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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.