Obama will win in 2012 – the real contests are below the headline fight

The more telling outcome will be how 2012 shapes the field of candidates – both Democratic and Repub

Over the past few weeks, potential candidates have been dropping out of the race to be the Republican nominee to challenge President Obama in 2012 – and a few even entered, but in truth ite is almost irrelevant whom the GOP selects to carry the party's standard: Obama will almost certainly win, and it seems that the Republicans know it.

However, that's not to say the race is over, or even that it won't be interesting. But for the real movements you have to look below the headline fight of Obama vs the Republican candidate.

The elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives will shape Obama's second term and will be the difference between him being a lame duck and a President that continues with his agenda and has the ability to make real changes. Since the November 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans have controlled the House of Congress and wiped out the supermajority the Democrats enjoyed in the Senate.

This has meant near deadlock on Obama's legislative agenda and almost brought about the shutdown of the federal government over budget negotiations. Depending on the outcome of House and Senate elections next year, it could be four more years of the same stalemate – or it could see Obama making real progress on his agenda, ensuring his healthcare plans are fully implemented and not repealed.

While the Republican primary race will prove interesting, the more telling outcome will be how 2012 shapes the field of candidates – both Democratic and Republican – for 2016. 2016 will be the true horserace: with no incumbent president and the vice-president not running, four years out and it is difficult to see who the Democratic challengers are likely to be. Eight years of a Democrat in the White House leaves space for a capable Republican to stand a real chance. Looking ahead, Republican candidates will be using the campaign this year and next to launch themselves towards the 2016 nomination.

Mike Huckabee, the former state governor-turned-Fox news pundit, has decided not to run, even though he has been growing a significant base of supporters among Republicans since he came second to John McCain in 2008. Donald Trump, the Lord Sugar of the American Apprentice and populist (if not popular) businessman, has also decided against running after appearing seriously to be considering entering the race, and even pseudo-campaigning for a while.

Haley Barbour, another highly rated governor, also announced that he will not be throwing his hat in the ring – despite building up a campaign team and visiting the early primary states.

Paling attraction

Sarah Palin, perhaps the best-known name in the Republican field, is yet to announce her intentions, but may follow in the footsteps of Huckabee and Trump. Speculation suggests that she is enjoying life outside elected office enough to be relucant to seek out the rigours of a tough campaign unlikely to end in victory.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, celebrated for initiating the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton, has had a poor start since making his announcement. He has been a player in the political field for a long time now, and may not represent the "fresh face" that Republicans will undoubtedly look for. His extramarital affairs won't help among the staunchly conservative Republican base voting in the primaries.

That leaves Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and businessman, is many people's favourite to win the GOP nomination. The fact that he raised $10m in one day last week is a good example of why.

Do Pawlenty and Huntsman also want him to win? Both are credible candidates: Pawlenty a successful and popular governor in Minnesota; Hunstman a former CEO, governor of Utah and President Obama's ambassador to China for two years. However, neither is particularly well known nationwide (59 per cent of Americans felt neither favourable nor unfavourable towards Pawlenty in Ipsos's March poll) and while that didn't stop Obama in 2008, this is a very different election.

These two relatively young candidates will use this election cycle to build their national profile and grow support bases in the key states. Their next four years will be just as important. They will need to keep whatever momentum they gain this time around. Four years ago, Huckabee was an unknown, but he's now a recognisable face to many and, had he decided to run, he would have been in a very strong position to win the Republican nomination.

View to a killing

Our latest research shows Obama leading all his opponents, which is hardly surprising at this stage. Although the polls also show a small bump for Obama since the killing of Osama Bin Laden, it is unlikely to make much difference in the long run. It does however strengthen his personal position and closes off an avenue of attack from the Republicans.

They will find it far more difficult to accuse him of being weak on terrorism or defence – three in five Americans (59 per cent) give Obama a satisfactory rating on terrorism, up from 43 per cent before the death of Bin Laden.

Obama's electoral fortunes – as those of David Cameron and the Conservatives in Britain – lie in the success or failure of the economy. The most likely obstacle that could prevent Obama staying in the White House would be an economic downturn and increasing unemployment. Current projections suggest this won't happen, but the Republicans could do worse than learn from a little-known governor of Arkansas in 1992.

No one gave Bill Clinton a chance against the incumbent, President George H W Bush, but with the economy sliding and the independent Ross Perot splitting the vote, he forged a victory. You've got to be in it to win it.

Another Democrat provides a warning story for those Republicans looking ahead to 2016. John Edwards believed that coming second to John Kerry in 2004 and becoming Kerry's running mate made him a shoe-in for the 2008 nomination, before the junior senator from Chicago, Barack Obama, stole his momentum.

A repeat of 1992 is unlikely. The Democrats need to concentrate on winning key House and Senate races in order to give the president at least two years in which he can pass the legislation he wants. The Republicans are playing a risky game if they're looking ahead to 2016. However unlikely, every election is winnable and Republican candidates for House and Senate seats will be grateful for a presidential contender who gets the Republican vote out.

Tom Mludzinski is a research executive at Ipsos MORI, the social research institute.

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

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era