Less than a month ago, the prospect seemed remote – but there is now a very real possibility that Mitt Romney could win the US presidency on 6 November. The intricate electoral college mathematics of the eight or nine all-important swing states still slightly favours Barack Obama. The momentum, too, could shift in the last 10 days. But as matters now stand, that momentum is unarguably with the Republican challenger, who now holds a slight lead in national polls.
No two elections are identical, but there are still useful parallels. In some ways, the 2012 race recalls that in 1980, when Ronald Reagan – boosted by a strong debate performance – surged clear of Jimmy Carter in the campaign’s final days. This year, of course, there have been three debates, compared with just one then. But like Reagan, Mr Romney has confounded expectations and emerged as the winner.
Should the Republican prevail, it will not be by a Reagan-style landslide. America is far more polarised than it was three decades ago, and whoever wins will do so only narrowly. Crucially, however – like Reagan in 1980 – Mr Romney has used his match-ups with Mr Obama to allay voters’ fears that he is a conservative extremist in thrall to the Tea Party movement, set to blow up America’s domestic structures with the same gusto that Reagan, it was predicted, would blow up the world in a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.
In fact, a Romney presidency might bring surprisingly little change, both at home and abroad. Much depends on what happens in the congressional elections. The odds are that the Republicans will retain the House of Representatives. But they appear unlikely to make the net gain of four seats needed to win the Senate. And even if they do, there is no hope of their reaching the filibuster-proof 60-seat majority that will be needed to pass anything of consequence.
Notwithstanding his promises of a dramatic roll-back of government and immediate action to reduce the deficit, the Republican candidate has kept his options noticeably open. He has not specified how he would pay for his promised tax cuts. Meanwhile, he vows to repeal Mr Obama’s healthcare reform (modelled on the scheme he himself introduced as Governor of Massachusetts) but insists he will retain several of Obamacare’s popular but costly features.
On the substance of US foreign policy, where a president has far more freedom of action than he does at home, every sign is that Mr Romney would not greatly deviate from his predecessor on Iran, or Syria, or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Indeed, in Monday’s final debate on foreign policy his main goal – like Reagan’s – was to provide reassurance. At times, he even sounded positively dove-like. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said of the threat posed by militant Islam.
Mr Romney’s critics will point to the above as proof that he is a “flip-flopper” with no core beliefs, someone ready to switch position on any issue as the political moment dictates. There is certainly no shortage of evidence. He has made some remarkable shifts, transforming himself from a moderate Governor into a “severe conservative” who sought to allay the fears of right-wing Republican primary voters. Now we are seeing the Romney model for the general election – the man of reason, a safe pair of hands.
There has, however, been one constant. Mr Romney is a pragmatist. His entire career has been results-driven. He is not a man to bang his head against a brick wall in pursuit of the unattainable. It is impossible to say how anyone will perform in a job for which there can be no preparation. But Mr Romney will not, at least, be a conservative monster. In today’s evenly divided America, that would be a recipe for disaster.