With less than two months to go for the US presidential election, most opinion polls suggest that Barack Obama is a clear favourite to beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A Gallup poll last Thursday gave Obama 50% of the popular vote against Romney’s 44%. However, a Rasmussen poll showed Romney nosing ahead by 47% to 46%. So, an Obama victory is not certain.
The US president is not chosen by popular vote. The country has an electoral college system, with each state having votes in an electoral college in proportion to its population. The winner in each state gets all its votes. A candidate needs a majority of electoral college votes—at least 270—to become president.
Most states are unambiguously Republican or Democratic. Since the outcome in these is a foregone conclusion, the campaign focus is on just eight battleground states that could swing either way.
The New York Times recently estimated that Obama probably has 237 electoral votes in the bag, 185 from states with solid support plus 52 from states leaning strongly towards him. Romney probably has only 206 assured electoral votes (158 from solid states plus 48 leaning towards him).
Of the remaining 95 electoral votes in the battleground states, Obama needs to win only 33 to become president, and this does not look too difficult. By contrast, Romney needs to win 64 of the remaining 95 electoral college votes, a very stiff task.
Florida, with 29 votes, is easily the most important of the eight battleground states. Romney absolutely has to win this state. If Obama wins this, he is virtually assured of becoming president. Obama carried this state in 2008, but earlier Republican George W Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004. Opinion polls suggest the state could go either way this time. Florida has suffered from an especially painful housing bust, which could hurt Obama.
Ohio, with 18 votes, is another crucial state that was carried by Bush in 2000 and 2004 but by Obama in 2008. The last 12 presidential winners have won this state, so it qualifies to be called the supreme swing state. Although the US economy is suffering from a very tepid recovery, farmers in this agricultural state have done well because of high farm prices, which have sent farmland prices up too. That may give Obama an edge.
The other battleground states are Virginia (13 votes), Wisconsin (10 votes), Colorado (9 votes), Iowa (6 votes), Nevada (6 votes), Indiana (6 votes) and New Hampshire (4 votes). If Obama does well in these six states, he can afford to lose both Florida and Ohio. That gives him a lot of elbow room, and explains why he is ahead in the race right now.
In some ways, his strong showing in opinion polls is astonishing. The economy is still sputtering four full years after the Great Recession of 2007-09 , and unemployment is still a stratospheric 8.1%. However , unemployment was over 9% when Obama came to power, so things have got slightly better, and that may be enough for him to scrape through. It’s worth remembering that Roosevelt too got re-elected in 1936 despite very high unemployment, since it was even higher when he came to power. It helps to have got elected during a terrible downturn: after that, almost anything looks like an improvement.
But what matters is not just unemployment but incomes of those who are employed . The US median income has been falling steadily in recent years: those getting jobs are getting lower wages. Romney’s key electoral plank is that the middle class is getting wiped out by Obama’s economic failures. This sentiment is shared by many voters, yet the middle class has not turned decisively against Obama. Romney’s chances will improve greatly if the economy slides downhill in the next two months. Sadly for him, the economy seems to be picking up.
Romney has attacked Obama for his healthcare reforms, and for being soft on illegal immigration. However, it’s far from clear that these are election-losers for Obama. Romney’s own healthcare reforms when he was governor of Massachusetts bore a close resemblance to what Obama has done at the national level.
Obama has opted for class-warfare rhetoric, painting Romney as the sort of rich financier who caused the last economic bust, who avoids paying his fair share of taxes, and who wants to benefit billionaires (through tax cuts) at the expense of the poor. This has put Romney on the defensive. Public antagonism to rich financiers, plus the slight improvement in the economy, may suffice for an Obama victory. But Romney still has an outside chance.