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.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.