A walkover for Obama?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 13, 2012


The troubled Republican primaries have led many to anticipate that President Barack Obama will cruise to reelection. A divided party with a weak candidate will find it difficult to challenge a well-funded president with low negatives in the context of a slow but certain economic recovery. However, high levels of unemployment and Obama’s troubles in attracting support in swing states continue to make Obama vulnerable. Besides, campaigns are always competitive in the US precisely because unforced errors and overconfidence on the part of the front-runner often give the challenger a good shot.


The Republican primary has dragged on too long. Since the Iowa caucus in January, 24 states have already held their primaries. Three others — Alabama, Hawaii and Mississippi — are holding theirs today. Before the end of March, three more states and Puerto Rico will also have their primaries. As many states assign seats proportionally to the votes received by each candidate, no candidate has accumulated sufficient delegates to win the nomination. Mitt Romney has won in 14 states, Rick Santorum has clinched eight and Newt Gingrich has won in two states. Adding all the votes in the 24 states, Romney has received 40.5% and has secured 435 delegates (including super delegates who attend the convention as important elected office holders of the Republican Party). He is still far from the 1144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. If he were to win all delegates in all the upcoming primaries, Romney would still need to wait until April 24, when New York and 4 other states hold their primaries. However, since delegates are distributed proportionally, if Romney keeps on winning so indecisively, the race might drag well into May.


Part of the problem has to do with assigning delegates proportionally. Romney has won in 14 states, but he has failed to win a majority almost everywhere. Three out of five voters in the primaries held so far have chosen a different Republican candidate. Public opinion polls report that a large majority of Republicans — and Americans in general — believe that Romney will end up getting the nomination. However, the longer it takes him to become the nominee, the weaker he seems against Obama.


In the meantime, President Obama is building a powerful campaign war chest. The President had US$75 million in cash at the end of January. Though official numbers for February are not yet out, he was expected to raise over 12 million the past month. Just as Republican hopefuls are spending away their money in their primaries, Obama is stacking cash to use in key states when the campaign informally begins after a Republican secures the nomination. It is true that Super-PAC (Political Action Committees that can spend as they please campaigning for their favourite candidates) will bring in millions of dollars to the Republican candidate, but Obama will also have his own Super-PAC support. The longer it takes Romney to secure the Republican nomination, the more money he will have to spend in the primaries and the larger the advantage for Obama in the general election.


The economic situation is also getting better. President Obama’s approval stands at 47%, slightly above the 43% low in October of 2011. His numbers among the youth, minorities and women are higher than among white males. His approval among independents has also moderately increased in recent weeks. Americans are also less pessimistic about the economy. The confidence index has climbed to the same levels as in early 2011. Concerns over unemployment and the overall direction of the country remain high, but have recovered from the rock-bottom numbers of late 2011. Though any improvement on the economic front will inevitably strengthen Obama and make it more difficult for the Republican challenger to take on the president in November, the economic situation continues to make Obama vulnerable.


Finally, there is the issue of the swing states. Obama will probably win in 15 states and the District of Columbia, getting 196 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to guarantee his reelection. The Republican candidate will win in 22 solid — but less populated — conservative states, getting 181 votes in the Electoral College. The other 13 states, with their decisive 161 votes, can go either way. The swing states are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico and New Hampshire. Because Obama is more competitive in the more populous swing states, he can win the election carrying only a handful of them. However, if Obama fails to win some key swing states, the Republican candidate could possibly win the Electoral College even if Obama wins the popular vote.


Since Republican primaries began, Obama looks in a more promising position to win reelection, but he is far from having a certain reelection. Unforced errors in the campaign, overconfidence and the risk of winning the popular vote and losing the Electoral College continue to add uncertainty to the American presidential election.