By all predictions, February was set to be a quiet month in America's election calendar. After the excitement surrounding the first Republican primaries and the build-up to polling in Florida - an important swing state - at the end of January, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney was hastily labelled the frontrunner, and America's attention turned this month's other headline events: the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Oscars. But the playing field to score the Republican nomination, and take on President Barack Obama in November, remains wide open, as dark horse Rick Santorum's stunning hat-trick of victories on 7 February has proven. As The Gateway goes to press, Romney is leading the race with 105 pledges from delegates to support his nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. But, only 225 of the 2,286 Republican delegates have been selected so far, leaving the road ahead to the Sunshine State - then up to Washington - long and rocky.
This year will see potentially transformative elections take place in Russia, Greece, France, Egypt and China, to name a few, but it's the presidential campaign in the United States that is hogging the headlines - nine months before Americans go to the polls. Supercharged with patriotism and pageantry, US presidential campaigns are notoriously long and expensive. And, with the economic and social health of the country at stake, an unpopular incumbent and polarised opposition, and new rules governing campaign fundraising, the 2012 battle seems set to become exceptionally so.
Leader of the PACs
Harking back to a time in America's history when all a would-be president needed was whole-hearted love of country, a dash of charisma, a conveniently-located tree stump and an interested audience, is something of a hobby among Americans. But, in reality, it's never been so simple. Politics and money have always been hopelessly intertwined, "like water in a basin", says Gil Troy, professor of American history and editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008. However, thanks to a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, which has made it easier for outside groups - known as Super Pacs (political action committees) - to raise unlimited pools of money to promote presidential candidates, money is more important than ever in this year's election. The Republican race for the nomination has in many ways become a battle of bank accounts, rather than of politics. And, the amount of cash a candidate has at his disposal will inevitably influence the number of votes he gets.
The Republican Super Pacs, emblazoned with jingoistic names such as Romney's Restore Our Future, Gingrich's Winning Our Future, and Santorum's Leaders for Families and Red,White and Blue, are theoretically independent of the candidates they support, but in practice they're run by close confidants of the candidates and act as extensions of their official campaigns - which can only accept a maximum of $2,500 per donor. According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in the final three months of 2011, Romney's Super Pac raised an astounding $30.2 million, which included large donations from his former colleagues at private equity firm, Bain Capital, and from executives at Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile, Gingrich's Super Pac raised $2.1 million, those supporting Santorum raised a total of $880,000, and Paul's Super Pac pulled in just $234,000. Unsurprisingly, with substantially more cash to fund his campaign across the 50 states, Romney is in the lead and the Republican establishment's favourite to win the nomination.
It seems ironic that the Republican candidates are spending millions of dollars to tell Americans that they'll "uproot Washington's culture of... spending and borrowing" if elected, as Romney promised following his caucus victory in Maine. Therefore, it isn't surprising that Gil admits "there is a concern in times of economic stress that money is being fiddled away in a way that's inappropriate or excessive". The sums that have been raised for the campaign are staggering. But, Gil points out, "the advertising budget at Proctor and Gamble," which owns brands such as Gillette razors and Oral-B toothpaste, "was $8.7 billion in 2008." In perspective, the cash raised by Super Pacs for the 2012 race is pocket change as the price to pay for democracy.
Not only do Super Pacs invite outside influence into the election, they've also introduced an unprecedented level of advertising into the Republican nomination campaign - the majority of which has been negative. Super Pacs, says Gil, are encouraging a "renegade approach to campaigning whereby the candidates themselves are less responsible for the messaging," which, in turn, creates a "do-or-die viciousness that's not helpful to democratic party politics". In the increasingly nasty Republican race, Romney has been derided by Gingrich as a "vulture capitalist" and a "pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, Massachusetts liberal", in addition to being mocked for being able to speak French. Meanwhile, Romney has retaliated by attacking Gingrich's finances, ethics and stability. In Florida, Romney's campaign machine mounted the most negative primary battle in American history, spending $14 million on attack ads in a state where 92 per cent of advertising was negative. "Mudslinging is a long-established tradition, as are American complaints about it," explains Gil. "It's an unrealistic expectation that there won't be any negativity. The problem is that sometimes the negativity drowns out anything positive", he adds.
Candidates go negative on their opponents because, quite simply, it works. In Florida, for example, Romney's flood of negative ads was rewarded with a primary win. Attack ads can also help strengthen a nominee's campaign: "In 2008, many of the ugliest, and potentially most hurtful, things that came out against Obama, came out in the primary. Had they come out in the general election, it would have been much harder to deal with," explains Gil. Although the Republican nominee will likely be the least bruised of a bitter fight, rather than the most virtuous candidate, with skeletons out of their closet during the primaries and "America's short attention span", come November candidates and voters can, in theory, focus on the issues.
Ain't over 'til it's over
Upon winning the Florida primary, Romney defended his negative tactics by arguing that a "competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us." Although Obama's competition with Hillary Clinton in 2008 ultimately made him a better, stronger candidate, the Republican race has revealed the kaleidoscope of colours within the party and raises doubts about whether the elements can come together and unite behind a candidate at all. Gil compares the current Republican race to the Democratic primaries in 1984, when Walter Mondale was "the Romney of today" and his main opponent, Gary Hart, "led an insurgent campaign." Mondale eventually won the Democratic nomination, but, Gil says, "that campaign ended up weakening Mondale and he emerged from the primary less strong than he had been. And that's the thing that Romney has to worry about most."
This year's Super Bowl victors, the New York Giants, scored the winning touchdown in the final minute of play - and it seems that the Republican fight will go all the way to the final minutes of the nomination campaign at the GOP convention in Tampa. Before then, Santorum, who is leading Romney in the national polls by 15 percentage points as the favourite to win, according to the latest Public Policy Polling survey, could dramatically change the game on 6 March, when ten states will cast their primary votes on Super Tuesday. "Certainly, the smart money would be on Romney surviving and being the nominee," says Gil. But the biggest cause for concern in the Republican camp should be "about it being one of those shootouts where everybody dies".
Campaigns are costly and cash can make or break a candidate, but what will be on the minds of Americans when they go to the polls?
Dark horse Rick Santorum, whose spending on advertising has been less than a tenth than that of his rival Mitt Romney so far, proved with his success in the Midwest that the Republican nomination, as well as the presidential election, will come down to more than money. Although Gil is "not convinced that we're going to see a massive shift in the electoral map" in 2012, politics and personality are at the core of the campaign for the White House, and there are several key issues that are set to dominate the race over the next nine months.
The most important issue in the 2012 campaign, as in all previous elections, will be a question of the leadership ability and likability of the candidates. Americans will ask themselves not only what the candidates stand for, but also who they trust to do as they say, who is worthy of the country's highest office, and who they would rather have a beer with. "That personality factor that people like to say isn't important, is actually very significant," says Gil. Furthermore, because 2012 is a re-election year, voting will come down to a "referendum on Obama", he says. Although Obama's overall approval rating currently stands at 47 per cent, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, only 31 per cent of independent voters have a favourable opinion of Obama, leaving two thirds shopping for alternatives from the Republican camp.
When Americans go to the polls on November 6, the biggest political issues will undoubtedly be the economy and jobs. A New York Times exit poll in Florida revealed that the economy was the top issue for six in ten voters in the Republican primary - a trend that is likely to be mirrored across the 50 states in the election. In Obama's State of the Union address in January, which doubled as his first re-election stump speech, he made a commitment to "restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." News that the US economy grew by 2.8 per cent in the final quarter and that unemployment is now at its lowest level since February 2009, at 8.3 per cent, is good news for the president. However, Obama will still campaign with a higher unemployment figure than any other post-war president, which could damage his chance of re-election.
The divisive issue of income tax has already been raised in both the Republican and Democratic camps, and could become a prominent issue in the autumn. In January, Romney was pressured by his Republican rival Newt Gingrich into revealing that, over the past two years, he has only paid an effective rate of 15 per cent on his income of over $42 million - a rate much lower than what the average family pays, leading to suggestions that Romney is out-of-touch with average Americans. On the same day, in his State of the Union address, Obama proposed that those who make more than $1 million per year should pay at least 30 per cent of their income in taxes, firmly aligning himself with the "99 per cent". The tax issue, therefore, is not just a question of government revenue streams, but a more compelling question of class in America.
An issue that Gil warns "could potentially spin out of control and have a huge impact" during the election is a controversial reform to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as ObamaCare. The proposals to require all health insurance plans to cover the costs of contraceptives, including the morning-after pill, have been met with fierce opposition from Catholic institutions - which consider the morning-after pill a form of abortion. What's more, the issue has been elevated to a question of religious freedom in America. Obama has been forced to amend his proposals, but there are murmurs that they could nevertheless alienate Catholics and cost Obama the election.
"The Catholic vote is big in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio," says Gil, and these states will be "very important battlegrounds in this election." More generally, ObamaCare is a weakness for the president because Republicans oppose the intrusion by the federal government into the provision of healthcare. Each of the Republican candidates have pledged to repeal the Act by executive decree if they are elected.
- Age: 61
- From: Massachusetts
- Previous job: Governor of Massachusetts and consultant at Bain Capital
- Cash raised: $57.1 million
- Key supporters: Moderate Republicans, independents, Mormons, Wall Street
- Strength: Has the best chance of beating Obama and strong on the economy
- Weakness: Insufficiently conservative for many Republicans and out of touch with ordinary Americans
- Age: 68
- From: Virginia
- Previous job: House Speaker
- Cash raised: $12.7 million
- Key supporters: Tea Partiers, white working class
- Strength: Strong track record in Republican Party and populist appeal
- Weakness: Questionable private life and unlikely to beat Obama
- Age: 53
- From: Virginia
- Previous job: Pennsylvania Senator
- Campaign cash: $2.2 million
- Key supporters: Social conservatives, evangelical Christians
- Strength: A "true" conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage
- Weakness: Too conservative for independent voters and lacks financial backing
- Age: 76
- From: Texas
- Previous job: Texas congressman
- Cash raised: $26 million
- Key supporters: Tea partiers
- Strength: Wants to scale back federal government
- Weakness: Fringe candidate with little chance of winning the nomination
- Age: 50
- From: Hawaii
- Previous job: President
- Cash raised: $139.5 million
- Key supporters: Democrats, liberal independents
- Strength: Record in office - the assassination of Osama bin Laden
- Weakness: Record in office - ObamaCare health insurance programme