Headed for a Showdown on Gun Control

Posted December 17th, 2012 at 9:13 pm (UTC+0)

U.S. flag flies at half staff outside Newtown High School in Connecticut Dec. 16, 2012, as President Obama speaks inside at a memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which claimed 27 dead, including 20 school children. Photo: AP

Real Shift or just Another Tragedy?
Little kids. First graders. Gunned down in their school in Newtown, Connecticut. There is a something haunting about this incident that just seems too horrible to even grapple with. A town is shattered and a nation is in shock just as Christmas approaches. Sorry, this is such a downer but I don’t know how anyone can move on without first acknowledging the horror and pain. We all know the debates are coming about gun control and mental health and securing schools. All of that is important and must be dealt with. But those images of Newtown and so many broken hearts just cry out for us to stop for a moment and reflect about life and kids and what kind of society we want. Mass shootings are all bad, but this one targeting young kids seems to be hitting an especially raw nerve.

The Debate Ahead
Already some members of the Democratic Party are calling for Congress to revisit the assault weapons ban, passed into law in 1994 but allowed to expire 10 years later. Gun control advocates have been on the defensive since the 1990s and public polls have shown a gradual decline in support for either banning or severely restricting gun purchases.

Is President Obama, shown here at a memorial service Dec. 16, 2012, for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, ready to take on the powerful gun lobby? Photo: AP

However, those who support gun control are expected to make a new push in the wake of the Connecticut massacre and they may have a new ally in President Barack Obama. With his re-election victory, Mr. Obama no longer has to worry about angering the pro-gun lobby in a future election. Throughout his first term, gun control advocates were disappointed that the president didn’t speak out more strongly in favor of tighter laws, especially in the wake of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting that included the wounding of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year.
Mr. Obama now says it is time for the country to act to prevent these kinds of mass shootings, though he seemed to be careful to not be specific about what he might support, at least for the moment.

Power of the Gun Lobby
A head-on attempt to restrict all guns in America would probably be doomed to failure. Start with Republican control of the House of Representatives and the fact that Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, even with the addition of two seats for the next Congress.
We may get to a renewed debate on whether to reinstate a ban on assault style weapons, though even that will be difficult with the NRA-led gun lobby that has effectively put the fear of God into many politicians in the South and West. It’s kind of a zero-sum game for them—they oppose virtually any and all gun control measures because they have convinced their followers that the real aim of gun control advocates is to confiscate guns, even though many politicians realize that is not the case. But Republicans have enough congressional power based in the southern and western states that will probably be able to block any serious attempt to significantly strengthen gun laws.
Don’t forget that Republican House districts tend to be more conservative now, in part because Republicans had a huge advantage in the redrawing of congressional districts based on the 2010 national census, a process known as re-districting. Because so many more House seats are solidly Republican, most of the incumbents in these districts are more fearful of Republican primary challengers than of Democratic opponents in the general election. Since most Republican challengers come from the right in primaries, incumbent Republican House members will want to make sure no one can outflank them on the right. And gun ownership is one of those issues that is dear to the heart of conservatives around the country, so few Republicans in conservative districts are likely to have much interest in serious gun control legislation.
The gun issue is one of those that clearly reflects the political polarization in the country. People in urban areas often say they don’t understand why so many Americans want to own guns and fend off any efforts to limit their access. In my travels to the Rocky Mountain West, I’ve found many people there who see owning guns as a major part of their lives and cannot understand what they perceive as an anti-gun mentality coming from folks back east.

Out with the Militia
In the late 1990s, I traveled to Montana to do a series of reports on the militia movement. We were looking at the growth of groups of people who armed themselves and did military-style drills to prepare for the Apocalypse, or the government trying to confiscate their guns, or even a takeover by the United Nations (these folks insisted all were real possibilities).
One day a few of these guys offered to take me target shooting up in the mountains of Western Montana, outside of the town of Missoula. I didn’t have much experience with guns, so it was a chance to see what it felt like to shoot pistols and rifles with a group of men who were obviously enthusiastic about their weapons.
I do recall trying a version of the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault-style rifle similar to the one used in Newtown and in several other mass shootings in recent years. The thing was light and had very little kick when you fired it. It was not explosively loud like a high-powered hunting rifle. It was easy to repeatedly pull the trigger and fire off rounds that seemed to hit the target. All I could think of was all that killing power in a light weapon with little kickback. I remember thinking at the time how someone bent on causing mass destruction would find it deceptively easy to wield this gun and fire at will.
So we can expect the gun control debate to intensify in the months ahead. But many Democrats have vivid memories of 1994 when Republicans effectively campaigned against gun control efforts, which led to Republicans taking over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. From that point on many Democrats, especially those from the South, Midwest and West became increasingly, how shall we say, gun-shy about the power of the gun lobby and tried to de-emphasize the issue as part of their own strategy of political survival.
The question is will the Newtown, Connecticut massacre be of such a different magnitude that it will actually cause a shift in the debate? It’s too early to know, but recent history suggests that the incidents at Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson and Aurora were not able by themselves to effect a major shift in the gun control issue.

Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff

House Speaker John Boehner, shown here Dec. 12, 2012, makes a counter-offer on raising taxes on the wealthy in negotiations with President Obama. Photo; AP

There are some small glimmers of hope on avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, the combination of about $500 trillion in tax hikes and budget cuts that go into effect in January that experts fear could plunge the U.S. economy back in to recession.
John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, appears willing to budge a bit on tax hikes for the wealthy. But his definition of who is wealthy does not jive yet with President Obama’s. The president and his Democratic allies in Congress want to see the tax rates rise on those making more than $250,000 a year, while Mr. Boehner has offered to raise taxes on those making more than $1 million.
It’s an encouraging sign, but I think the Republicans will now expect the president to put forward something more substantial on budget cuts. Specifically, they would like to see what Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress would be willing to do to restrain the growth in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Their reasoning is that for years Republicans have been clobbered in elections because they dared to propose cuts in these programs while Democrats positioned themselves as protectors of a popular government safety net for the old and the poor.
The next step may be the president revealing his hand a bit more on just what he would be willing to do to slow the growth of these programs, and to what degree liberal allies in Congress would squawk about it, further complicating efforts to reach a compromise in the next few weeks.

Obama’s Second Term Focus

Posted November 29th, 2012 at 7:04 pm (UTC+0)

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

President Obama meets with cabinet members, November 28, 2012. (Photo: AP)


President Obama’s most important priority as he starts his second term is dealing with the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ — $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts that will go effect on January 1st unless Congress can reach a compromise to cut the budget deficit.

A lot of pundits believe the outlines of a mega-deal are taking shape but there is a long way to go before the two sides reach agreement.  Such a deal would include some form of compromise by Republicans on taxing the wealthy — those making more than $250,000 a year.  It might include a combination of a higher tax rate on the highest income brackets and limits on tax deductions that predominantly favor the well to do.

But it’s also becoming clear that Democrats will have to give up something on the issue of entitlement reform, by accepting steps to rein in the costs of popular but increasingly expensive programs like Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor and disabled) and perhaps even the Social Security pension system.

We are still in the period of each side trying to maximize its political leverage before the real negotiations.  It would appear the president’s re-election victory has given him a bit of an edge on the issue of taxes, and some Republicans are already conceding they may have to back down from their demand that there be no tax increases of any kind.  At the same time, Democrats will start to squeal if the president seems to be weakening on entitlement reform and giving too much away to the Republicans as the negotiating intensifies.  As long as both sides are squealing in roughly equal fashion, the prospects for a deal may be bright.  But there’s a long way to go and this drama is likely to play out over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, so stay tuned.


Partisan Battle Over Rice


If the president decides to nominate Susan Rice as his next secretary of state it will likely intensify what has already become a nasty partisan battle over who should succeed Hillary Clinton.

Republicans continue to pound away at Rice’s comments shortly after the September 11th attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The administration tried to assuage some of those concerns this week by sending Rice up to Capitol Hill for closed door sessions with some key critics.  But Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte seemed to come away singularly unimpressed with her performance even as the president gave Rice a public vote of confidence during his cabinet meeting.

Some analysts believe Rice will win Senate confirmation despite the Libya controversy if the president goes ahead and nominates her.  But others foresee a major political fight that could result in a ragged beginning to the president’s second term and that could have an impact on other bipartisan efforts — including the attempt to avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of the year.


Republicans Debate Their Future


From the point of view of Democrats, Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving.  Not long after his defeat at the hands of President Barack Obama, Mr. Romney told some of his high-rolling fundraisers that he lost the election because the Obama White House had become expert at bestowing gifts on certain key voting groups including African-Americans, Hispanics and young people.

In terms of young voters, for example, Mr. Romney was quoted as saying that forgiveness of college loan interest was “a big gift.”  And then he asserting that free contraceptives were “very big” with college-aged women.  And when it came to winning Hispanic votes, Mr. Romney said what he called “free health care” was a “big plus,” along with the president’s executive order to proceed with the Dream Act, which provides amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants.


The remarks managed to offend three key voting groups who had helped propel Mr. Obama to victory. They also reminded many voters of remarks Mr. Romney made tape at a closed fundraiser earlier in the year. In that event, he was caught on tape saying that 47 percent of voters will support the president no matter what because they see themselves as victims and are dependent on the government.


Republican Backlash


The reaction to the post-election Romney comments was fast and furious, and I’m talking from Republicans.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American governor and a son of immigrants himself, lashed out at the Romney comments on Fox television.  Governor Jindal said if Republicans want voters to like them, they have to like the voters first.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. (Photo: AP)

Jindal was joined in his condemnation by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a maverick conservative in his own right who told NBC’s Meet the Press that the Republican Party is in a “death spiral” with Hispanic voters because of all the hot rhetoric during the debates in the Republican primary season earlier this year.  Graham said when it comes to Hispanic voters, the Republican Party keeps digging itself into a hole, and “if we don’t stop digging, we’re never going to get out of it.”

It is now up to Republicans like Jindal, Graham and others like Florida Senator Marco Rubio to chart a new course for the party moving ahead, well aware that the demographic shifts in recent years point to the ascension of voting groups like Hispanics and Asian-Americans.  In fact, Asian-Americans are the fasting growing group in the country and they supported President Obama’s re-election even more strongly than did Hispanics.


Republicans Post-Romney


The thing about Mitt Romney is, he spent a lot of time trying to convince hard-core conservatives he was either really one of them or would or that he would govern in a way they would find acceptable.  Well, he did win the nomination and that was a feat in itself, given he was a former moderate governor from the liberal-leaning state of Massachusetts. He had even supported abortion rights at one time, during his 1994 losing Senate race against Ted Kennedy.

But by steering so far to the right in the Republican presidential primaries, Mr. Romney hurt himself to a degree in the general election.  His talk of Hispanics “self-deporting” during the primary debates and the generally negative tone from most of the Republican contenders about immigration came back to haunt the party in November.  Exit polls showed one in ten U.S. voters this year was Hispanic, a record, and 71 percent of them supported President Obama over Mr. Romney.   In addition, 19 percent of voters were younger than 30 and 60 percent of this group swung behind the president.

As for Mr. Romney’s future in the party, I wouldn’t look for a prominent role.  As with all losing presidential candidates he will probably go through a period of political self-reflection and thinking about the future.  But I just don’t get the feeling he will continue to hunger for the national stage.  And it seems there are few Republicans who would be eager for him to try and stay in the spotlight.

That is the norm for failed presidential candidates.  Al Gore sought success outside of politics after his close loss in 2000.  Bob Dole slipped into retirement after his defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1996.  Others have found refuge in returning to Congress, like John McCain following his defeat four years ago, and the late former Senator George McGovern, who returned to the Senate in 1972 after his landslide loss to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon, of course, is that rare bird who actually came back to win two presidential elections after having been written off by many people in the early 1960s.  Mr. Nixon lost a close race to John Kennedy in 1960 and then a governor’s race in California two years later, vowing to the press that they wouldn’t have “Nixon to kick around anymore.”  But he staged a comeback in 1968 and won re-election four years later in one of the great political comeback stories of modern U.S. politics.  Of course that is mostly forgotten because of the Watergate scandal, which forced him to become the first U.S. president to resign in August of 1974.  It also seems unlikely that in this age, a party will ever re-nominate someone who had lost a presidential election.  That used to happen in the 19th and early 20th centuries but it is far less likely today.


The Debate is On


In the wake of the Obama re-election victory, a somewhat predictable debate has broken out among Republicans as to where the party goes now.  Some of the pure ideological conservatives are falling back on the old argument that both John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were moderates, not true conservatives, and that contributed to the Republican defeat.  Well, does anybody really think Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain would have been a stronger nominee?  Would they have had any more success in broadening the Republican brand beyond the current predominant constituency of older white men?

On the other end of the spectrum are folks like Jindal, Graham and commentator Bill Kristol, who argue it’s time for the Republican Party to take a hard look at why it hasn’t been able to broaden its base, and to make a more concerted effort to win over minority voters, especially Hispanics.  They reason that many Hispanics have a Catholic background and should be open to the party’s conservative stand on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. They might also find the party’s views on economic growth and helping small business owners appealing.  That will be an evolving debate over the months to come and one worth watching as the party positions itself for the 2014 midterm congressional elections and the next presidential election in 2016.


Spotlight on Christie


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (Photo: AP)

Speaking of the 2016 election, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be one of the Republican names mentioned most over the next few years.  Christie’s approval ratings are soaring in the wake of his diligent efforts to respond to Hurricane Sandy, and it’s the kind of attention that can draw raves not just from Republicans, but from independents and Democrats as well.

But just as Christie expands his (political) profile, some Republicans would like to bring him down a peg or two.  They are upset over his effusive praise of President Obama’s assistance in the wake of Sandy, whichcame at a critical point in the presidential election campaign.  The New York Times reported that Christie was repeatedly put on the defensive by angry Republicans during a recent meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association in Las Vegas.

Christie is one of those rare Republicans with a national profile who can arouse passions from the conservative base of the party and at the same time has the potential to win over independent voters who like his straight-talking demeanor and ability to get things done.  The question is whether some of the party elders will be willing to forgive and forget his embrace of Mr. Obama when Republicans gear up for the next round of presidential primaries in less than four years’ time.




Political Lessons From 2012

Posted November 9th, 2012 at 8:47 pm (UTC+0)

President Barack Obama, now with four more years in office, spells out his approach Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, for dealing with the U.S. economy. Photo: AP

Do’s and Don’ts for the Future

More than anything else, I think the underlying message of the 2012 presidential campaign is that how the two main political parties adapt to the changing demographics of the United States will largely dictate future success.  Republicans were flummoxed that the Democratic coalition of 2008 came out again in 2012.  They simply assumed the young voters, minorities and single women who drove President Barack Obama’s  victory four years ago would not turn out in similar numbers this year.  They also thought the Republican drive to oust Mr. Obama from office would have enough appeal to older white voters, especially men, and that their enthusiasm would overwhelm whatever organizing advantages Democrats had on the ground.

Wrong on both counts.


Primaries and early debates hurt Romney

Republican challenger Mitt Romney, shown here conceding defeat Nov. 7, steered right, then back to center. Photo: AP

The Romney plan was that he would not to be outflanked by more conservative Republicans during the Republican Party primary elections and then make the general election campaign solely a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy.  Well, Mr. Romney surely got to the right of his rivals.  He destroyed Texas Governor Rick Perry in the debates over the issue of who was tougher on illegal immigration.  The problem was all the talk about “self-deportation” and the lack of a plan to offer a path to citizenship really hurt the Romney campaign with Hispanic voters.  Mr. Obama actually improved on his showing with Hispanics this year and 71 percent of them supported him.  Even Cuban-Americans in Florida broke slightly for the president, a constituency that has been reliably Republican in the past.

So after burning bridges with Hispanic voters in the primaries, the Romney campaign took the traditional track of building party unity in the month between securing the nomination and the Republican convention in August.

Big mistake. The Obama campaign launched an ad blitz in early summer that sought to define Mitt Romney as an out of touch, rich, unfeeling former corporate CEO who had little feel for the struggles of the middle class.  Amazingly the Republicans just let it play.  The Obama camp took a page out of the George W. Bush re-election playbook from 2004 and jumped to define their opponent before he could do it himself.  Of all the money spent this year on ads and campaign efforts (estimates total about $6 billion) this was the money best put to use.

Adding insult to injury, the Republicans blew an opportunity at their convention to reach out to moderates and Hispanics and instead tried to reinforce their core anti-Obama message, all the while doing little to burnish Mr. Romney’s personal image.  The moving film about Mr. Romney’s background, family, religion and personal efforts to help people was bumped out of the prime 10pm television hour so that Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood could rant at an empty chair containing an imaginary President Obama.  I imagine a lot of Republicans were muttering to themselves after the results came in last Tuesday.


The Obama machine

In the closing days of the campaign, Republicans kept talking about momentum and enthusiasm and a “feeling” that Mr. Romney was gaining and going to win.  The campaign went into Pennsylvania at the last minute and talked about widening the map to traditionally Democratic Minnesota as well.  Turns out it was all a bluff.

Having lost in 2012, Republicans are already talking about presidential candidates for 2016. One of them is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, shown here at the Republican convention Aug. 30, 2012.

While Republican strategists offered gut feelings and aspirations, the Obama campaign was busy rounding up votes with the most effective ground game and turnout effort of the modern political era.  In short the Republicans were out hussled and outclassed.

Democrats won eight of the nine targeted swing states, including Florida and Virginia, two states many were willing to concede to the Romney camp early on.  Despite frantic efforts by the Romney team, the Obama camp was able to hold on to Ohio, though narrowly.  But the Obama campaign also won convincing victories in Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, states where the Romney campaign had projected victories.  The president’s campaign team stuck to its plan and executed in near flawless fashion, finding voters that in the words of one Romney strategist “we didn’t even know existed.”

Thanks to growing support from Hispanics and Asian-American voters, Democrats are now looking to broaden their electoral reach in the future.  Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina could be in play soon and some Democrats even fantasize about one day being competitive in Texas, thanks to the growth of the Hispanic vote.


Republicans reflecting

It will take a while for Republicans to get over this defeat and then to come up with a game plan to counter the Democrats in the future.

Another Republican being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016 is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, shown here speaking at a news conference Nov. 3. Photo: AP

Already we’re hearing different explanations for the Romney loss from different factions of the party.  Some of the more conservative Tea Party types say the party elites doomed their chances from the start by picking a moderate like Mitt Romney.  Other old school conservative activists like Richard Viguerie say the problem was that the party once again did not nominate a true conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan, though I’ve had Republican friends of mine point out they doubt Mr. Reagan could make it through a Republican primary this year.

But many Republican analysts have already seized on the need to broaden the party beyond its base of older white voters to include at least some portion of the Hispanic vote.  After all, President George W. Bush did pick up 40 percent or so of that vote in 2004, so there is some precedent for improvement.

Republicans also continue to have problems with women voters.  They preferred the president by about 12 points overall this year and that played out in some Senate races as well, especially in Missouri and Indiana where Democratic candidates prevailed.

The Republican navel-gazing will take some time, but I’m sure the buzz will already start to build about who might be in the spotlight for the 2016 presidential nomination fight, especially New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.


There’s always the unexpected

Yet another Republican being mentioned as a possibility in 2016 is Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who ran as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate this year. Photo: AP

Some thought Mitt Romney would salvage his White House hopes with his especially strong performance in his first debate with President Obama on October 3rd.  That debate did change the trajectory of the race and probably made it closer than it would have been otherwise.  Most importantly it probably gave Republicans new hope that Mr. Romney could actually win the White House.  But of course, that made his defeat that much harder to swallow later on.

The other surprise came in November thanks to Mother Nature.  Hurricane Sandy not only blew through the East Coast, it may have blown away any fading chances for Mr. Romney to win.  The storm coverage knocked the campaign off the airwaves for a few critical days even as many Americans were already engaged in early voting.  And the images of President Obama walking shoulder to shoulder and surveying storm damage with Republican Chris Christie proved to be a powerful counterpoint to Republican attacks on the president for being too partisan.  Sandy may not have won the president a second term, but it probably stalled Romney’s momentum at the end, ending any hopes of a late Republican surge.



Four More Years

Posted November 7th, 2012 at 9:44 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

The once and future president. Barack Obama thanks his supporters and the American voters early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, after defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the presidential election. Photo: AP

Compromise or More Gridlock?

And so in the end, the public opinion pollsters and the Obama campaign were right.  The margins held in the key battleground states and the Obama camp did an amazing job of not only identifying their supporters but making sure they got out to vote.  In short they schooled the Republicans on how to run a national re-election campaign, especially when the incumbent is saddled with an iffy economy.

It turns out the last minute Romney campaign visits to Pennsylvania were somewhere on the border of wishful thinking and desperation.  The Obama folks had their path to the magic number of 270 votes in the Electoral College and they were going to stick to it.  That path involved winning Ohio (done), keeping it close in Florida (done) and winning both Virginia and Colorado (check).  By winning the vast majority of the nine battleground states up for grabs this year, the Obama campaign effectively denied Mitt Romney any path to the White House.


Obama’s Demographic Advantage

I think the real story of the 2012 election is how one party adapted to America’s evolving population while the other closed its eyes and hoped for the best.  The Democratic coalition of women, minorities and younger voters that propelled Barack Obama into the White House four years ago held firm this year and now represents a growing base for the Democratic Party.

These two have a lot to talk about. President Obama walks with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner March 20, 2012, after talks about the U,.S. budget. Budget issues will be at the center of renewed talks now that tle presidential election is over. Photo: AP

This is of great concern for Republicans.  Before he could become the party nominee this year, Mitt Romney had to endure the crucible of the Republican primary elections and especially the numerous Republican primary debates that got wide attention on television.  Mr. Romney proudly ran as a “severe conservative” and made sure he wouldn’t get outflanked on the right, particularly on the issue of immigration reform.  In order not to offend the right-wing tea party faction of the party, Mr. Romney made it clear he opposed any immediate path for legalizing undocumented immigrants and said that if the law were enforced many of them would deport themselves.

As it turned out, that hard line on immigration in the primaries came back to haunt him in the general election.  The Romney campaign was hamstrung trying to win over Hispanics, and in the end nearly 70 percent supported the president, a formula for future disaster for the Republican Party if that trend continues.

Add to this the continuing gender gap for the Republican Party.  Women preferred the president by 12 points while men broke for Mr. Romney by a margin of only seven points.  Add into the mix controversial (and losing) Republican Senate candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana and the Republican Party also has a lot of work to do to win over women voters in future elections.


Obama’s 2nd Term Agenda

It begins with making sure the country doesn’t slide off the so-called “fiscal cliff” early next year.  Unless Congress and the White House can forge an agreement to cut the budget deficit, nearly $500 trillion worth of tax increases and severe budget cuts will go into effect in 2013 that could slow down or stall the plodding economic recovery.

Another key part of any budget talks will be Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, shown here at the Republican Party convention Aug. 29, 2012. Photo: AP

It’s been apparent for some time that both the president and Republicans in Congress were waiting for the election results to dictate what will happen next.  The fact that the status quo remains is going to require some movement on both sides.

The president certainly talked a good game in his victory speech in Chicago early Wednesday.  But House Speaker John Boehner was quick to retort that Republicans held their majority in the House and that he believes voters want them to act as a check on big government and reckless spending in Washington.

Both sides are going to have to show some “give” here.  Perhaps the president will be unbridled with his re-election victory, no longer having to worry as much about Democratic allies who would bark loudly if they felt he was giving away too much to the Republicans.  Likewise, with some of the tea party candidates losing on the Republican side, maybe Republican congressional leaders might have a little more leeway to push a mix of tax hikes and budget cuts that would have been a non-starter during the first Obama term.

A lot will depend on the immediate tone set by both sides and whether they show a mutual willingness to cooperate.

The cast of characters remains the same—the president, Speaker Boehner and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.  What we don’t know yet is how each of them sees the political landscape in the wake of Tuesday’s results and whether any of them is willing to make a bold gesture that might begin to undo the partisan gridlock that’s been in place in Washington since the early days of the first Obama term.



Election Day Guide

Posted November 5th, 2012 at 10:01 pm (UTC+0)

The campaigning was contentious, but American voters choose between President Barack Obama (right), and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The two presidential candidates are shown here during their second debate Oct. 16, 2012 in Hempstead, New York. Photo: AP

What to Watch For

Since all the public opinion polls and experts are predicting a close race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney Tuesday, it might be worthwhile to highlight a few things to look for as Election Day and Election Night unfold.

Early on, watch the state of Pennsylvania.  Mitt Romney is making a late play for Pennsylvania and we should know early in the evening if Republican interest in the state was a feint or an attempt to exploit a real opening.  If Pennsylvania is close or Mr. Romney takes a lead, we’ll know they may have been on to something.  If it goes the way it has since 1992 and veers into the Democratic column that would be good news for President Obama.


Obama Danger Signs

President Obama wave Oct. 27, as he leaves the White House for a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Photo: AP

Keep an eye on Wisconsin.  The state has voted Democratic in most recent elections, but it was close in 2000 and 2004.  If Wisconsin turns into a nail-biter, that would be good news for the Romney campaign.  Some of the recent polls have shown a somewhat substantial Obama lead.  If that holds up, then the so-called “Midwest Firewall” constructed by the Obama campaign may hold and could get the president awfully close to the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win the election.

Another one to watch in the East early in the evening is New Hampshire.  If the president cruises to an easy win, that might mean a long night for Mitt Romney.  But if the Romney camp can pull off a victory there, it might be a sign of success elsewhere.

Romney Danger Signs

It begins and may end with Ohio.  Remember, no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio.  Ohio has voted for the winning candidate in 27 of the past 29 presidential elections, making it perhaps the foremost bellwether state in the nation.  If President Obama gets off to a strong start in Ohio and is winning by a comfortable margin, that could be it for the Romney campaign.  But if Mr. Romney can keep it close and hang on well into the night, it could be a sign that he was able to stage a late rally in Ohio.

Another state to watch is Virginia.  Virginia went into the Obama column in 2008, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state since President Lyndon Johnson did it in 1964, the year of his big landslide.  Polls have shown Virginia as perhaps the tightest state in this year’s election so a stronger than expected showing by either candidate could have major implications for some of the other battleground states.

In addition, unexpectedly poor showings by the Romney camp in either Florida or Colorado would be taken as bad news by Republicans.  Especially Florida since most analysts believe Mitt Romney’s path to the White House MUST include the Sunshine State.


Swing State Breakdown

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is counting on a late voter surge to get him to the White House. He is shown here during a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida Nov. 5, 2012. Photo: AP

Let’s go with the conventional wisdom for a moment and accept the notion that 41 of the 50 states are already leaning one way or the other.  You might want to be a little careful here since this count for the president includes Pennsylvania, where the Romney camp is apparently making its last minute play.  But if you accept the basic model that 41 states are already spoken for, then that leaves nine swing states:  Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina.

For the sake of argument, let’s move Nevada into the president’s column and North Carolina into Mr. Romney’s column since most of the experts believe that is where they will wind up.  That gives the president a base of 243 electoral votes and Mr. Romney 206, leaving seven true swing states.


Ohio is Key

If you add Ohio’s 18 electoral votes to the president’s column, that puts him at 261.  Add Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes and you get to 271 and he’s got another four years in the White House.  Or even if Wisconsin goes to the Romney camp, Mr. Obama can still get his last 10 electoral votes by winning both Iowa (six) and New Hampshire (four).

For Mr. Romney, his best path to the White House includes winning Ohio.  Add Ohio’s 18 votes to his base of 206, plus Florida where he is a slight favorite, and you get to 253 electoral votes.  Add in nine from Colorado and 13 from Virginia and that puts Mr. Romney over the top at 275.  Ohio is vital to both camps but the president’s stubborn lead is putting pressure on the Romney camp to find another path to 270 and that may explain their late gamble in Pennsylvania.

In every presidential election since 1960, the candidate who has won two out three among Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida has won the White House.  It could be the barometer this year as well, though the three most contested states in 2012 appear to be Ohio, Virginia and Florida.  The problem for Mr. Romney is he probably needs to win two out of those three while Mr. Obama might only need to win Ohio and he’s home free.




Into the Final Days of the Campaign

Posted November 1st, 2012 at 7:43 pm (UTC+0)


President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Wednesday, Oct. 31, tour regions of New Jersey devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Here, Mr. Obama comforts storm survivor Donna Vanzant. Photo; Reuters

Slight Edge to Obama

We’re in the home stretch now and most of the indicators point to a small but persistent lead for President Barack Obama in most of the handful of states that will decide the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday.

The latest Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times public opinion poll of three key battleground states showed the president and Mitt Romney basically neck and neck and in Florida and Virginia.  But the survey gave the president a five point lead in Ohio, a state that both campaigns are desperate to win.  Other recent polls give the president an edge in other key states like Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.

The latest batch of state polls was some of the best news of the week for the Obama campaign as it seeks to hold on in the waning days of the campaign.  If the president can hold Ohio and add it to his presumed electoral vote base of 237, it would put him at 255 electoral votes, just 15 short of the magic 270 figure needed for victory.  That would give the Obama camp a huge leg up on the Romney campaign, which would have to win most of the remaining so-called swing states to have any chance of getting to 270.


Dueling Views of the Race

Listening to conference calls with both campaigns is like hearing from two people who witnessed the same accident but have vastly different memories of what happened.  For the Obama camp, the race is basically over since they believe the president has stable leads in key states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa.  Locking up those Midwest states alone would put the president at 271 electoral votes and pretty much block any path for Mr. Romney to win.

But on the other side, the Romney camp is equally confident of victory, backed up by partisans like former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove who predicted in the Wall Street Journal that Mr. Romney would prevail in the popular vote by a margin of 51 to 48 percent and get 279 electoral votes.  The Romney view is they will carry key states like Florida, Colorado, and even Ohio, and are in a good position to pick off some of the other swing states like Virginia, Iowa and New Hampshire.

While the Obama camp is bragging about early Democratic turnout in places like Ohio and Iowa, the Romney campaign says that it won’t be enough to counter an expected Romney surge on Election Day.  Obama supporters insist they are doing a better job of identifying voters and getting them out to vote, while Romney officials boast that intensity and momentum are on their side.

Obviously the truth lies somewhere in the middle on some of these claims, which just adds to the notion that Tuesday could bring a very close election that might not be decided until well into the next day.


Sandy’s Impact

Democrats seemed quite satisfied to have the president focus on disaster relief for much of the week, given the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, especially in New Jersey and New York.  And Wednesday’s extensive coverage of the president touring some of the affected areas with New Jersey’s firebrand Republican governor, Chris Christie, was probably a net plus for the Obama campaign.

While President Obama was in New Jersey’s hurricane disaster zone, Republican challenger Mitt Romney was campaigning in Jacksonville, Florida Wednesday, Oct. 31. Photo: AP

In the closing days of the campaign, Mr. Romney has often said he would be better positioned as president to reach out and cooperate with Democrats, something he likes to point to from his days as governor of heavily-Democratic Massachusetts.  But the images of President Obama and Governor Christie walking side by side and comforting residents devastated in the aftermath of the storm could be taken by some voters as actual proof of the president willing to work with the opposition. And we’re not talking about just any member of the Republican opposition.

Don’t forget, Christie gave the keynote address at this year’s Republican National Convention, and for much of the year has been one of Mr. Obama’s most scathing and partisan critics, at times sounding downright dismissive of the president and his opposition.  But all that was gone this week as Governor Christie heaped praised on Mr. Obama and his administration for the quick response in the wake of Sandy.

To a degree, the devastation brought on by the hurricane had the effect of freezing the presidential race in place, at least for a few days.  It would seem that would help President Obama since he seems to hold a narrow lead in several key states where the election will be decided.

The storm and its aftermath may also have helped to slow down Mr. Romney’s surge over the past month, though there were already indications that the Romney poll bounce in the wake of the first presidential debate in early October was already starting to wane.  I got the sense the Obama campaign was fine with having things frozen in place for a few days, denying Mr. Romney a chance to build some last minute momentum.  Of course that still could happen in the final days, but the question is, will it be enough?


Crucial Questions

Those who believe Mitt Romney will win this election expect a mini-surge of undecided voters to flock into his column at the last minute, giving him not only a victory in the popular vote, but come-from-behind victories in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and most importantly Ohio.  Under this scenario, the Romney burst would be a smaller version of the late surge that carried Ronald Reagan to victory over an unpopular incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, in 1980.

This narrative basically says that most of those waiting to decide until the last minute will deem Mr. Obama not worthy of a second term and will be persuaded to support Mr. Romney because he has made himself more acceptable to moderates in the final weeks of this campaign.  Democrats are generally skeptical about this scenario, but I’ve talked to enough of them to know that some are privately worried this is what could happen on Tuesday.

Those who believe President Obama will prevail in the election question how the Romney campaign will suddenly find enough voters in several swing states to overcome what has been a persistent Obama lead in these states for months.  Under this narrative, the president has a better ground game in place in key states like Ohio – a ground game that will push Democrats and Obama-leaning independents out to vote either on Election Day or before, making up for any advantage the Romney camp claims in terms of voter excitement on their side.

The Obama argument also insists that the president has steady leads in Ohio, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin that severely limit the electoral paths to 270 for the Romney campaign. Obama strategists also argue that much of the early voting trends so far point to an advantage to Democrats that Republicans won’t be able to overcome on Tuesday.

So if you believe the polls, and discount the notion of some last nationwide surge by the Romney campaign, you’ll feel pretty comfortable about President Obama’s chances.  On the other hand, if you focus on the fact that the president often hovers just below 50 percent approval in most polls and is having trouble winning over a majority of independent voters, you probably subscribe to the idea of a classic insurgent victory over an incumbent deemed not worthy of a second term because of the mediocre state of the U.S. economy.

We’ll know soon enough.




Countdown to History

Posted October 26th, 2012 at 8:24 pm (UTC+0)

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at a football field in Defiance, Ohio, Oct. 25, 2012. Photo: AP

Obama-Romney Race Could be Closest Race Since 2000

One way or the other, history will be made on November 6th, Election Day in the United States.  We’ll know soon enough, but if Republican Mitt Romney is able to defeat President Barack Obama that day, he would become the fourth presidential candidate to oust an incumbent since World War II.  Mr. Romney would thus follow in the footsteps of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

Mr. Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford, largely because Mr. Ford decided to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, and absolve him from any criminal liability in the Watergate scandal.  Historians also like to point out Mr. Ford was never actually elected president.  He was appointed vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, and assumed the presidency after Mr. Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974.

Four years later, Mr. Carter was the victim of an political insurgency led by Ronald Reagan.  Mr. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, was also ousted after one term by Bill Clinton.  In all these cases, a weak economy played a major role and presumably will again if President Obama cannot muster enough support for a second term.

On the other hand, if President Obama’s Democratic supporters come out to vote in sufficient numbers and get him a second term, he will go down in history as one of those rare presidents who was saddled with a tough economy but managed to win re-election anyway.


Poll Crazy

These days, the experts are gobbling up new public opinion surveys each day, both of voters nationally and in the key states, and trying to figure out where this presidential race is headed.  What we know is this:  before the debates, it was Barack Obama’s to lose.   The president had a modest but steady lead and was in good shape in most of the nine so-called battleground states where the outcome remains in doubt.

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd at a rally in Cleveland, Ohio, Oct. 25, 2012. Photo: AP

But after the debates, especially the first one where Mitt Romney scored a major victory, the landscape has shifted considerably.  Mr. Romney has closed the gap, and in several national polls has moved into a slight lead over Mr. Obama.  Analysts note that when an incumbent president is still running neck and neck with a challenger this late in the race, and is running below 50 percent in most surveys, it’s usually seen as a danger sign for the incumbent.  That is certainly the story line the Romney camp likes to promote.

On the other hand, the Obama camp remains focused on the polls in the individual battleground states where the election will be won or lost.  Most of these states right now show a very close election, with very slight leads for one candidate or the other.  For example, Mr. Romney seems well on his way to putting North Carolina out of reach, a state the president narrowly won four years ago.  On the other hand, the Obama campaign is feeling somewhat confident about Nevada, where the polls show a steady lead of about three points or so.

All of this is important because in the final week of the campaign the focus will be on seven or eight of these so-called swing states, especially places like Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.  Ohio is enormously important to both camps.  If the president can maintain his slight lead in Ohio and win its 18 electoral votes, it would put him by most calculations at 255 of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win a second term.  That means cobbling together some combination of Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Nevada (six electoral votes), Iowa (six) and New Hampshire (four) to get to the magic 270 figure.

For Mr. Romney, trying to get to 270 without Ohio is much harder.  Most analysts give Mr. Romney a base of 191 electoral votes.  But without Ohio’s 18 votes, the Republican would have to nearly sweep the remaining battleground states, something the polls suggest right now might be difficult.  So while the national polls have been trending slightly in Mr. Romney’s favor, the president appears to be holding a slight advantage in the Electoral College.


Senate Hanging in the Balance

So far, the presidential race has overshadowed the battle for control of Congress.  Most of the action is in the Senate, where Democrats are scrambling to hold their current 53 to 47 majority.  Heading into this election cycle the Democrats appeared to be in real jeopardy of losing their majority.  They are defending 23 of the 33 seats up for election this year.  Senators serve six-year terms and one third of the Senate is up for election every two years.  House members, of course, serve two-year terms and elections are held every two years.

At the moment, a handful of Senate races are hanging in the balance and will determine which party controls the chamber come January.  The most watched races include the Massachusetts contest between the Republican incumbent, Senator Scott Brown, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren.  Warren has built a lead, but Brown remains popular with swing voters.  Another race drawing national attention is in Virginia between two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.  Allen lost this seat six years ago to Democrat Jim Webb in a campaign famous for his use of the disparaging word “macaca,” in reference to a Democratic volunteer taping one of Allen’s campaign events.  Allen is on a mission to redeem himself while Kaine is pitching the idea that he will be able to work with the next president whether his name is Obama or Romney.  It’s seen as a toss-up right now.

In Indiana, Republicans ousted veteran Senator Richard Lugar in their primary earlier this year in favor of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock.  But Mourdock veered into trouble recently with debate comments on abortion and rape and that could make his race against Democrat Joe Donnelly quite close.  Mourdock in some ways is now being lumped in the same category as Todd Akin in Missouri, the Republican Senate candidate who talked about “legitimate rape” a few months back.  Akin, by the way, is still seen as an underdog in his showdown with the incumbent Democrat, Claire, McCaskill.  McCaskill had been generally seen as the most vulnerable Democratic senator.

Republicans are counting on picking up the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Ben Nelson in Nebraska and may prevail in a close race in North Dakota for the seat of retiring Democrat Kent Conrad.  But the Republicans may fall short of pickups in Ohio and Connecticut and if they lose seats in Maine and Massachusetts, it would probably make it impossible for them to pick up enough seats to reclaim a majority in the Senate.

As for the House of Representatives, Democrats would seem to have a tall order in trying to gain the 25 seats they would need to reclaim the majority they lost in 2010.  In fact, most analysts predict modest gains of up to 10 seats or so, which would leave the House chamber under Republican control.  It will be interesting, though, to see how many Tea Party favorites, if any, are defeated in House races this year after all the focus on Congress in gridlock for the past two years.

Now the Final Push

Posted October 23rd, 2012 at 8:12 pm (UTC+0)

President Barack Obama waves to a campaign rally crowd in Delray Beach, Florida Oct. 23, 2012, a day after his final presidential debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Photo: AP

Dead Heat with Two Weeks to Go

If you had told me a month ago that President Barack Obama would be seen as the winner in two of his three debates with Mitt Romney, and that Vice President Joe Biden would be given the edge in his showdown with Paul Ryan, I might have concluded that this election would be a slam-dunk for Team Obama.   Well, it turns out the easy response to that scenario is, “WRONG!”

The debates are now behind us and both campaigns are plunging full force into the final two weeks of a presidential campaign that has been at least two years in the making.  Mitt Romney’s smashing win in the first presidential debate in Denver on October 3rd changed the direction of this race from trending toward President Obama to what we have now, a dead heat.


Defining Romney

Starting after the Republican primaries earlier this year, the Obama campaign did an effective job of depicting Mitt Romney as an out of touch former corporate CEO who seemed incapable of connecting with real people.  This was mainly done through sometimes snarky TV ads that highlighted Mr. Romney’s wealthy background, his wife’s interest in dressage and the candidate’s overseas investments.

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney thanks a police detail in West Palm Beach, Florida Oct. 23, 2012, before flying off for a campaign rally in Nevada. Photo: AP

Mr. Romney, though, has been able to turn this around, thanks in large part to his stellar performance in that first debate.  Mr. Romney came off as a confident business-savvy leader who deftly criticized the president’s record without looking too mean, while at the same time making a coherent case for a fresh approach on generating jobs and economic growth.

In the 90 minutes of that first debate, Mr. Romney was able to undo, to an extent, the Obama ad campaign of the past summer that was meant to disqualify him as a potential president.  In the final two debates, why did I always get the feeling that Mr. Obama was still kicking himself for not showing up for the first one in Denver?

The Obama strategy always rested on trying to disqualify Mr. Romney early so that enough voters would not see him as a viable alternative to the president.  Mr. Romney has clearly emerged from the debates as a viable alternative now, and that is one reason why you see a new emphasis from the Obama campaign on being more specific about the next four years should the president win re-election.


Commander in Chief Test

Mr. Romney’s demeanor in the third debate on foreign policy was a little mystifying at first.  He seemed to agree with the president, more or less, on a range of issues, including how to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions, whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria and the planned pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014.  It was clear Mr. Romney was making a major turn for the political middle, something he had a history of doing as a politician in Massachusetts.  Remember, the same guy who was pro-choice on abortion in his failed 1994 bid for the Senate against Ted Kennedy ran and won in the Republican primaries this year as a “severe conservative” embracing pro-life values.

President Obama baited Mr. Romney at several points in their final debate. But for the most part, the Republican nominee was determined to resist any flare-ups, preferring to present himself as a committed advocate for peace through strength who would be attractive to the remaining pool of undecided voters, especially women.  President Obama continues to hold an advantage with women voters, but Mr. Romney has cut into that margin in some recent polls, suggesting his focus on the economy combined with a more restrained critique may be paying dividends.

Romney advisers now seem confident that what came out of the three presidential debates is a general acknowledgement that their candidate presented himself as a viable alternative in terms of being president, tackling the economy and becoming commander-in-chief.  In effect, Mr. Romney used the debates to recast his own image and reset his campaign on more even footing with the president, turning the last two weeks into much more of a ground-game competition in the nine states seen as the key to the 2012 race.


Battleground Breakdown

There is a sense now that the Obama campaign is conceding North Carolina to the Romney camp, which was not a surprise.  Democrats narrowly won the state four years ago and gambled they could do it again this year when they held their nominating convention in Charlotte.  But the latest polls indicate a steady shift in the state toward Mr. Romney, something my VOA colleague, Chris Simkins, noticed on his recent trip down South.  In addition, Chris noted a strong turnout of early voters in Republican areas of North Carolina, a sign that they are much more excited than they were for John McCain four years ago.

But if you put North Carolina into a red column for the Republicans, you might think about coloring Nevada blue for Democrats.  The president won that state four years ago and seems to have a narrow but stable lead there this year, with some help from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.

So if we take those states out of the tossup list, we are left with seven key states for the stretch run:  Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.  At the moment, the Romney camp believes it has a slight advantage in Florida and maybe Colorado.  The Obama campaign feels good about Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and, most importantly, Ohio.  Right now Virginia looks like the closest thing to a pure toss-up state in this year’s election, though that could shift in the final days.

Ohio, more than any other state, is seen as the number one swing state in this year’s election.  Four years ago the Obama team won a convincing victory in Ohio, and they have worked hard to keep their operation primed for this year’s re-election effort.  In addition, Democrats had a big turnout last year to defeat a Republican-inspired referendum that would have limited the rights of public employee unions to bargain collectively.  That landslide victory may have set the stage for a stronger than normal Democratic showing in Ohio for this year’s presidential race, where both campaigns are fighting hammer and tong for the state’s 18 Electoral votes.

Remember, no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. We’ll see in the next two weeks whether Mitt Romney makes one last all-out effort to overtake the president there, or decides to try a different route to getting to the magic number of 270 Electoral votes needed to win the White House.



Obama’s Electoral Edge

Posted October 19th, 2012 at 8:18 pm (UTC+0)

Romney’s Narrow Path to the White House

Now we’re getting to crunch time and the presidential election is all about Electoral votes and which candidate wins which states.  Remember that in America’s presidential election system, you can win the national popular vote and still lose the presidency.  If you don’t believe, that just ask Al Gore the next time you see him in the airport on his way to yet another speech on global warming.

It is a victory in the Electoral College that wins the White House.  Think of it as 50 separate state elections for president, and add in three electoral votes for the District of Columbia.

Each state is assigned a number of electoral votes based on population with the exact number corresponding to the number of senators and House members who represent a given state in Congress.  Each state has two senators and at least one representative, so the range is from three electoral votes for a small state like Wyoming, to 55 electoral votes for the state with the largest population, California.

With two exceptions, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a given state receives all of that state’s electoral votes.  The two exceptions, Maine and Nebraska, divide up their electoral votes according to the percentage of the state’s popular vote total won by each candidate.  There are a total of 538 electoral votes and it takes a majority of 270 to win the presidency.


Most States Already Decided

President Obama is trying to lock up as many so-called “battleground” states as he can before Election Day, Nov. 6. Here, he is greeting supporters Friday, Oct. 19., in Virginia, a state crucial to his hopes for another term in the White House. Photo: AP

Sure it’s a national election on November 6th, but the fact is that most experts believe that 40 or so of the 50 states already lean strongly toward one candidate or the other.  This year, that leaves nine true “swing” or “battleground” or “competitive” states where both campaigns have focused most of their resources. That includes candidate visits, money spent on TV ads and grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts.

So for all intents and purposes, the 2012 presidential election will be decided in these states:  Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

According to the respected web site Real Clear Politics.com, President Obama begins with an electoral vote base of 201, assuming he wins all the states that lean Democratic.  The Obama base includes most of New England and large swaths of the northeast down through Maryland and Washington, DC, plus parts of the upper Midwest and the West Coast from California up to Washington.  Mitt Romney begins with a base of 191 electoral votes, with his strongest support coming from the South, the Great Plains and some of the smaller population states of the West.

That means each candidate must try and cobble together a winning electoral vote combination by adding as many of the nine swing states to their column as possible to get to 270 or more electoral votes.


Ohio First Among Equals

No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning the state of Ohio.  Ohio has also voted for the winner in 27 of the past 29 presidential elections, making it one of the most reliable of state predictors over the past century.  If there is a shadow over this election for the Romney campaign, it is the persistent lead President Obama has established in Ohio.

Without Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, Mr. Romney’s routes to get to 270 electoral votes are much more limited.  He would have to win Florida (29 electoral votes), Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6) and New Hampshire (4) if he loses Ohio. The latest opinion polls in those states suggest winning them all would be an uphill battle.

If you add Ohio to President Obama’s electoral vote column, he would only have to win Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire to give him a total of 281 electoral votes — 11 more than he needs.  The kicker is that right now the president has leads in Ohio, Iowa and Nevada that look fairly strong, though by no means certain.  He also has a slight lead in New Hampshire.


Romney’s Debate Bump

Nation-wide public opinion polls are giving the Romney campaign reason for optimism, but the Republican candidate, here at a formal dinner for charity in New York City Oct. 18, is also closely watching state-by-state numbers. Photo: AP

Mitt Romney’s winning performance in the first presidential debate made this a much closer election.  President Obama was vastly improved in the second debate and that probably slowed or stopped the Romney momentum, at least for now.  It looks as though Mr. Romney’s strong showing in the first debate helped him close the gap in some key states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.  The Romney camp appears to have an edge in North Carolina now, and a more narrow advantage in Florida and Virginia.    Colorado and Virginia appear to be too close to call at the moment and probably will remain so until Election Day.

So for the moment, the state by state breakdown favors Mr. Obama, though only slightly.  His leads in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin would seem to give him a Midwest firewall that Mr. Romney will have to find a way to break through.  Mr. Romney can take encouragement from the polling trends in Florida, North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, Virginia that would add to his southern base.  Mr. Romney and his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, have been spending a lot of time of late in Ohio trying to close the gap.

It will be interesting to see if, as we get closer to Election Day November 6th, Ohio looks unwinnable for the Romney team, and whether his campaign shifts its efforts to other states like Colorado, Virginia and New Hampshire to try and find some other way to get to the magic 270 number.


Are all Polls Created Equal?

Obviously not, which is why so many political junkies prefer sites like Real Clear Politics that average out the latest polls or look for a trend in several polls, not just one.  The Gallup daily tracking poll of late has shown Mr. Romney moving into a six or seven point lead nationally, a result that doesn’t seem to jive with so many state polls that show either a very close race or various leads within some of those states for President Obama.  The Gallup poll is one of many national polls that insiders take into account on any given day, but it’s by no means considered the last word.

If you average together the latest nation-wide polls, as Real Clear Politics does, it shows a very close race with perhaps a razor-thin advantage for Mr. Romney at the moment.  Gallup and other national polls did show a basic trend over the past two weeks, though, that shows Mr. Romney cutting into what had been a modest Obama lead before the first debate.

So from now on, feel free to take all the polls into account.  Just don’t put too much stock into any one poll, whether it’s from a national sample or from some of the key contested states.


Obama’s Debate Comeback

Posted October 17th, 2012 at 6:59 pm (UTC+0)

The second U.S. presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney Oct. 16, 2012 was contentious from beginning to end. Photo: Reuters

But Will it Shift the Race?  

Whoa! Who was that guy Tuesday night?  He was like night and day compared to the first debate.  Barack Obama brought his “A game” to the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York, and in doing so it’s possible he saved his presidency.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  There’s plenty of time still left.

It’s not that Mitt Romney was all that bad.  He wasn’t, except for a couple of unforced errors that could come back to haunt him in the final days.  This debate was all about whether the real President Obama would show up and get engaged in the campaign, and unlike the first debate, this time he did.  There was a different tone from the outset with Mr. Obama.  He was more aggressive and willing to challenge his Republican opponent.  There were moments when the two men walked toward each other as if in a gun duel in the Old West, and while neither seemed willing to back down, it was often the president who emerged with a slight edge.


Jousting on the Economy

Most of the debate focused on the economy, the president’s “Achilles Heel,” and a major point of success for Mr. Romney in their first debate.  Mr. Romney continued to make his points about jobs, the deficit, government spending and energy, but he didn’t seem quite as crisp as he was in the first debate two weeks ago.  Maybe it was the format.  Mr. Romney has often had problems relating to voters and questioners in settings like these and he didn’t seem as comfortable as the first time around.

President Obama makes his points during the second debate with Republican Mitt Romney, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, New York. Photo: AP

By contrast, the president was much more forceful, both in defending his record and trying to make a case for another four years in office.  This has been an area of weakness for the president, with many commentators complaining that he provides little in the way of concrete plans about where he wants to take the country if he wins a second term.  Mr. Obama didn’t offer much new in this regard. But it was the way he presented himself, with authority and conviction, that at least gave the impression he does want a second term after all, something even some of his supporters were openly questioning after his first debate debacle.

To be fair to Mr. Romney, the Obama economic record is still his strongest point of attack.  His riff on job losses, deficit increases and general economic malaise of the past four years seems to resonate with many undecided voters and this should be a central theme of the Romney campaign moving forward.  In fact, every moment his campaign spends on something other than the economy may be a wasted moment with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.

But at times in the second debate, Mr. Romney started to veer back into his corporate CEO mode, which has been a major problem for him in the past.  At times he seemed petulant, pressing the president on his pension portfolio in response to an Obama comment about Romney investments in China and elsewhere overseas.  The president’s retort that he didn’t look at his portfolio as much as Mr. Romney because Mr. Romney’s was bigger brought chuckles from the normally placid Hofstra audience.


Obama’s Libya Moment

For the past few weeks the Romney campaign has been pounding on the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The Republican critique has focused on a shifting narrative from the administration about whether the attack was the result of terrorism or a more spontaneous reaction from locals upset about an anti-Muslim video that sparked outrage throughout the Middle East.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused President of mishandling the security of U.S. diplomats in Libya as part of the second presidential debate Oct. 16, 2012. Photo: AP

Mr. Romney has charged that the administration has been slow to acknowledge that the Benghazi attack was carried out by terrorists, and he again challenged the president about his remarks the day after the attack.  That brought the strongest retort of the evening from the president who said he was offended at the suggestion that his foreign policy team would engage in politics when national security issues were at stake.  Mr. Romney then pressed on about the president’s remarks the day after the attack in the White House Rose Garden, challenging the president’s assertion that he had mentioned acts of terrorism.  At that point debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN jumped in and said the president had indeed referred to acts of terror in his remarks. The president gleefully urged her to repeat her comment, only “louder.”

To be fair, the president did say the day after the Libya attack that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”  The Romney complaint is that this fell short of labeling the Benghazi attack specifically as an act of terror, which the Romney campaign says came many days later.  Mr. Obama, though, seized on the moment to look presidential in a way we don’t often see and that is likely to come through in the TV news replays of the debate in the coming days.  It’s also questionable how much voters will get into the weeds of this particular controversy even though the administration remains on the defensive about what it knew about the specifics of the attack and who was behind it.


Have Things Changed?

We’ll know more about what this means over the next several days as fresh public opinion polls are rolled out.  Most of the experts believe Romney’s decisive victory in the first debate had more impact on the race in his favor than anything that happened in the second debate.  But the reverberations over the Libya showdown in the second debate and Mr. Romney’s reference to “binders” full of women candidates for cabinet jobs in Massachusetts when he was governor are likely to be some of the lasting moments of the second debate, and that is probably not to Romney’s advantage.

Moderator Candy Crowley, center, applauds as President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. Photo: AP

With his stronger performance in round two, President Obama has probably slowed the momentum toward Mr. Romney in the polls, both nationally and in several of the key battleground states where the election will be won or lost.  More importantly, Mr. Obama’s second debate performance is likely to spark some Democrats out of the funk they were in following the first debate.  So beginning with Vice President Joe Biden’s strong performance in his debate, and now the president’s stronger showing in his second debate, the Democratic Party base is likely to be reinvigorated a bit, which would clearly be good news for the Obama campaign.

I’m not sure what undecided voters took away from the second debate.  Some thought the two candidates got into too much mud-wrestling with each other and offered little in the way of fresh appeals to win over moderate voters.  But there are so few undecided voters left that both candidates are going to have to expend enormous energy over the final weeks in getting their own supporters out to vote, especially in key states like Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.

In the end, the team that brings out its best ground game and get-out-the-vote effort is probably going to win.



Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


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