UBC political scientists Richard Johnston and Paul Quirk help us understand the final weeks of the U.S. election campaign
Is this election a referendum on President Obama?
The Republicans want the election to be a referendum on Barack Obama’s presidency and his failure to fix the economy. The Democrats want the election to be a choice between two visions for the country. They know their weaknesses, too. Obama is burdened with having to explain the extremely slow economic recovery, while the Republicans’ platform is farther to the right than ever before—in other words, further to right than most undecided voters. Richard Johnston
How close is this race?
The race is very close, but it might not matter. The best polls available put Barack Obama ahead of Mitt Romney by two to four percent. But this slim margin is enough that the best forecaster in the U.S. — Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog — currently puts Obama’s likelihood of re-election at 75 per cent. That is because there are so few undecided voters—less than any previous American election. Partly, this is a result of massive advertising campaigns, especially in swing states. But it also because Americans have become a more partisan nation, more consistently preferring the president of a certain party. The percentage of the population who plan to vote and are undecided are in the single digits. Paul Quirk, Richard Johnston
Do TV debates matter?
Research suggests that debates, despite the hype, generally have smaller impacts on elections than most people think. That’s because debates occur late enough that voters have already made up their minds—plus people who watch debates are usually already decided. Both sides speak, so it is hard to for either to control the message. In fact, conventions, where parties can control their messages uncontested, tend to provide a bigger bounce.
There are, however, two things to watch for in the debates. The first are significant mistakes, such as an embarrassing false statement or when someone, thoughtlessly in the moment, says something offensive. One of the most famous cases of this is when Gerald Ford denied in 1976 that the Soviet Union controlled Poland. He stuck with it for a couple days, and it was completely embarrassing for him. The other situation is when candidates—usually someone considered a ‘lightweight’—exceeds expectations. This happened with Ronald Reagan in 1980 in George W. Bush in 2000, and produced significant gains. Richard Johnston, Paul Quirk
What are their biggest challenges?
Romney looked good in the Republican debates, but has three main weaknesses. First, he has been mistake-prone throughout the campaign, putting his foot in his mouth frequently. Second, he appears unanchored; in pandering to the Republican base, he has embraced positions that are at odds with his stance on abortion and taxes—and that will be hard to defend. Finally, he will be going up against a very cool customer in Barack Obama, who was extremely impressive in previous debates.
One thing to watch for, from Obama’s standpoint, is whether he is able to explain why it is reasonable for the economic recovery to take so long. He has things to point to—the Republican’s didn’t support his second jobs bill, for example—but whether he can tell a story so complicated, in such a venue, remains to be seen. Paul Quirk
What are the key issues to watch for?
I think the Republicans’ effort to change voting regulations—which may suppress voting among lower-income and African-American voters—is an issue to watch. On the face of it, these are race-neutral legal measures—they are asking for more forms of identification at the polls, despite a lack of evidence of fraud. However, some Republican officials have been quoted acknowledging the goal of suppressing the Black vote. While several states have rejected the changes, some are still in play legally. If they work, this could be a major issue, particularly in swing states. On the other hand, I can’t imagine better material for a get-out-the vote campaign by the Democrats. Paul Quirk
How will technology influence this election?
There is not the same level of innovation with technology this year as in 2008, when the Internet played a huge role in Obama’s victory. That said, both parties will certainly try to use social media to mobilize their voters. Twitter helps people form a dominant impression of political events—at least among the people they follow—much faster than ever before. For example, Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican convention was viewed as a disaster almost immediately. In the past, it took days for consensus to form, usually through the mainstream media. Now we see journalists monitoring social media to help them decide what is happening. Richard Johnston, Paul Quirk
Who’s most likely to win?
This election will most likely produce a mixed result. The best polls available suggest the Republicans are likely to win the House, Obama is likely to win the presidency, and the Senate is up for grabs. So in many ways, this is likely to be another inconclusive election. The political system will remain divided and neither side will get to do what it wants. Richard Johnston
Who’s better for Canada: Romney or Obama?
Canadians generally approve of the social policies of the Democrats more than the Republicans, but the Republicans, who are better on energy and trade, would actually likely be better for Canada economically. So as Canadians watch from the sidelines, they can either vote with their values or they can vote with their pocketbooks. Paul Quirk
Richard Johnston, who conducted the largest study of U.S. voters in 2000 and 2008, is UBC’s Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation. Paul Quirk, who is writing a chapter for a book on the 2012 election, is UBC’s Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation. Learn more at www.politics.ubc.ca.