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Still up for grabs (CC)

It’s a little over three weeks to go before America votes in the 2012 presidential election, and things have suddenly turned interesting. For a while, orthodoxy was that Obama was likely to get re-elected and, maybe, by a substantial margin. As late as early October, Romney was still seen as a weak candidate with a history of vote losing gaffes. Those of us who thought the GOP might win the White House were treated like Right-wing Cassandras. It seemed like the European Union was more likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize…

Suddenly, the national polls are even and the swing states are getting close. At this dramatic point in the race, I’d make the following observations:

1. Polling has proven more volatile than expected. The precedent for this was established in the Republican primaries, when several candidates took their turn as the “one to beat” (including pizza tycoon, Herman Cain). The general election saw Obama dominating Romney for a long period of time, with only a tiny pool of declared “undecided” voters. But the enormous audience for the presidential debate and the historic shift in polling suggests that there were more undecideds than we first thought, or else that support for the President was far weaker. Now, there’s movement in the polls and the race is truly competitive. The mood is febrile.

2. Voters are critical of Obama’s record but unsure about the Republican alternative. Although the President’s approval rating has moved closer to the magic 50 per cent deemed necessary to win, Americans are still pessimistic about the economy. They have every right to be: joblessness is high and lots of folks are quitting the labour market. But polls suggest that many voters blame George W Bush rather than Barack Obama for the mess, and I suspect that many see Romney’s economics as part of the same “trickle-down” tradition that they associate with the Credit Crunch. In mid-western swing states there’s hostility to Romney because he resembles an out sourcing, off shoring vulture capitalist. The ambiguity about who to blame and who to trust explains some of that poll volatility.

3. For a long time, the election was about things that people didn’t really care about – so many probably didn’t pay attention. In the spring, the White House tried to turn this into a culture war election by talking about contraception and gay marriage. The goal was presumably to increase their margin among female voters and force the Republicans to move to the Right. But it didn’t work a) because Romney refused to fight back and b) because voters remain primarily interested in the economy. Now that the race is in its final stretch, the issue agenda has returned to jobs and debt – one reason why interest in the election has spiked and Mitt Romney is suddenly doing well again.

4. It all comes down to Ohio. A frustrating feature of the US electoral system is the importance of large swing states. In this election, Ohio is the one swing state that seems resistant to Romney’s charm – the President could lose the national vote but win the Electoral College. But Romney is playing catch up by spending more and more on TV advertising. The state’s poll numbers may well even out in the next couple of weeks.

In short, the surprising turn that this election has taken is less surprising than it first looks. It reflects the anxieties and uncertainties of an American electorate who aren’t happy with what they’ve got but also aren’t sure about the alternatives. The debates have mattered because they’ve laid out the choices and focused the mind. Expect another big audience for next debate…

Timothy Stanley is an author, journalist and a Supernumerary Research and Teaching Fellow at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute. You can visit his website here

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