News Analysis

Saturday 20 September 2014

Can Romney defy all the polls and win the White House? Yes he can

Brian Murphy

Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00

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Omens may be in favour of Obama but his Republican rival has significantly more money, writes Brian Murphy

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Buried somewhere in the archives in Government Buildings is a message of congratulations from Bertie Ahern to Al Gore on his election as the 43rd President of the USA.

It was winter 2000. In just a few days, on November 7, the USA would choose between George W Bush and Al Gore.

Ahern was what academics might call a skilled psephologist. Put simply, he was a brilliant reader of elections. He also believed in meticulous preparation. He said to me, "This election is going to be very tight." He then asked me to work on a congratulations message to both candidates so he would be prepared for either eventuality.

As it turned out, that election was closer than anyone would have dared to predict. It took one month of counts, recounts and appeals to the courts to separate the candidates.

Gore nationally won over half-a-million popular votes more than Bush -- but in the end it all came down to just 537 votes in Florida.

The Republican Bush won the Sunshine State by this narrow margin, thus, giving him a majority of the electoral college vote.

Ahern ultimately sent his message of congratulations to George W Bush.

There have been other 'damn close run things', to borrow Wellington's phrase, in past US presidential races. In 1876, Rutherford B Hayes became president after a deadlocked election, in which he had narrowly lost the popular vote.

Hayes was inaugurated president when an electoral commission appointed by the US Congress worked out a compromise that saw Hayes promise to withdraw federal troops from the southern states.

And in 1948, Harry Truman was at the centre of every newspaper editor's worst nightmare. Almost every poll had forecast a massive win for his opponent, the Republican Thomas E Dewey.

On the night of the election, the Chicago Daily Tribune went to press with the banner headline "Dewey defeats Truman". The result was very different. Truman won a decisive majority.

One of the iconic photos of American electoral history shows a smiling Truman brandishing the infamous "wrong-guess headline" in front of celebrating supporters.

The polls are sometimes wrong, but not often. A study undertaken by two leading American political scientists, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, shows no candidate since Dewey, who was ahead in the polls six weeks before the election, has lost the popular vote on the day.

This is a good omen for President Barack Obama.

Six weeks out from the presidential election, in a Gallup poll conducted between September 22-28, Obama led Mitt Romney by 50 per cent to 44 per cent.

But as Gore knows, it is the electoral college and not the popular vote that decides US presidencies. The magic number is 270 -- the amount of electoral college votes needed to win the White House.

Each US state is allocated a number of electoral college votes largely based on how many people the US census says the state has. So a heavily populated state like California gets 55 votes while Delaware, with a population of under one million, gets three votes.

Both Republican and Democratic campaigns have a large number of states that they regard as safe states. In the final analysis, all US presidential election campaigns come down to winning the key battleground states. In these crucial states, Obama right now enjoys a significant advantage.

He is consistently outpolling Romney in Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Romney leads Missouri.

Florida, New Hampshire and North Carolina are too close to call.

The Republican campaign has so far not fired on all cylinders. Incredibly, the outcome of the Republican Convention with the huge amount of political coverage it generated for Romney was a negative poll bounce. In contrast, Obama gained three per cent on the back of the Democratic Convention.

But Romney holds one very strong card -- a resource advantage.

In US politics, where TV has become an increasingly important medium, money literally talks.

In the 2008 presidential election, Obama outspent John McCain by over three to one. But since the 2010 landmark Supreme Court judgement in the Citizens United case, which has unleashed a new wave of cash into US politics, the shoe is on the other foot.

In this election, new laws allowing unlimited corporate, union and individual expenditures have given the Republicans a significant resource advantage. In September, the Washington Post revealed that outside spending on TV ads supporting Romney totalled $171m versus $41.3m in support of Obama.

It is no surprise in a recession that opinion polls show the economy as the issue that matters most.

Gallup polls show that Obama has a likeability advantage over Romney (54 per cent to 31 per cent), but that Romney is seen as more effective on the economy. If this trend continues and people vote with their pockets, Romney cannot be discounted.

So can Romney actually win? To borrow a cliche, the answer is, yes he can. But right now, it is still Obama's to lose. However, if I was Enda Kenny, I would have congratulation messages ready for both candidates.

It really could still go either way. On November 6, 2012, the American people will decide.

Brian Murphy is a former speechwriter in the Department of An Taoiseach. He is currently working on a PhD thesis in the School of History and Archives, UCD.

Sunday Independent

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