The greatest political showdown on earth

It's make-or-break time in the world's most important, and expensive, election. On the eve of tomorrow's televised debate between the presidential candidates (the first of three), Rupert Cornwell looks forward to a momentous month

The largest, the longest, the costliest and the cruellest exercise in democracy on the planet is approaching its climax. Thirty-six days from today (barring a repeat of the Florida deadheat a dozen years ago) a new American president will have been elected – in the event of a victory by Mitt Romney, the 45th in a line stretching back to 1789 and George Washington.

The winner will be the last man standing after a contest that formally began with Iowa's caucuses last January, and continued through a four-month primary season and the late summer party nominating conventions. Now come four presidential and vice-presidential debates, capped by a final draining sprint to the finishing line on 6 November. In reality, though, the process has been under way almost from the instant Barack Obama was sworn into office on the freezing Washington morning of 20 January 2009, promising a new beginning for his country in the midst of its worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The final match-up is the one that all along has seemed likely, between the Democratic incumbent seeking his second permitted term, and a Republican challenger who if truth be told never stopped campaigning for the White House even after he had lost his party's 2008 nomination to John McCain. By the time it's all over, some $3bn may have been spent on the presidential election alone, in money raised by the candidates, their respective parties and outside groups (not least the infamous Super PACs, empowered by a Supreme Court ruling that enables super rich donors to contribute as much as they like).

Throw in the similar sum likely to be spent on the down-the-card contests, for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 Senate seats (one third of the total), as well as a dozen governors' races, and the total outlay for Election 2012 may reach an unprecedented $6bn, equivalent to roughly $50 for every likely voter.

Right now, despite economic indicators that in previous elections would have consigned him to defeat, Mr Obama remains the favourite. Recent history suggests that incumbents who seek a second term usually succeed, and at the time of writing Intrade, the usually reliable political prediction market, gives him a 75 per cent chance of victory.

Since Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, only two incumbents have been defeated: Jimmy Carter in 1980, when the opponent was Ronald Reagan, who arguably caught America's Zeitgeist more perfectly than any candidate before or since; and George H.W. Bush, whose misfortune in 1992 was to find himself up against the most gifted politician of his age in Bill Clinton, at a moment when Republicans had already held the Presidency for 12 years. The same rule of thumb operates in the US as in most other genuine democracies. When one party has been in power for a decade the electoral mantra is: throw the bums out.

But even if Romney is manifestly neither a Reagan nor a Clinton, a second Obama term is far from set in stone. The mood of the country is sour; 35 per cent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, a distinct improvement from a year ago to be sure, but hardly a resounding endorsement of the status quo. The worst of the Great Recession may be over, but the recovery struggles to gather steam. Since FDR, moreover, no president has been re-elected when the US unemployment rate was over 8 per cent. At the end of August it stood at 8.1 per cent.

Further complicating matters is the electoral system itself. Presidents are not elected by direct popular vote (if they were, the 43rd president would have been Al Gore, not George W. Bush) but by the sum of 51 separate elections in the constituent states and the District of Columbia. Each of these in turn sends voters to a 538-vote electoral college, all committed to the winner of the popular vote in their state – except in the cases of Maine and Nebraska, which allocate electoral college votes to the winner of each congressional district.

The number of electoral votes is in proportion to a state's population. Thus the most populous, California, has 55, while the least populous, Wyoming, has just three. To win the presidency a candidate needs to win a majority, ie 270, of these super-electors. It is thus possible, though unlikely, that either Obama or Romney will suffer Gore's fate.

At the very least, electoral college landsides, as defined by one candidate winning 400 or more of the 538 votes, are no more. Once they were common; of the 10 elections between 1952 and 1988, seven saw margins of that size or larger – the biggest in 1984, when Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale by 525 to 13, with the latter winning only DC and his home state of Minnesota.

But in an ever more polarised America, those days are over. In both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton failed to crack the 400 mark, while George W. Bush's two subsequent victories were squeakers. The 365 electoral votes amasssed by Obama in 2008 – a year when everything, from financial crisis and a desperately unpopular outgoing Republican president to Obama's personal charisma, favoured Democrats – may be close to the realistic maximum for either party. Certainly, it would be astonishing if Obama matched that score, five weeks hence.

In practice, this election will be fought and won in a dozen or so battleground states, most notably Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Colorado, where the result is not a foregone conclusion. Right now Romney is trailing in almost every one of them, which explains why he is a 3 to 1 outsider in the race. His own shortcomings as a candidate, and his failure to provide a vision of where he wants to take the country, are one reason. No less important, Americans seem to accept that Obama, though shorn of his aura of 2008, could not have been expected to correct in a mere four years the profound economic problems laid bare by the financial crisis. He has not succeeded – but nor has he yet conclusively failed. A majority of likely voters appears ready to give him a chance to finish the job.

Such calculations of course could be turned on their head, by events abroad (a European financial collapse and Wall Street meltdown, say, or an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations) or at home, most obviously a really strong performance by Romney in the three presidential debates, the first and most important of which takes place tomorrow. In addition, some scandal or huge faux pas could undo Obama.

But such scenarios are increasingly hard to imagine. The President is a cautious, disciplined politician. And even a stellar debate performance is no guarantee of victory, as John Kerry found out in 2004. Separately, Obama is more trusted than Romney on national security, and a foreign crisis could actually help him. Time is also running out. Early voting in some states has already started, and in others will do so in a week or two. Polls suggest that at this late stage, in today's polarised political climate, fewer people than ever (maybe 5 to 7 per cent of voters) are genuinely undecided.

And while Romney may be a lacklustre candidate, his cause has not been helped by his party. Not only do Republicans sometimes seem to inhabit an alternative universe, on tax policy, abortion and other social issues. Collectively, they are growing steadily whiter, older, more male and more conservative, when the country at large is becoming younger, more diverse and socially more liberal. Especially telling is Obama's huge lead (almost 20 per cent in swing state Virginia) among women.

These trends could also determine the outcome of the Congressional elections. Until recently it had seemed that, even if re-elected, Obama would have to work with a Republican-controlled Congress, with his opponents retaining the House and making the net gain of four seats to secure a majority in the Senate. Again, however, this may no longer apply.

In several close-fought Senate races, the Democratic candidate is now ahead. And so unpopular is the Republican majority in the House, with its intransigent Tea Party bloc increasingly held responsible by voters for the gridlock in Washington, that there, too, Democrats conceivably could snatch back control.

Back in the dark days of late 2010, after his "shellacking" in that year's mid-terms, Barack Obama's fortunes reached a nadir. Some even privately wondered then whether he had lost the stomach for the fight, whether he would even run for a second term. Those doubts have been laid to rest. Election night on 6 November will be exciting. But day by day it looks less likely that come mid-January, the removal vans will be pulling up at the White House.

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past