By Ali Zayaan
[T]he great irony of the 2012 United States presidential elections is that the two candidates competing can both be best described as somewhat unwanted. This probably speaks volumes about the state of current American politics and the mood of the American populace- cynical, negative, despairing- as much as it sheds light on the respective weaknesses of the two candidates and their party platforms.
Mitt Romney, the eventual presidential nominee from America’s major right-wing party, the Republicans, faced a tough series of primaries against other candidates for the nomination- Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former Senator Rick Santorum and long-serving libertarian Congressman Ron Paul. Even real estate mogul Donald Trump of The Apprentice fame was discussed as a potential candidate. Over the course of the primaries, even with Romney considered the most likely to be able to run a successful presidential campaign, the Republican voter base and establishment seemed to favor first one of the other candidates, then the other, then the other as each successive primary campaign imploded- Bachmann, Santorum and Cain were all frontrunners for some time before massive blunders, scandals and gaffes made them impossible choices. Mitt Romney got the nod as the candidate nobody seemed to really want, as the best and only reasonable choice left. Romney’s past as a moderately liberal governor of Massachusetts and his Mormon faith led to reticence among a Republican party base that over the past four years had shifted sharply to the extreme right. To appeal to the conservative base of his party and clinch the nomination, he had to adopt similarly extreme positions- cutting taxes including heavy tax cuts for the very rich, shrinking the government deficit by gutting social welfare programs and public spending, solid restrictions on abortion and contraception, a stance against homosexuality and gay marriage, tough stances on immigration, and a promise to repeal the universal healthcare law passed by Obama and the Democrats.
The incumbent, President Barack Obama, was presiding over an economy that had only been growing very slowly since the financial crisis of 2007-09, high unemployment, and a vitriolic political atmosphere in an increasingly partisan government. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives blocked almost every piece of legislation Obama and the Democrats tried to pass over the past two years. The gridlock, bitterness and negativity only increased as elections approached and it became apparent that any legislative successes in government would only strengthen the Democratic Party candidates. Much of the country was unhappy with Obama’s presidency over the economy- approval ratings were extremely low- while his aggressive national security and foreign policy positions even turned off many in the Left.Obama’s policy positions mirror those of the Democratic Party- increased taxes on the rich to pay off the government deficit, access to abortion and an emphasis on freedom in women’s health choices, gay rights, increased investments in infrastructure and continuing Obama policies such as the universal healthcare law.
Much of the context for the elections have been provided by the 2010 Citizens United case, where the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money towards political campaigning as long as they did not contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns. This led to the rise of Super PACs, groups which take enormous amounts of campaign funding from corporations and the wealthy to finance ad campaigns for candidates or issues and attack ads against opposition candidates. Hundreds of millions of dollars in spending by the very rich have gone into campaigning for the various candidates, with the majority of the corporate spending going to support the Mitt Romney campaign. Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson has pledged to spend as much as $100 million to get Romney into the White House.
The campaign strategy for Mitt Romney this election has been banking on the low voter turnout of Americans- usually only about 55%- and the general apathy and disillusionment around politics while firing up the conservative base in the hopes of getting them to go to the polls in large enough numbers to win. The selection of hardcore conservative favorite, Congressman Paul Ryan, as his pick for Vice President served to improve Romney’s credentials with the far Right. Similarly, massive ad campaigns are being run in swing states, with many anti-Obama attack ads being called out as being untrue. (A Romney campaign staffer famously declared that they wouldn’t let their campaign be dictated by fact-checkers). In some states, Republican state governments have also tried to pass voter ID laws that would make it much harder for minorities and the poor, who generally tend Democrat, to vote.
On the flip side, the Obama campaign has been focusing on appealing to the center and increasing voter turnout as much as possible, knowing that a larger voter turnout decreases the influence of a fired-up conservative base. They have especially focused on groups that have felt alienated by the positions of the current Republican party- women, Latinos, African-Americans, college students, the poor.The 2012 election has been unique in that, unlike usual presidential elections where both candidates tried to appeal to and win the center, this election most energies have been spent on firing up likely supporters to go to the polls. The election result willbe determined by turnout on the day.
The Romney campaign began the election campaigns roughly level with Obama, but a series of massive gaffes and blunders have caused serious- potentially fatal- damage to his candidacy. Romney began the campaign known as a stiff and uncharismatic candidate, enormously wealthy and often accused of being unable to relate to ordinary Americans. He followed through with consistently vague campaigningwithout giving much in the way of specifics beyond a focus on Obama’s failings and Romney’s business credentials. He faced questions about his tax returns and purported tax havens in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. [pullquote]The main selling point of Mitt Romney and the Republican presidential ticket was that he wasn’t Obama. Now, ironically enough, the main factor that leaves Barack Obama as favorite for the White House seems to be that he isn’t Mitt Romney.[/pullquote]On an international trip meant to show off his foreign policy credentials he managed to insult the British with his comments on the London Olympics, after which he made controversial comments in Israel about culture being the main reason for the economic differences between Israel and the Palestinian territories they occupy. This was followed up with an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on the violence at the American consulate in Benghazi which backfired massively, appearing to be and widely condemned as a despicable attempt to capitalize on a national tragedy for personal gain as well as a demonstration of poor foreign policy credentials. Not a week after the incident, a secret recording of Romney at a private fundraiser released by Mother Jones revealed Romney making disparaging statements about the poorer 47% of Americans, with the particularly damning line- ‘it’s not my job to care about those people’. The campaign seemed to visibly be in damage control mode soon afterwards, never a good place for a campaign to publicly be, as a series of minor gaffes followed.
The Romney ticket has dropped in popularity both in nationwide polls as well as considerably in the crucial swing states, where wins are needed for any hope of a win. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has chugged on slow and steady- citing slow but sure economic growth but mostly putting a heavy emphasis on the extreme policies of the Republican Party and the many, often self-induced failures of the Romney campaign- and are now favorites to retain the Presidency.
The main selling point of Mitt Romney and the Republican presidential ticket was that he wasn’t Obama. Now, ironically enough, the main factor that leaves Barack Obama as favorite for the White House seems to be that he isn’t Mitt Romney.
Ali is studying Economics and International Studies in the University of Adelaide.