Down to the Wire

Monday 05 November 2012 13.22

By Richard Downes, Washington Correspondent

Everybody – it seems – loves a battle; a contest. Be it the All-Ireland finals, the World Cup or Wimbledon. We all love the head to head match between the two strongest teams or individuals. And the American Presidential election has all the qualities of one of these epic encounters, which is why so many of us find it so compelling.

And because there are generally only two combatants, the battle is all the more easy to follow. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that you have more choice in terms of numbers of candidates in voting for Roscommon county council than you do in the United States, with 330 million people.

Only two national figures will appear on the ballot, which means that millions of Americans will be shoe-horned into choosing one candidate that only vaguely reflects their own philosophy, or is at least somewhere in their field of opinion.

Take Mitt Romney. During the Primaries, which chose him as the Republican candidate, he portrayed himself as a severely conservative governor of the state of Massachusetts. It was not true.

He portrayed himself as anti-abortion. But that was a recent conversion on his part. He had been pro-choice all the way along. But he won the Republican nomination anyway.

He was the strongest in a very weak field. At an unguarded moment one of his advisers let us see behind the veil of the campaign. In an interview Eric Fehrnstrom said after the primaries, there would be an etch a sketch moment, when Romney’s image would be remade.

You probably remember the etch a sketch from when you were a child, infuriating things that I have to say, I never managed to master.

And you know what … I’m not sure the Republicans ever quite got the hang of it either.

They seemed to have pulled the political masterstroke of this campaign in the first head to head debate, when Mitt Romney came out and presented himself as a moderate, someone firmly in the middle of politics, someone who has the needs of the country’s middle class at heart. He wasn’t going to cut taxes for the rich or destroy the welfare programmes. It was all untrue. He was just like Jim and Sue, an ordinary American.

To say this flatfooted Barack Obama, would be an understatement. I remember counting him losing 7 of the first 8 debating points. He was on the ropes. The new energized Mitt Romney had him on the back foot in what was the most surprising week of the campaign. And it seemed to be working. Mitt Romney rose in the polls. Some surveys had him 4 points ahead.

The Obama campaign hit back with everything. The President himself was a different character in the second and third debates. He won those. Campaign ads pointed out the glaring discrepancies in the Romney campaign. Gradually Barack Obama seemed to claw back lost ground.

And then came Hurricane Sandy. For three days, Mitt Romney did not figure on the news. President Obama rubbed shoulders with Republican governors and mayors and showed his best qualities. 8 out of 10 voters surveyed thought he was doing a good job.

The slight turn that the Democrats were counting on had come.

But opinion polls still show one of the closest races in American history. You have to go back to 1960 to find two candidates so close in opinion polls before polling day.

But in the swing states, where the election will be determined, the polls show a slight advantage for Barack Obama. This is where the Democrats have concentrated much of their fire power. This is where they have spent the money.

This might well pay off for a campaign that has been utterly and brilliantly ruthless and professional in its execution. They have used every trick in the book to get their candidate over the line and on the eve of the election, they are exuding an irritating confidence that they were right all along: Barack Obama was the better candidate and if they win, they will put everything down to that.

The Republicans have a different problem. Their campaign took forever to catch fire. They rarely reached beyond their core base of white males, one of the fastest shrinking groups in America.

And ultimately the lesson they may draw will be: when you rely on flawed tactics and children’s toys, you get the result you deserve.

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