Reid, who's neck-and-neck with the Tea Party's Sharron Angle in Nevada – but even Massachusetts Rep Barney Frank, who is facing an unexpectedly tough fight. Another surprise upset could come in Arizona, where the staunchly liberal Raul Grijalva could fall to the 28-year-old rocket scientist and Christian conservative Ruth McClung, whose mother is running her campaign.

And six Democratic governors are at risk, too vulnerable to the white working-class voters who probably backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, and who now seem likely to switch parties altogether – or simply stay at home.

It's all such a far cry from the euphoria that overwhelmed Washington just two years ago: the queues of excited people who waited hours to cast their vote, the sense of belonging, of making a difference, of a moment in history.

But if the people clamoured for change back in 2008, they're demanding it again now – albeit change of a rather different kind.

Now the grind of hardship, their uncertainty about their jobs, the fragility of their trust in Washington to make it all better – all of this has turned people against the man who once promised so much, and who is now slated (fairly or not) for delivering so little.

Part of this backlash is only to be expected: in times of economic troubles, the party in control gets the blame. And history shows that not only does America expect to have a divided government, in which a different party controls the White House and Congress – most people actively prefer it.

Many independent voters, suggests the pollster Mark Penn, are planning to vote Republican today to achieve just that, a sign that they are "extremely dissatisfied" with what this particular Congress has been doing. Never mind Obama's approval ratings – take a look at how unpopular the pols on Capitol Hill have become. It ain't pretty.

So, rather than some kind of mass conversion towards conservative values, we could view this as a vote against the guys who happened to be in charge during the most challenging economic crisis in living memory.

But the president must take the blame for this much at least: the gaping "enthusiasm gap" that means so many Democratic supporters simply won't bother to show up at the polls. Whether it's been a mixed message, an elitist message, or no clear message at all, Obama has signally failed to sell his agenda to the nation. The man whose own personal narrative was so compelling has consigned his first two years in office to narrative oblivion.

Instead, the wider story of this election has yet to emerge. What has been the real impact of the Tea Party – and how big will its future influence be? How quickly can the Democratic Party – and the president – regroup and recover? And, after all those billions of dollars spent, did money persuade that many people to change how they voted?

All of these questions are waiting for answers. Not least for those planning the next election campaign – the race for 2012.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.