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.
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