The US presidential election is turning into a cliff-hanger comparable to 2000, when a controversial Supreme Court judgement awarded Florida, and hence the White House, to George W Bush.
At the minute the Republican challenger Mitt Romney leads Barack Obama in national opinion polls by 49 to 48 percent.
The Democrat incumbent is still narrowly ahead in the nine swing states where the outcome of the election will be decided. The New York Times describes the candidates “fighting county by county”.
The president is not directly elected. He (or conceivably she) is chosen by an Electoral College whose members are selected by popular vote in each of the 50 US states. So to win the presidency you need 270 votes in the Electoral College.
The distribution of seats in the Electoral College is weighted in favour of the less populous states, so it’s possible to become president without having a majority of the popular vote.
The contest is now so narrow that Obama might beat Romney in the Electoral College even though he received a smaller share of the total vote. This is how Bush “won” in 2000.
But, as the Washington Post points out, “every modern president to be re-elected has gotten a bigger share of the vote in their second bid for office than their first, and with it, a chance to claim a mandate.
“A win in the electoral college that is not accompanied by one in the popular vote casts a shadow over the president and his ability to govern.”
Obama would be a lame duck from the start of his second term, confronted no doubt by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives enraged at being cheated of the White House.
Why, after all the joy of Obama’s original victory four years ago, has it come to this? The conventional answer points to the sluggish recovery of the American economy from the Great Recession of 2008-9.
As Michael Roberts notes in his excellent blog, “US corporate profits have surpassed their previous peak, but corporate profitability remains in the doldrums. US capitalism is still weighed down by past dead capital and debt, so it is reluctant to invest.”
The latest figures show that business investment actually fell in the third quarter of 2012.
Obama can’t evade responsibility for this dismal performance. Since he took office in January 2009, he has striven to bolster the Wall Street-dominated economic and political system that nearly collapsed in the financial crash the previous autumn.
The political consultant Matt Stoller calls Obama “a conservative technocrat, running a policy architecture to ensure that conservative technocrats like him run the complex machinery of the state and reap private rewards from doing so. Radical political and economic inequality is the result”.
As Stoller points out, “under Bush, economic inequality was bad, as 65 cents of every dollar of income growth went to the top 1 percent. Under Obama that number is 93 cents out of every dollar.”
So the Republicans can capitalise on the anger provoked by the slump and make the political running. Faced with the challenge from Romney, an ex-private equity boss, Obama has tilted a little leftwards rhetorically.
But his tepid performance in the first presidential debate underlined the difficulty he faces in reinvigorating the base that so enthusiastically rallied to him in 2008.
Romney has been astute in using subsequent debates to move to the centre ground in domestic and foreign policy.
This makes it harder for the Democrats to use their strongest card—vote Obama or America will return to the Dark Ages. The truth is that this is a contest between two champions of Wall Street and the American Empire.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that around £3.6 billion will be spent on this election. Presidential politics is a game that only the corporate rich and those willing to do their bidding can play.
America’s growing working poor will be courted for their votes on 6 November, but there is very little at stake for them in this election.