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A rough guide to the election

The Sunday Herald asked me to prepare a rough guide to the presidential election for Scottish readers who may not have been following the race all that closely. It ran across three pages at the front of the paper on November 4, 2012. As well as the election basics, we chose two recent developments for a closer look: the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the administration’s response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

Sandy: an “October surprise”

In the last month before a presidential election, campaigns fret that an “October surprise” will upend the contest. More often than not, these unexpected events generate a lot of ink but have a negligible impact on the outcome. The revelation that George W. Bush was once arrested for drink-driving was greeted with a shrug in 2000. Four years later, an Osama Bin Laden video on the eve of the election put the spotlight on national security, but few believe it was the difference between victory and defeat for John Kerry.

Until now, Jimmy Carter’s failure to negotiate the release of a group of Americans held hostage in Iran was the only exception. And just as that president’s impotent response to a crisis may have cost him re-election in 1980, so Barack Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy may have won him another four years in the White House.

Mitt Romney was back on the campaign trail on Thursday, a day ahead of Obama, but the chance to bank early votes and mobilise supporters in Virginia was insignificant compared to the week of free publicity that Obama has been getting. While Romney held a “relief event” in Ohio, at which he appealed for canned goods that the Red Cross has said it doesn’t want, Obama was co-ordinating the federal response to the storm.

The Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, was effusive in his praise of the administration. “I spoke to the president three times,” he told CNN, the day after Sandy hit. “He has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state and not once did he bring up the election.”

Christie gave the keynote speech at the Republican convention, so his comments came as a shock, bearing in mind the Grand Old Party’s disciplined refusal to give Obama credit for anything. He has long term presidential ambitions of his own, and a re-election campaign coming up in his Democratic-leaning state, so the shots of him touring the disaster zone with Obama are politically useful, but he threw Romney under the bus with more zeal than anyone could have predicted.

In June 2011, Romney was asked at a Republican primary debate whether he would cut funding to the
Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Absolutely,” was his answer. “And every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction… we cannot afford to do those things.” In Ohio, when pressed to say whether he still thinks FEMA should be dismantled, he stalked away from reporters without a word.

Obama’s ostensibly politics-free response is anything but, of course. By cancelling campaign events to work with Christie, he undermined one of Romney’s closing arguments: that the president has failed to deliver on his promises of bi-partisanship and is incapable of cutting deals with Republicans. The recovery effort also vividly demonstrates that there are some things the federal government does best – and provides an unspoken contrast to the tragically botched response to Hurricane Katrina on George Bush’s watch.

“My message to the federal government is no bureaucracy, no red tape,” Obama said. “Get resources where they are needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration.” The storm may cost him some votes in Pennsylvania and Virginia, as people struggle to get to the polls, but the opportunity to burnish his presidential aura has been worth much more.

Benghazi: the “October surprise” that wasn’t

Ever since terrorists attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, conservative media outlets have pressured the Obama administration for an explanation of what happened and why it wasn’t possible to save the four Americans who were killed. So far, their hopes of an “October surprise” have been dashed.

On Fox News, Jennifer Griffin reported that CIA personnel based at an annex about a mile from the consulate were told to “stand down” when they wanted to repel the attack. The network also reported that the same officers requested military support when the annex itself came under fire but that their request was denied.

Charles Woods, whose son Tyrone was one of the CIA operatives killed, told Fox host Sean Hannity that the White House officials who allegedly refused to authorise military strikes were “cowards” and “are guilty of murdering my son.”

The administration’s response to the attacks has been slippery, at best. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, initially told reporters that the attack began as a spontaneous riot, in response to a film offensive to Muslims. She has since blamed poor intelligence from Libya for the “evolving” version of events.

Obama has settled on a formula for answering questions about Benghazi that is part dodge, part bluster: “I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to. Number two, we’re going to investigate exactly what happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Number three, find out who did this so we can bring them to justice.”

The CIA issued a denial of the “stand down” story, stating that “no-one at any level in the agency told anybody not to help those in need.” A spokesperson for Defence Secretary Leon Panetta rejected suggestions that a rapid response team could have been scrambled from Sicily or Spain and said troops were dispatched from Tripoli as soon as possible, but arrived too late to save Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, there has clearly been enough confusion and obfuscation for Mitt Romney’s campaign to exploit, in an election that has been remarkable for the Democratic president’s ownership of the national security issue. But from the second debate onwards, the Republican challenger has fluffed his lines.

When Romney accused the president of flying to a political fundraiser the day after the attack, it provoked a forceful response. “The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror,” Obama said. “And the suggestion that anybody in my team… would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive… That’s not what I do as commander in chief.”

Romney doubled down, claiming that “it took the president fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” This drew an amused “get the transcript” from Obama and “he did in fact, sir” from the moderator, Candy Crowley. Romney was visibly shaken by being corrected and has backed off the issue ever since.

In the third presidential debate, about foreign policy, he spent most of the time agreeing with Obama. An opportunity had been missed, and when Hurricane Sandy hit, all hopes of Benghazi being his last trump card were gone.

Understanding the electoral college

The electoral college has 538 members: one for each congressional district and senate seat, plus three for the District of Columbia. To win, Obama or Romney must capture 270 electoral college votes.

Most states award their electors on a winner-takes-all basis. This creates the scenario in which a presidential candidate can be defeated, despite winning a majority of the popular vote. The most recent example of this is Al Gore’s controversial loss to George W. Bush in 2000.

Obama has more possible paths to 270 electoral college votes than Romney. Adding up the states in which he has a clear advantage, according to polls, he reaches 243. Romney only enjoys a solid lead in states worth 206.

Romney’s campaign is making a late bid to change this dynamic by campaigning in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, which most analysts believe to be reasonably safe Democratic holds. Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, has promised to shave off his moustache if Republicans pick up any of the three. There is also a small chance Obama could win North Carolina, which would be a clear sign that he is headed for re-election.

That leaves seven swing states, worth a combined total of 89 electoral college votes. The big prizes are Florida (29), where Romney is narrowly ahead, and Ohio (18), where Obama has a small but persistent lead. Obama also has the edge in Wisconsin (10), while Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4) are essentially tied.

Assuming Romney’s last-minute advertising splurge in Pennsylvania fails to expand the map, he needs to win the traditionally red states of Florida, Colorado and Virginia, plus either Ohio or at least two of Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire to reach 270, meaning that he has very little margin for error. Obama can afford to lose Florida and Ohio, as long as he picks up Wisconsin or Virginia and two of the smaller states.

It’s not just the presidency – the six most interesting Senate races

In addition to choosing a president, American voters will pick state and local law-makers on Tuesday. Republicans are hoping to take control of the Senate, where one third of the seats are up for grabs: they need to pick up four to be the majority party. Democrats have a very slim chance of winning back the House of Representatives, whose members must campaign for re-election every two years.

Here are some of the most interesting Senate races:

1. Massachusetts

Republican Scott Brown was elected to Teddy Kennedy’s old seat in Massachusetts. He has broken with his party on a number of key issues, including abortion, but faces a tough challenge to win re-election in a state that heavily favours Democrats. His rival, Elizabeth Warren, is a liberal populist who was a special adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where she waged a high-profile campaign against banking fraud and mortgage rip-offs.

2. Missouri

A Democrat in a red state, Senator Claire McCaskill’s re-election chances improved markedly when Tea Party Republicans nominated Todd Akin to be their candidate. Akin earned national ridicule when he suggested that sexual assaults rarely result in pregnancy because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He has since wished that McCaskill were more “ladylike” and compared her support for Obama’s initiatives to a dog being told to fetch. He is behind by just 5% in the latest polls.

3. Ohio

Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown is up against Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, a 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran backed by the Tea Party. Mandel paints Brown as “the most liberal Senator” in Washington and Obama’s “main lieutenant in the war on coal”. Brown accuses Mandel of missing meetings about important state business and installing unqualified campaign aides in managerial positions.

4. Maine

Olympia Snowe was one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in Congress. Her retirement, after three years of being vilified for supporting a small portion of Obama’s legislative agenda, has cost her party a Senate seat. There are three candidates on the ballot: Angus King, a former Governor of Maine, is the prohibitive favourite. As an independent, he has refused to say which party he will support, if elected.

5. Virginia

This is an incredibly tight contest between former Senator George Allen (R) and former Governor Tim Kaine (D). The outcome may well be tied to the presidential race, which is too close to call in Virginia and further complicated by disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy.

6. Wisconsin

Wisconsin is part of Obama’s Midwestern “firewall” and a loss here would spell trouble for the president. The state’s Governor, Scott Walker, passed a law drastically limiting collective bargaining rights and became a national target for trade unions, but survived a recall election. Republican candidate Tommy Thompson currently has a slim lead over the Democratic challenger, Tammy Baldwin, who would become the first openly gay Senator, if elected.

In their own words – the closing pitch

Barack Obama

Over the last four years we’ve made real progress digging our way out of policies that gave us two prolonged wars, record deficits and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies, a foreign policy that’s wrong and reckless, economic policies that won’t create jobs, won’t reduce our deficit, but will make sure that folks at the very top don’t have to play by the same rules that you do.

I’ve got a different vision for America. I’ve put forward a plan to make sure that we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back to our shores by rewarding companies and small businesses that are investing here, not overseas. I want to make sure we’ve got the best education system in the world. And we’re retaining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.

You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president. And that’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept. But I also promised that I’d fight every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class, and all those who were striving to get into the middle class. I’ve kept that promise and if you’ll vote for me, then I promise I’ll fight just as hard in a second term.

Mitt Romney

I’m concerned about the direction America has been taking over the last four years. What kind of America do you want to have for yourself and for your children? There are two very different paths the country can take. One is a path represented by the president, which at the end of four years would mean we’d have $20 trillion in debt heading towards Greece. I’ll get us on track to a balanced budget.

Do you want four more years like the last four years? Do you want four more years where 23 million Americans are struggling to have a good job? Do you want four more years where earnings are going down every year? How about four more years of gridlock in Washington?

America’s going to come back, and for that to happen, we’re going to have to have a president who can work across the aisle. I was in a state where my legislature was 87 percent Democrat. I learned how to get along on the other side of the aisle. We’ve got to do that in Washington.

We need a president who understands business, and I do. That’s why I’ll help get this economy going. We need strong leadership. I’ll work with you. I’ll lead you in an open and honest way, and I ask for your vote.

Obama’s six biggest achievements

1. Obamacare

Obama was the sixth president since the Second World War to attempt legislation guaranteeing universal healthcare in the United States, and the first to succeed. He did it by making the Affordable Care Act his top priority, despite monolithic Republican opposition and intense lobbying against the bill from the health and insurance industries. The reform is flawed and came at significant political cost but it sets the USA on a path towards a sane, more equitable health system in which government plays a larger role.

2. Killing Osama Bin Laden

“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan…” By doing what George W. Bush could not, Obama outflanked the Republican party on national security. His Nobel Peace Prize seems more absurd with every drone attack in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there is no denying that his administration’s pursuit of Al-Qaeda’s leadership has been relentless and effective.

3. The stimulus

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act remains a misunderstood, unpopular piece of legislation. As Obama said: “It’s very hard to prove a counter-factual, where you say ‘you know, things really could have been a lot worse.’” Keynesian economists have argued that the $787 billion economic rescue package was too small, but it staunched the bleeding and made a feeble recovery possible. Since June 2009, more than 3.6 million private sector jobs have been created in the United States.

4. The car industry bailout

From a political standpoint, backing the car industry with government money may be the single best decision Obama has taken: it could be the difference between victory and defeat in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Chrysler was sold to Fiat and General Motors went through structured bankruptcy, but both are now back in profit. The Centre for Automotive Research estimates that 1.45 million jobs were saved.

5. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Obama has been touting this law heavily on the campaign trail as he seeks to appeal to women voters. It is named after Lily Ledbetter, an area manager at Goodyear Tyres who was paid substantially less than her male counterparts and sued, unsuccessfully, for compensation. It does not guarantee equal pay for equal work, but makes it much easier to seek damages when gender discrimination has occurred.

6. Gay rights

The Obama administration ended the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing gay soldiers from serving openly. The Justice Department declared the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional and stopped backing its one-man-one-woman definition in court. The day after Vice-President Joe Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, Obama followed suit, saying “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Obama’s six biggest failures

1. The debt

As a presidential candidate, Obama attacked George Bush as “irresponsible and unpatriotic” for adding $4.3 trillion to the national debt. At the start of his own presidency, the national debt stood at $10.6 trillion. It is now more than $16 trillion. Although much of this can be attributed to the tax cuts, wars and plummeting revenue that he inherited from his predecessor, Obama promised to cut the annual deficit in half by the end of his first term and has not even come close to doing so.

2. Unemployment

Obama’s chief economist, Christina Romer, forecast that the stimulus package would keep unemployment under 8%, only to see it peak above 10% in early 2010. Massive public sector job cuts at state and local level are partially to blame – 2.8 million private sector jobs have been added in the last year and a half – but Obama will go into the election with the official rate of unemployment at 7.9%: higher than any incumbent president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

3. Bi-partisanship

From his breakout “red state, blue state” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention onwards, Obama presented himself as a post-partisan conciliator. He didn’t count on a radical Republican party whose top priority has been “to deny President Obama a second term,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP has made an artform of congressional obstruction and in response Obama has stretched executive power to the limit. The partisan divide has never been more acute.

4. Climate change

“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” Obama said at his inauguration. “We will work tirelessly to roll back the spectre of a warming planet.” His record on climate change has been pitiful: the United States has not signed up to any meaningful emissions targets and carbon tax legislation has been indefinitely shelved. The bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received $535 million in government loans, was the low point of a green energy programme that has delivered patchy results.

5. Immigration

Obama has overseen more deportations than any other president: 1.1 million people have been sent back to their country of origin in the last four years. An executive order deferring deportation for young immigrants who were brought to the United States without documents by their parents is a small consolation for the failure to deliver comprehensive immigration reform.

6. The “war on terror”

In his inaugural address, Obama called on the United States to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open, Obama has authorised the assassination of American citizens suspected of being members of Al-Qaeda and drone attacks have become routine, despite large numbers of civilian deaths. Since passage of the National Defence Authorisation Act the US military has the authority to indefinitely detain anyone suspected of involvement with terrorism, without trial.

When will the result be announced?

The first polls close, in Indiana and Kentucky, at 11:00pm GMT. Of the main swing states to look out for, Florida and Virginia’s polls close at midnight, Ohio’s at 12:30am, Wisconsin and Colorado at 2:00am and Iowa and Nevada at 3:00am.

There has been more early voting than ever this year and it’s estimated that 35% of ballots will be cast before election day. This includes a 45% of Ohio’s votes, 66% of Florida’s and up to 85% of Colorado’s. Democrats tend to do better in early voting and less well on the day, but Republicans have worked hard to close the gap. Available exit polls suggest that neither party can claim a decisive edge ahead of election day.

The main news networks will announce whether Obama or Romney has won some states quite soon after voting stops, based on exit polls and early counts, but in others, the result may remain in doubt for many hours.

In 2000, the biggest news organisations announced that Al Gore had won Florida at around 1:00am GMT, only to retract their predictions and call the state for George W. Bush several hours later, once more votes had been tallied.

As the election is too close to call in several swing states, both sides have dispatched armies of lawyers to monitor voting, especially in Ohio. If there are long queues outside polling stations at closing time, they will petition for them to stay open. There are also likely to be challenges over provisional ballots, cast by people whose address or identification does not match the registered voter list: in 2008, more than 200,000 of these were cast and 80% were eventually deemed legitimate. “If it’s close, you’ll see both sides running to court,” said Jeff Hastings, chairman of the board of elections in Cleveland, Ohio.

In Pennsylvania, as in Ohio, judges have thrown out voting restrictions passed by the Republican state legislature, but information packs sent to voters still say – incorrectly – that photo ID is required at the polls. This could also result in a legal challenge, if the result is in doubt.