There was a moment, shortly after the primaries in South Carolina and just before Florida, when the Republicans hit the crest of absurdity.
Revelations that Newt Gingrich had asked his second wife to join him in an open relationship with his now third wife or leave had been rewarded with a massive endorsement from evangelical Christians.
Preferring the thrice married Catholic convert to his rival Mitt Romney (who is a Mormon), they handed Gingrich a solid victory in South Carolina.
The Republicans are a party wedded in principle to unfettered free markets. Yet despite this Gingrich owed his victory largely to attacks on Romney’s past as a “vulture capitalist”.
By the time the Florida primary was over Gingrich was talking about private industry setting up a permanent base on the moon to which they could send six or seven flights.
Romney had called on undocumented immigrants to deport themselves. Meanwhile Rick Santorum, another conservative challenger, had evoked the radical jihadist threat from Central America.
With the economy gradually improving and the tenor of the Republican race rapidly deteriorating, the conventional wisdom as recently as March was that whoever won the Republican nomination would lose to Obama.
But just six weeks later, with Santorum and Gingrich out and Romney the certain nominee, polls suggest Obama’s lead over him may be narrowing. An average of the polls from last summer to now has them just 1.4 percentage points apart—within the margin of error.
So the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be a volatile race. It could also be extremely tight and steeped in disappointment and disaffection.
The excitement surrounding Barack Obama’s victory four years ago has all but dissipated. The sound and fury of the Tea Party has produced a candidate rejected four years ago because he was insufficiently conservative.
To grasp why the Republicans should provide such a pitiful candidate and why Obama may nonetheless have to fight hard to beat him, one must go back to shortly after his inauguration when he was asked his plans to fix the economy.
“If I don’t get this done in three years,” he said, “then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” Today 58 percent believe the country is on the wrong track. The one area where they trust Romney more than Obama is on the economy.
At the centre of Obama’s 2008 victory was a coalition of young, black and Latino voters. But they have been hit the hardest in the past four years.
Black unemployment stands at 14 percent. Youth unemployment is at 40 percent. More than half of recent university graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Deportations of Latinos have risen to record levels.
This does not mean that Obama has achieved nothing. Things would be worse without the stimulus package he introduced and his health reform plan will ensure more people are covered.
But such achievements have been inadequate and incomplete. Most of the benefits of Obama’s healthcare plan do not kick in for a few years. This is why most Americans want his reforms repealed, despite the fact that most support healthcare reform.
Polls show nearly two thirds are concerned about paying for their housing and one in five are in negative equity. The same number say they do not have sufficient money for food or health care.
Four in ten parents say they have had to alter expectations for the type of college they can afford for their children. And more than a third of respondents said high petrol prices had created serious financial hardships.
The best arguments Obama has to defend his record at this point are “it would be worse if I had not won” and “it would be worse if I lose”. Both are true as far as they go. But they do not go very far and they are a long way from the ebullient chants of “yes we can” four years ago.
Cynicism inevitably emanates from the discrepancy between the energy and hope invested in Obama’s 2008 campaign and the poor returns he has delivered.
This cynicism gave succour to an emboldened right wing reaction to Obama which found its voice in the Tea Party. “How’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?” chided Sarah Palin.
As the ascendent force within the Republican party, the Tea Party rallied its supporters to great effect to deliver a crushing blow to Obama during the 2010 mid-term elections.
But by the time it came to the presidential elections, any Republican who had said or done anything remotely sane—supported abortion in limited situations, supported civil unions for gay couples, acknowledged climate change—took a look at what they would have to say and do to get elected and decided to give it a miss.
So on the one hand there is Obama who, in the words of veteran pollster Charlie Cook, should be defeated by any sufficiently “odourless and colourless” Republican candidate.
On the other were a set of Republican candidates who were certainly colourful (ranging from Donald Trump to pizza magnate Herman Cain) but stank to high heaven.
The fact that Romney was the most plausible among them said more about the rest of the field than Romney himself. For his part, Romney has backtracked on almost every issue since he was governor of Massachusetts a decade ago, including abortion, climate change, gun control and civil unions.
It was into that vacuum last year that the Occupy movement emerged, springing up in towns and cities throughout the country and shifting the national conversation from small government to inequality.
Polls suggest that almost twice as many Americans agree with the aims of Occupy than disagree with it. Some 77 percent believe there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations. Meanwhile those who believed “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard” is at its lowest point since the question was first put in 1994.
The right wing pollster Frank Luntz addressed to the Republican Governors Association in December. He told them, “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street’, we’ve got a problem.”
It is in this atmosphere that Republicans have chosen Romney, a candidate whose personal wealth amounts to double the combined wealth of the last eight presidents going back to Richard Nixon.
This in itself would not be a problem if he could carry it off. After all, George Bush somehow managed to pose as a man of the people.
But Romney can’t. Appearing at a Nascar rally—the speed racing event which attracts the important Republican demographic of white men with no college education—he was asked if he followed the sport.
“Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans—but I have some friends who are Nascar team owners,” he replied. Reminding his audience in Michigan that he likes US-made cars, Romney said his wife Anne “has a couple of Cadillacs”—one for each of their luxury homes.
In almost every competitive primary Romney lost those who earn less than $50,000 a year and won those who earned more than $100,000. He is seen even by some Republicans as “a 1 percenter” who has never got his hands dirty.
These contradictions—between small business and corporations, the Republican base and its donors, finance capital and manufacturing—were evident throughout the primaries.
“What’s different about this election is that while the Republican party might divide in terms of class, they don’t usually divide on class issues but social issues,” explains the veteran pollster Stan Greenberg.
“I haven’t seen this happen before. If you look at the key places where Romney has faltered, class-based attacks have been important.”
And so the Republican race has dragged on. The ultra-conservatives have been unable to rally around a candidate and Romney has been unable to seal the deal. The Tea Party was strong enough to discredit him, but nowhere near united enough to dislodge him.
In almost all of the primary states that Romney won, between 40 percent and 50 percent of those who voted for him said they had reservations.
Romney’s victory was primarily due to his ability to outspend his opponents sixfold. He pummelled them with negative TV and radio ads and “robocalls”—automated phone messages to voters’ homes.
Money has always been a big problem in US politics. But it has become particularly acute since a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited campaign contributions from anonymous and nominally independent groups.
The organisations taking advantage of this new law are known as Super Pacs. In 2008 independent groups spent $17 million on the entire presidential election. The Super Pacs had spent $40 million in just the first month of this year’s Republican race.
Romney now limps onto the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, collecting the reluctant endorsements of those Republicans who prayed for a miracle last minute candidate. In courting conservatives he has railed against contraception, immigrants and common sense—and thereby alienated women, Latinos and independent voters.
This, allied with a modest and fragile economic recovery—a momentary pause in the downturn rather than the sustained beginning of an upturn—frames the recent revival of Obama’s fortunes.
The truly miraculous thing is not that Obama is vulnerable but that he is viable despite the gulf between the expectations of his presidency and its achievements. The truly depressing thing is that Americans have not been presented with either a better record or a better choice.