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– or it could see Obama making real progress on his agenda, ensuring his healthcare plans are fully implemented and not repealed.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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.