Advantage, Obama as voting begins in the US

The opinion polls have hardened in favour of the President in the last days of the campaign.

The US goes to the polls today with Barack Obama on the brink of an historic re-election. After a brutal campaign in which the Romney and Obama camps have spent an estimated $6bn between them, making this race comfortably the most expensive election in history, the two candidates are separated by just over one per cent in the national opinion polls. However, Obama holds slight leads in most of the key swing states, including the perennial bellwether state of Ohio. Of the states picked up by Obama against John McCain in 2008, Romney holds poll leads in just Indiana and North Carolina, with Florida and Virginia in a dead-heat.

The two candidates have splurged over $700m on television adverts, most of them negative, in the battleground states. Aside from the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, 34 Senators and 11 governors will be decided today. However, after months of intense campaigning, little is expected to change. The Democrats are poised to retain a narrow majority in the Senate, with the Republicans unlikely to pick up the four seats it needs to take control. In Missouri, Republican candidate Todd Aikin, whose comments about "legitimate rape" rarely leading to pregnancy sparked widespread outrage, is However, the huge gains GOP gains on the back of the Tea Party campaign are not expected to be wiped out, with the Democrats set to fall well short of the 25 gains needed to take a majority in the House of Representatives.

The political deadlock that has existed since the Republicans took control of the House in 2010 is set to continue. In truth, US politics is more divided than it has been for a generation. Despite committing a series of media gaffes, the most notorious being a secretly-filmed video of Romney dismissing the "47 per cent of electors who don't pay income tax and won't vote for me", the former Massachusetts governor has remained in contention. In particular, the Romney campaign was energised by a strong performance against a lacklustre Obama in the first Presidential debate on 3 October. However, after recovering in the final two debates. An opinion poll released over the weekend by the Washington Post found that 79 per cent rated Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through north-eastern America last week, as excellent or good. The President has since been bolstered by October's employment statistics showing that 171,000 jobs had been added to the economy.

Even small factors such as the weather - the forecast for Florida promises rain on Tuesday - may come into play as the party machines complete their 'get out the vote' programmes. However, turnout is expected to be up to five per cent lower than the 57 per cent seen in 2008.

Volunteers at the Romney office in St Petersburg maintain an upbeat demeanour, with a chart on the wall showing the numbers from the minority of favourable opinion polls. But the mood is brittle. Canvassers say they are "scared for their country". One lady tells me that "Obama-care forcing everybody to be equal is just wrong", complaining that the new healthcare regime would force Catholic charities to offer abortions and birth control. She says that she and her husband had to sell their home to pay rising medical bills 'but that's how it works" and proudly states that no Congressional Republicans voted for the bill.

The antipathy to their opponents is not reserved to Republicans. Victoria Yeroian, Young Democrats President at Virginia Commonwealth university in Richmond, describes the Tea Party to me as "an organised version of the Ku Klux Klan".

Democrat party operatives in Virginia and Florida have been in full lock-down mode when it comes to speaking to journalists but seem quietly confident amid the bustle of campaigning activity. The opinion polls have hardened in favour of the President in the last few days, and Democrats have been cheered by New York Times's uber-pollster Nate Silver, who projected a comfortable Obama win on Monday night, placing the vital bellwether state of Ohio, along with Florida and Virginia, in the Democrat column. Silver's formula puts a 92 per cent likelihood on Obama being re-elected, estimating that the President will claim between 310-315 electoral college votes.

As ever, attention will focus on the three big swing states - Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. No Republican has ever won the keys to the White House without claiming Ohio, but Romney needs to claim the Buckeye State and either Florida or a clutch of smaller swing states. The world is watching as America votes.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer.

Barack Obama calls volunteers as he visits a campaign office in Columbus, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.