I write this week from Washington, where the city is bracing for Hurricane Sandy, a huge storm expected to blow into the city any day, after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and southern states. What makes things worse this time is that the hurricane blowing from the south is expected to collide with a storm blowing from the north. If that happens on Sunday or Monday, strong winds and heavy rains, and even snow, are expected to cut power, disrupt transportation and cause extensive damage in most of the east, including the capital. Washington is also going through its own political hurricane as it is now at the pinnacle of the election campaign. Elections are scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 6. Americans will choose not only their next president, but also the entire House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, 11 state governors, and countless other officials.
Politics is already colliding with nature even before Sandy arrives here. Candidates and their surrogates are canceling campaign events in the path of Hurricane Sandy. Early voting had begun in some states, but it may stop in some places because of the storm.
More serioU.S.ly for the Obama campaign, he may get blamed for the storm, as politicians usually do, especially if it caU.S.es extensive damage and loss of life, or if there are major failures in dealing with it.
In a tight race, anything goes and this race is certainly tight. Polls show the two presidential candidates in dead heat, with some polls favoring Obama while others favor Romney, with a slim margin in both cases. But these polls can be misleading, because their margins of error are usually larger than the slim margins favoring one candidate or another.
In addition, polls Usually measure popular votes and as such give large states an advantage. While both campaigns spin favorable poll results to their advantage, they know that what counts in the end is the ability to get a majority in the “Electoral College”. There is complicated math for American elections that involves calculation of popular votes as well as the more important Electoral College calculus, which formally determines the outcome, regardless of the popular vote. While the two usually coincide, sometimes they do not. In those cases the electoral votes trump the popular vote.
There are other complications in American elections' arithmetic. It is a “winner-take-all” system; you only need to win a simple majority in any state to win the whole state. This feature shapes presidential campaigns. By now, the two presidential candidates know with some certainty which states are solidly with them and as such do not need to campaign there. If you visit New York or Californian these days, you may not know that a presidential campaign is in full swing in the rest of the country. That is because both states are classified as “blue” states, solidly in Obama’s camp. The situation is similar if you were in Georgia or Alabama, because they are counted in Romney's corner. Instead, the two campaigns are focusing on “swing states” or “battleground states,” where neither candidate is certain that he has a majority. This season, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, for examples, are experiencing the consequences of being swing states!
Obama has received several bits of good news lately, but they may be too late to affect the outcome, because most voters have already made up their minds on how to vote. For example, several major newspapers endorsed Obama this week, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and Cleveland Plains Dealer. It is especially surprising that some conservative papers have also endorsed the president, including the Chicago Tribune and Salt Lake Tribune, from the Mormon state of Utah.
Another piece of good news is that the economy is rebounding. This week it was announced that the economy is now growing by an annual rate of 2 percent, which is certainly positive growth but anemic nevertheless. More importantly, the unemployment rate is declining. In September it declined to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent a month earlier. This is impressive when compared to a 10.5 percent rate when Obama came into office almost four years ago.
American elections can stump even the most knowledgeable pundits. Anything could happen over the next few days before the polls open on Nov. 6. I already mentioned the unpredictable effects of Hurricane Sandy. But miscalculations and gaffes, of which there have been many in this election campaign, could also affect the outcome. The October unemployment figures are due for release on Nov. 2, four days before the vote, which could also have a last minute effect on some undecided voters.
Finally, what difference do American elections make to our region? I took part this week in Washington in the “21st Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference”, organized by the National Council of U.S.-Arab Affairs. This year's theme was “Arab-U.S. Relations Amidst Transition within Constancy: Implications for American and Arab Interests and Policies.” In most panels, possible effects of these elections were discussed in some detail. The consensus, I believe, was that while American elections do matter when it comes to U.S. domestic policies, they would have little effect on U.S. policy in the region in the long run. There may be short-term differences in style and priorities, but U.S. policy would stay more-or-less the same. More on this after Nov. 6.
This article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 28, 2012.