Republicans, the daily polling page on the RealClearPolitics website makes for dismal reading. Democratic blue adorns each swing state poll, with Barack Obama markedly ahead in Ohio. At this stage, some didn’t even expect the President to be competitive in North Carolina. Instead, he finds himself up and outside the margin of error. Mitt Romney’s campaign has assured supporters that its internal polls make for more sanguine reading. The Republican candidate is, however, still losing.
Romney has come under intense scrutiny from conservatives for the direction of his campaign. Polls repeatedly show that voters see this as a choice between two candidates, rather than a referendum on Obama. Yet the Republican continues to struggle to convey how he would take the country forward. The airing of his ill-advised “47 per cent” remark last week was hardly the catalyst, but the culmination of conservative anxiety that this election is slowly slipping out of the Republicans’ hands. Some are offering their sincere counsel to help their party. Others so they can proudly refer to their prescience in the event of a Romney defeat on election night.
The current state of the race appears to leave the Republican at the mercy of what Harold Macmillan allegedly labelled his greatest fear: events. Presidential elections are often said to be decided by them – surprises that put on public display a candidate’s erratic behaviour or their ability to demonstrate grace under pressure. Perhaps to Romney’s advantage, he is facing an incumbent whose administration appears incapable of being honest with the American people, following momentous foreign policy events.
The President is now receiving growing criticism for his administration’s handling of the violence across the Middle East, especially the circumstances surrounding the death of the US ambassador in Libya. Like its cack-handed and heavily politicised response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the administration has issued mixed messages. It has dubbed the attacks “spontaneous – not a premeditated response,” denied they had “actionable” intelligence, and have pinned the entire blame on what was an obscure and deplorable anti-Islamic film. It has all the hallmarks of bureaucratic incompetency or, at worst, a cover-up. Is this debacle a sleeper issue? Just as voters would react negatively to a terrorist attack on US interests, they are likely to punish those who deliberately mislead them.
This election is certainly not over. But given that Romney has one realistic path, compared to Obama’s three or four, to the magic 270 electoral college votes, pessimism is growing. The first debates start next Wednesday – duels that often end in boring scoreless draws. Events might well dictate the outcome of this race. But, if he hopes to enter the White House as its new occupant in January, Romney needs to go for the knock-out.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt