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Romney and Obama neck and neck

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21 May 2012 10:00

Richard Nixon's great error during the 1960 presidential election was not so much to lose the country's inaugural televised debate as to agree to participate in the first place.

He made his ill-fated decision after watching his opponent, John F Kennedy, deliver his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. Seeing JFK speak for the first time of his 'New Frontier' in the open-air setting of the Los Angeles Coliseum, the then Vice President made a snap judgment: that his rival was not an accomplished performer on television, and that he had little to fear from stepping in front of the klieg lights. The debate, and Nixon's flop sweat, completely transformed the race. He never recovered.

The story, which offers one of presidential politics' most salutary lessons about the dangers of underestimating an opponent, is worth recalling as the general election campaign cranks into action. For after watching Mitt Romney perform so fitfully in the primaries, Obama could be forgiven for sharing Nixon's over-confidence.

When the economy started to show stronger signs of recovery — unemployment dropped from 8.9% in October to 8.1% in April — and Romney took so long to see off the challenge from Rick Santorum, many commentators naturally concluded that 2012 would be a re-run of 1996, a lop-sided contest in which Bill Clinton trounced Bob Dole. This election, however, could easily end with the same photo-finish we saw in 2000 and 2004.

In the first national poll undertaken since Obama's reversal on gay marriage, the former Massachusetts Governor has overtaken the President, 46%-43%. And most worryingly for the White House, the poll suggested it was because of the economy, rather than same-sex marriage.

Economic growth has slowed, so too the pace of job creation. Consumer confidence, which had been rising, has also flattened out. For the third northern spring running, the White House is confronted by a deflating set of economic numbers. As the presidential elections in 1968, 1976, 1992 and 2000 demonstrate, incumbents are especially vulnerable when the economic climate is poor.

Romney's position has also markedly improved since becoming the presumptive nominee, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution points out in this hugely informative paper. Though the former Governor's negatives rose sharply during the primaries, they have now started to stabilise. For all the predictions that Tea Party voters would reject a Mormon nominee, a survey has suggested they are solid for Romney – more solid, counter-intuitively, than GOP voters who do not identify with the Tea Party.

In some of the all-important swing states (the election will basically be decided in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia) Romney is also tied statistically among independents. Tellingly, though voters view Obama and the Democratic Party as politically synonymous, this is not true of Romney and the GOP, which, again, could help him among independents put off by the Tea Party.

One recent national survey found that 48% of respondents said they would never vote for Obama (compared to the 46% who said they could never bring themselves to vote for Romney). His approval rating is also 2 points lower than Jimmy Carter's in 1980 (though higher than George HW Bush in 1992). Turnout among young voters is expected to be lower than in 2008, a problem for Obama, as is a fall in voter registration among Hispanics.

The press, who help invent the narrative of a campaign, also has a vested interest in keeping things interesting. They want to see, and write about, a narrow contest.
 
The President still has numerous advantages. He leads in many of the key swing states. Team Obama has identified five different paths to an Electoral College victory, whereas the Romney campaign, at best, has two. Obama also enjoys a fund-raising advantage over Romney (though he did not raise as much in April as in March), and a tried-and-tested campaign operation in Chicago.

These advantages make him still the favourite. But rather like Nixon, there could be some sweaty moments ahead.

Photo by Flickr user Capt. Tim.

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