Conventions over, now the serious business begins

Out of America: Presidential campaigns will be aimed at a tiny number of key voters in just 10 swing states

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One rule of American politics has been triumphantly vindicated over these past two weeks. For the neutral, Democratic conventions are invariably more fun than Republican ones. Tampa was OK, but Charlotte, where Democrats gathered last week to re-nominate Barack Obama, was terrific: a blast of the raw excitement of politics that makes an endless US presidential campaign bearable.

However, conventions, even the most flawlessly orchestrated ones, don't win elections. As a lobbyist put it to me in Tampa, using a sporting analogy, conventions are all-star games, flashy frolics in which the best players in the leagues strut their stuff, but the result means nothing. These next two months until election day are, by contrast, the Super Bowl of politics, the business end of the campaign, where, to quote the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything – it's the only thing." Election 2012 will be no exception.

As of today, Sunday 9 September, President Obama is a slight favourite to win a second term, even if the national polls put him and Romney in a statistical dead heat. US presidents are not chosen by a direct national vote, but in an agglomeration of separate elections on 6 November in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. On the basis of those individual results, the electoral college members assigned to each state cast their votes for the winning candidate. The trick is not to win the national popular vote (see Al Gore, 2000) – but a majority of 270 in the 538-vote electoral college. And in this process some states are a good deal more equal than others.

The two most populous states, California and Texas, are the largest electoral college prizes. But the former is rock-ribbed Democratic, the other a certainty for the Republicans, and accordingly neither is "in play". The most either will see of a candidate is when he briefly drops in for a private fundraiser. Instead, the state-by-state, first-past-the-post system used in the US places the focus on the tiny portion of the electorate – 5 or 7 per cent at most – that is truly susceptible to having its mind changed, in 10 swing, or battle-ground, states.

These comprise the old favourites of Ohio and Florida (where Gore, of course, came to grief), plus Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as the two minnows that kicked off the primary season, Iowa and New Hampshire. Together, they represent 126 electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won all of them. This time around, Romney must carry a minimum of five, and probably eight, to prevail. Instead, Obama appears to be narrowly leading in most of the 10, and might get an extra point or two of temporary "bounce" following the convention. That's why the normally unerring online predictions market Intrade currently gives the President a 58.3 per cent chance of victory.

Markets, though, can change, and fast. Obama surely won't lose his lead in the "guy-you'd-like-to have-a-beer-with" stakes; among women and minorities especially, he remains much better liked than Romney, who went into his convention with the lowest personal approval ratings of any recent candidate at this stage of a campaign. But there are plenty of other variables: a big foreign crisis (Israel attacking Iran, say), a major gaffe by one of the candidates, and, of course, the three presidential debates (the first and most important of them in Denver on 3 October), where such a gaffe might occur. But a terrific or dismal debate performance need not be decisive; John Kerry trounced George W Bush in the first debate of 2004, and much good it did him.

Then there's money, of which the challenger right now has substantially more to spend. Expect an unprecedented onslaught of anti-Obama ads in these final 57 days of the campaign in the crucial swing states, targeted not just at undecided voters, but also at a base still not enamoured of Romney. Opinions vary on the impact of ads, but if they help to get less ardent Republicans to the polls, in an election where so few are genuinely undecided, they could make the difference.

Most important, though, is the economy. Friday's employment report, announcing the creation of just 96,000 new jobs in August, was a cold shower for Democrats on the morrow of the merry-making in Charlotte, virtually ensuring there will be no campaign-transforming improvement in the labour market before election day. More positively, the report also ensures that the economy will be where it should be, at centre stage. Politics is usually subject to its own version of Gresham's Law, that silly issues drive out ones that really matter. Witness the pre-convention fixations on Obama's birth certificate and Romney's tax returns. But perhaps no longer.

In their convention speeches, both men focused, rightly, on the fundamental choice facing voters in November; between the radical free market therapy advocated by Romney and, in particular, by his running mate, Paul Ryan, and the more cautious, interventionist and – dare one say it – social-democratic approach of Team Obama.

When an incumbent seeks a second term, American elections are referendums. If a majority of voters (or, as we have seen, majorities of voters in a combination of states that provide the magic 270 electoral votes) reckon a president has been doing OK, he'll win, no matter how dazzling his opponent. But if he's deemed not up to the job, he'll be given the boot – as most brutally in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was routed by Ronald Reagan.

Obama's saving grace may be that the original financial disaster didn't happen on his watch. Americans are not famous for their patience. But this election comes down to a single question. Are voters patient enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, accepting that the situation bequeathed him by a Republican administration was so dire that no mortal could put it right in a single term? If so, he will be granted four more years. If not, on 20 January 2013, Mitt Romney, secret service code name "Javelin", will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

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