Romney’s wife, Hillary’s comeback and a race as tight as a cheap suit

Now that the Republicans have, with enormous reluctance, plumped for Romney, who’s going to win in November? It would be tempting to fall in with the common wisdom that Romney, with so many of his own side hostile towards him, cannot beat the president. But with the election seven long months away, events could upset this cosy mindset. Leaving aside game-changers like the veep choices and catastrophes such as an Israeli attack on Iran, Obama is hardly a shoo-in.

Crunching poll numbers doesn’t help much. One supposed rule is that a president needs to have a more than 50 per cent approval rating to be re-elected. By that measure, according to the latest polls, which are all at least a month old, Obama squeaks by with an average of 51.1. But as recently as 11 March, the CBS/New York Times poll gave Obama just 41.

Another golden rule is that no president with unemployment at more than 7 per cent can be re-elected. (The exception was Reagan, but he broke all the rules.) Right now, 8.2 per cent of Americans are jobless and the figure will not drop below seven by November. Will voters credit Obama with heading off a full-blown Great Recession, when tens of millions would have been thrown out of work? Unlikely. As Gordon Brown found, it’s hard to take credit for averting a disaster that didn’t happen. And Americans are even less forgiving. The killer question they ask is, “What have you done for me lately?”

What about the swing states – Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado – where elections are traditionally decided? Trying to get your head around the variables can drive you nuts. For instance, it’s hard to win the White House without snaffling Florida’s 29 electoral votes – just ask Al Gore – but unemployment in the Sunshine State is 9 per cent and the housing market is still in a deep slump. Little wonder Obama has made 16 visits since taking office. But Romney will be anointed at the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida, and if he picks as his sidekick the Florida senator Marco Rubio, the current favourite, the race will be as tight as a cheap suit.

It is said, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation”, so the good news for Obama is that unemployment there is below the national average. But Ohio is an overwhelmingly white state in an election where the president’s skin colour remains an important, if sublimated, issue. The trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer may come to a head as the election enters the back straight. Then there are Virginia and Colorado, traditional Republican redoubts thrust into the front line by demographic shifts. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s governor’s battles with organised labour has polarised the state as never before, which makes it, too, a toss up. Making sense of an electoral map in flux can do your head in.

Mormon conquest

One major uncertainty in November is how the southern evangelical right will take to Romney’s Mormonism. Many Christians believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, like Scientology, a crazy cult. And it will take some explaining that until his thirties Romney was a bishop in a church that, among its tenets, considers women second-class citizens, until 1978 refused to allow black people to worship, obliges its members to wear special underwear, and thinks Christ will pick Missouri for His Second Coming.

So far Romney has dodged questions about his Mormonism, citing prejudice against John Kennedy’s Catholicism as a precedent. But now the race has begun in earnest, it seems unlikely he will be able to maintain his vow of silence much longer. Obama faced awkward questions about listening to Jeremiah Wright’s racist poison every Sunday and he continues to be dogged by a belief held by one in four Americans that he is a Muslim.

In fact, Romney’s Mormonism didn’t have that much effect on primary voters. In Maryland and Wisconsin, white evangelicals split about equally between Romney and the fundamentalist Christian Rick Santorum. And when it comes to that old canard that Mormons supposedly approve of, polygamy, Romney has been adamant: “I can’t imagine anything more awful.” Perhaps Romney agrees with the stand-ups: “What’s the difference between a married man and a bigamist?” “Nothing. Both have one wife too many.”

Hits and missus

Talking of Ann Romney, on the stump she’s become Romney’s secret weapon. It’s classic, “loved her, hated him” stuff. While he’s awkward among strangers, she’s a natural retail politician, eager to try to convince voters her husband of 43 years is not a starchy, stilted stuffed shirt. And when she was attacked by an Obama surrogate for not having done a day’s work, she spoke for all mothers when she said bringing up five boys was hardly a vacation.

Still, Romney is going to have to row back fast from some of the “War on Women” policies he has gone along with to win the nomination, such as unequal pay and womb scans for women about to have an abortion. Currently in the battle over women’s votes, Obama leads by 19 points. One wife may not be enough.

The Clinton card

Which brings me to Hillary. Until about six months ago there was a lot of whispering among Democratic high-ups that Obama was considering switching Joe Biden and Clinton, with Biden becoming secretary of state and Clinton the vice president. Then cold water was showered on the idea. Hillary, who has let it be known she will not continue at state, was too tired. She needed to spend more time with Bill, whose heart surgery has left him dented. Even if she was thinking of running in 2016, she needed a break, to think, to raise money, to plan her campaign.

Now the whispers have started again. If Obama is far behind in the polls come the summer, among women, among blue-collar workers, in states such as Ohio and Michigan, don’t be surprised if Biden and Clinton trade places. As the conservative commentator Michael Goodwin put it, “All he’s got to do is beg”.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.