US election race closer than our distorted view suggests

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

The pro-Democrat disposition of the Irish skews our view of the presidential campaign

EARLIER THIS year, to illustrate his argument that RTÉ had a liberal bias, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar cited an interview he had heard about the US presidential election in which, he said, no effort had been made to understand or explain the Republican Party’s point of view.

The Minister chose a bad example. Distorted coverage of US elections by Irish media is not confined to RTÉ and derives from the general pro-Democrat disposition of the Irish, and Irish media in particular, rather than any institutional liberal bias.

Since president John F Kennedy’s visit half a century ago the Irish have lost the capacity to be detached about US presidents. Kennedy was one of our own and an icon even before his untimely death gave him iconic status.

We were understandably cooler on Lyndon B Johnson and downright antagonistic towards Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan’s Ballyporeen ancestry could not insulate him against our innate antipathy to US Republicanism.

Our Irish-American cousins may have abandoned their traditional allegiances in droves to join the throngs of Reagan Democrats but his Latin American policies in particular made him a bête noire for even the mainstream Irish media.

Bill Clinton’s efforts for our peace and his eloquence on visits here recharged the Irish affections for Democratic presidents.

We, like most, had been nonplussed by George Bush snr and were to be confirmed in our anti-Republican outlook by the actions and personality of George W Bush. So distorted was the mainstream Irish view of the 2004 election that there was was palpable shock on this island the day after Bush jnr was re-elected. We just couldn’t understand how Americans could do it.

Now we are struggling with the realisation that Obama could fall. In these parts there was a failure to see how much he owed his victory to the economic crisis. We were wrapped up in the iconic moment of the United States electing a black man to the presidency for the first time and a young one at that, with oratorical skills and an aura at least matching that of Kennedy.

In the 2008 US presidential election it was not Obama’s colour what done it, it was the economy, stupid: it almost always is. The economic crisis was the making of Obama’s victory in 2008 and it is the fact that the economic crisis endures that may be his undoing in 2012.

John McCain, in so many ways a more able and experienced politician than Obama, lost in 2008 because he was encumbered by the Bush economic legacy and by his own failure to appreciate the implications of the Lehman Brothers collapse.

As the Republican candidate this time around, Mitt Romney carries some of the burdens of the Bush economic legacy, but less so, and he is better able to position himself as an economic manager than McCain was.

Obama’s difficulty was tackled best by Clinton in his 50-minute address to the Democratic National Convention. Obama, he said, had inherited a mess and had stopped things getting worse, and the US was better off than it was four years ago.

However, Clinton accepted that voters may not feel better off yet and asked them to be patient. The recovery, he promised, would really kick in next year and to switch course now to Romney would be disastrous. It’s a line of argument we may get used to hearing in Ireland as Fine Gael and Labour start campaigning for re-election, especially if, as seems likely, there is no appreciable recovery by 2014.

While the fact that the Obama versus Romney race is close may have trickled down to the Irish public, the reality of how close it is may not have.

Tad Devine, a leading Democratic consultant and a key strategist in the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, drove the point home in a presentation at last weekend’s Kennedy Summer School in New Ross, Co Wexford. He put up a series of maps showing what respected pundits in the US were saying about the outcome. All were giving it to Obama but only just.

Devine’s own map showed Obama winning by just eight electoral college votes. All of which explains, he pointed out, why both Obama and Romney headed off to little New Hampshire, with its four electoral college votes, immediately after their respective conventions.

The race being so close leaves open the real possibility of a candidate winning the popular vote but not the electoral college. The notion of Obama, the US’s first black president, winning the popular vote but being denied a second term because that does not translate into a majority in the electoral college was one Devine said might prove very destabilising.

The other point driven home by Devine was the impact money will have on this campaign. In 2008 McCain agreed to limit his campaign expenditure in order to receive federal funding. Obama, however, cut loose, outspending McCain four to one. This time around, however, Romney will be by far the bigger spender.

Meanwhile, litigation since 2008 means the state cannot limit candidate expenditure and cash-rich super PACs are also weighing in. They too are more cash-rich on the Republican side this time. Almost all of this money is being spent on increasingly aggressive television advertising in swing states.

There are, of course, many unknowns that could transform the contest. The known unknowns include the three debates between the candidates scheduled for October. This time around, the monthly publication of key economic data will also be crucial campaign milestones. There is also the possibility of an unknown international or domestic security event that could affect the outcome.

There is a real live possibility, however, that notwithstanding all the promise and expectations, Obama could end up as just another mediocre one-term president. It will be fascinating to watch from afar.

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