Message from the heartland tells Obama that the battle isn’t over yet

President Barack Obama waves to supporters
President Barack Obama waves to supporters
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As one of the closest US presidential elections in history reaches its denouement today, two Yorkshire Post columnists report on the contest; one from the pivotal battleground state of Ohio and one on the sheer cost of the polling process and its implications for democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ted Bromund in Ohio

MITT Romney’s path to victory as the US election ends tonight is clear, but it is also narrow. He must start by holding every state where he is ahead, as well as taking Florida and Virginia.

He then needs to win two of the following states: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. Other combinations are possible – Colorado and Nevada are in play, and either would substitute for Wisconsin. But Romney simply has few other states that he can plausibly add to his column.

Even winning one of the three will be challenging. Pennsylvania has gone Democratic since 1988. Wisconsin is Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s home state, but it has voted Democratic in every presidential contest since 1984. The conventional wisdom is that Romney has to win Ohio, and in this case, the conventional wisdom looks about right.

As it happens, I’m from Ohio. I don’t claim any great insight into the state, as I moved away when I went to college, over 20 years ago. But I have made a visit back and have been struck by what I see. My home town – the small, beautiful city of Wooster – has a fine liberal arts college at its heart.

Close to the college, Obama yard signs outnumbered Romney signs by three to one. But away from the college, there were few Obama signs: Romney dominated by five to one. That mirrors a wider reality: the Democratic Party is the party of the intelligentsia and Obama is their man, a missionary from the faculty lounge to America.

Most of the time, it’s a big advantage to have the intelligentsia on your side. For one thing, through the media, it writes the prevailing narrative. But there is a down side. Conservatives accept that liberals have ideas: they just don’t agree with them. Liberals are less charitable: for them, conservatism is best explained by some combination of evil, greed and stupidity.

The problem with this approach – aside from the fact that it is untrue – is that it leads liberals to expect effortless superiority, or at least effortless comparability. But unexpectedly, the first presidential debate featured a dispirited Obama and a lively Romney, which led rapidly to the conclusion that Obama lost. That wasn’t in the script.

The first debate flipped the Press narrative and forced Obama to go on the offensive. In the following debates – including Vice President Joe Biden’s grinning performance – the Democratic incumbents have acted like the challengers, trying to win by pointing out contradictions and raising doubts. The Republican challengers have borrowed the approach that Obama deployed so successfully over the summer by playing the role of the serene incumbent.

This is not just an inversion of the strategies of the campaign, it is more fundamental than that. To a far greater extent than partisans are inclined to credit, President Obama’s appeal in 2008 was that he appeared to be a figure above politics. As he put it in his inaugural address, he represented “an end to the petty grievances... the recriminations and worn-out dogmas”.

The appeal of running against politics in a democracy is evergreen. It is also deeply misleading. Politics will always be with us, and they will always be much the same.

It is perhaps a credit to the idealism of democracies that they regularly reject this reality, but it is inconvenient for politicians who run against politics that reality always returns. The flagging of Obama’s popularity after early 2009 owes something to what he did, and failed to do, but it owes more to the inevitable discovery that he is, after all, a politician, just like George W Bush.

Obama has tried to recapture his anti-political appeal. In a recent interview, he said that the most important lesson he had learned after four years was that “you can’t change Washington from the inside”. That sounds good if you’re an outsider: not for nothing does the Republican Senate challenger in Ohio have “Change Washington” as his yard sign slogan. But if you are already President, it’s hard to run against the system, because you are the system. It’s hard to make the case that you should be in Washington if you say you can’t change it from the Oval Office.

What the first debate did was to push Obama onto uncomfortable ground: the ground of the conventional candidate. Make no mistake: he can win from that ground. While the President would not be playing the challenger if his pollsters believed the momentum was on his side, Romney’s road to the White House is more demanding.

But no matter who wins, politics are back in America. For my part, I’m glad of it. It’s not merely that I dislike the illusion of anti-politics. As Tony Blair recognised, the anti-politics of consensus smothers arguments. And as long as liberals command the high ground of the intelligentsia, conservatives can’t win if they don’t argue back.

Democracy demands deep pockets as politicians try to make the money talk

Richard Heller in Washington

I WAS privileged to observe the campaign of Congressman William Natcher in Kentucky during the US election of 1992.

Mr Natcher disdained all modern media and employed no staff. He campaigned entirely through personal appearances on the steps of each court house in his district, where he gave a short speech and shook the hand of any voter who wanted to greet him. He spent only $1,000 on his campaign, and won handily, as he had done ever since 1952. Equally frugal in Congress, Mr Natcher employed no staff there and answered letters by hand, like Thomas Jefferson.

Mr Natcher died two years later, the last Congressman elected by traditional methods. By contrast, the current Speaker, Mr John Boehner, has already spent over $15m on his re-election. This year’s Senate race in Massachussetts has so far cost the candidates $33m, the one in Texas $37m. These sums are pocket change to the Presidential candidates: Mitt Romney has raised over $500m and Barack Obama over $650m.

The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that total American election spending this year will reach $6bn, a sum greater than the GDP of 61 countries. This would be 120 times greater than the cost of the British general election of 2010, and 23 times greater if expressed as cost-per-voter.

Of course, Americans vote for many more offices (from President to local sheriff) than Britons choosing one MP. In 2008, over a million Americans ran for something on election day, compared to 4,134 candidates in our 2010 General Election. To put their figure into further perspective, Americans last year spent around $10bn on romantic fiction (generally less of a fantasy than the output of their politicians).

Nonetheless, the American elections should warn Britain of the dangers of letting the cost of democracy get out of control. They make American candidates dependent on major donors. In 2004 the insurgent Democrat Governor Howard Dean ran a dramatic campaign for the Presidency on small donations through the internet.

Some optimists suggested that this would become the new model of campaign finance. Small internet donors are important (Obama has over $160m from contributors of $200 or less) but they have not replaced the big battalions. Over three quarters of Obama’s funds derive from major donors, and Romney is even more dependent on them: over 80 per cent of his cash comes from fewer than 10 per cent of his individual supporters.

The dominance of major donors was boosted further in 2010 by the Supreme Court. In the Citizens United case, the Court decided that the right to free speech allowed individuals, corporations or unions to channel unlimited funds into political campaigns so long as these were not directly influenced by any candidate. This unleashed the so-called super-PACs, political action committees spending money for and against candidates and causes with minimal accounting requirements. So far, super-PACs have spent nearly $250bn, about 70 per cent on negative campaigning, and most PACs are pro-Republican.

American campaign spending now ensures that every Presidency is pre-paid. The winner takes office heavily indebted and beholden to major donors. This is nothing new, but donors now demand more for their money.

Previously, they might have been paid off with an ambassadorship or a symbolic post in the administration. Now donors expect to control swathes of government policy. In 2008, the American financial sector gave significantly more to Obama than to his Republican rival John McCain. They were backing the likely winner and insuring themselves against the threat of major reforms. Obama chose one of their own as his Treasury Secretary and his modest reforms disappointed many of his voters. Nonetheless, Obama infuriated the financial sector, which has overwhelmingly favoured Mitt Romney and expects wholesale deregulation from him in office.

Could British governments become as dependent on big donors as the Americans? We have some defences the Americans lack. The Electoral Commission controls spending by “third parties” (our PACs). We have caps on candidate spending and a ban on television advertising (a huge expense in American elections). However, as demonstrated by Lord Ashcroft and the cash-for-honours scandals, there are still many ways for big donors to seek influence in our political system.

The biggest difference between us could be deeply unflattering: unlike the Americans, Britain’s richest people and major interest groups may have decided that their government and legislature are not worth buying.