AS THE US presidential election draws closer, Mitt Romney has staged a great comeback but it’s the don’t-knows who hold the key, writes Claire Prentice.
The towering Manhattan skyline recedes into the distance as the Staten Island ferry churns through the water past the Statue of Liberty. The tourists are all out on deck, clamouring to get the best shot. The natives stay inside where they pass the 25-minute journey chatting, napping and playing with their iPhones.
Sitting in the ferry’s cavernous interior, Jack Jackson is wearing an “Obama 12” badge on his lapel. Last election, Barack Obama badges were everywhere. This year they are harder to spot. With just 23 days to go until the presidential election, polls show that the race is tighter than ever.
Jackson believes the election will be significantly different from 2008. “Obama is not going to turn out the vote, especially young people, like he did last time. That was an historic event. This time we have a country which is bitterly divided,” he says. “I’m going to vote for Obama, not because I’m black but because I believe he is the candidate who can bring us together and take us from where we are to where we need to be.”
But after four years in office marked by economic stagnation, disappointment and a spiralling budget deficit, Obama has his work cut out if he is to persuade America to give him another chance.
At the beginning of this month, Democrats thought they had this election in the bag. The polls had shown Obama in the lead for months and Mitt Romney’s campaign seemed to be imploding. But then, watched by 67 million Americans, the Republican challenger gave the performance of his life in the first televised presidential debate. Overnight the polls showed Romney pulling level or edging ahead of Obama.
Eager to stem the Republican tide, Joe Biden went on the offensive at Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate, where he clashed with Paul Ryan over national security, the economy, taxes and healthcare. The gaffe-prone Biden defied expectations with a fiery and forceful performance. But his remark that he and the president were not aware that requests had been made for increased diplomatic security in Libya ahead of the September attack on the US consulate opened up a new front for the Republicans and put Obama on the defensive.
Sitting on a bench beside the ferry window, Mike, a firefighter, whose job with the New York Fire Department means he cannot give his surname, says Obama has his vote no matter what happens in the weeks ahead. “I like Obama. He has our backs. Romney’s a corporate guy who couldn’t care less about ordinary Americans like me.”
Alongside him is Justin Zall, an office services worker in his twenties, who is one of thousands of Americans who wants to work full-time but can only get a part-time position. He believes the president should be punished for failing to deliver on his promises. “Obama hasn’t fixed anything. It’s time to see what someone else can do,” says Zall.
Undecided voters make up roughly 6 per cent of the electorate. In this year’s tight race, those votes will be crucial. Erica Valente, 22, is one of them. But Romney and Obama will have to work hard to get her to the voting booth. “At this point I don’t have a strong feeling about either of them,” she says.
Staten islanders are intensely proud of their insular home. If Manhattan is edgy, expensive and cosmopolitan, Staten Island is blue-collar, unpretentious and suburban. Residents refer to it as New York’s “forgotten borough” and are at pains to point out that there’s more to the place than its well-known connections to the mob. Downtown, the light is beginning to fade and rush hour has snarled up the traffic. It’s a balmy evening and the sidewalks are crowded with workers heading home, young mums pushing buggies and old men putting the world to rights over a beer at outdoor cafés.
In a local family-run function suite, a group of Democrats is holding a meeting. The mood is one of cautious confidence. Several activists admit that Obama has a tough fight ahead of him. But, they add, three weeks is a long time in politics. “The race is too close to call. To win, Obama needs to spell out more clearly how he is going to fix the economy,” says retired clerical worker Ken Habercorn.
“Nationally, it’s a tight race but state-by-state Obama is winning,” says Kevin Elkins, executive director of Staten Island Democratic Party, referring to the 270 electoral college votes either candidate needs to clinch the presidency. These are awarded on a state basis and it’s the big prizes of battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania that both candidates are eager to win.
The possibility that disenchanted voters won’t turn out to support Obama is one of the biggest challenges facing his campaign in 2012.
The latest Pew research centre poll shows Romney leading the president by four percentage points; just a month ago, the same poll showed Obama ahead by eight percentage points. Headlines across America have announced “Mitt Romney’s comeback”. Romney’s boost in the polls overshadowed a recent rare moment of good news for the president, when America’s unemployment figure dropped below 8 per cent for the first time since Obama took office. For many voters, it was too little, too late.
To have a chance of winning on 6 November, Obama has to put in strong performances in the remaining two presidential debates. He is devoting the weekend and Monday almost exclusively to preparing for his next clash with Romney in New York on Tuesday.
Back across the water and it’s a short walk from the Manhattan ferry terminal to Wall Street, centre of American high capitalism, and, in the minds of many voters, the root cause of 2008’s economic meltdown. It’s happy hour in the Irish Punt on Exchange Place, one of many trader bars in the financial district. Aside from the barmaids, there’s not a woman in sight inside the dimly-lit watering hole. Men in suits stand several deep at the bar. The trading floor has closed for the day and it’s time to let off steam. In a corner of the bar, there’s a baseball game on the television but no-one’s watching.
Pete Rogers has worked on Wall Street for 20 years and is in no doubt as to who will get his vote. “Obama put a bull’s eye on Wall Street’s back. I’m a lot worse off today than I was four years ago,” he says. His opinion is shared by Rick Martinez, who owns two companies. “Obama is bad for business. If he won a second term you might as well tell American entrepreneurs to give up. He’s a lawyer, he doesn’t know how to fix the problems facing America,” says Martinez.
Alex, a registered Republican who refused to give his surname as his company doesn’t allow employees to discuss politics publicly, is outside the bar smoking with a group of co-workers. He plans to vote for Romney but wishes his party had chosen a more right-wing candidate for the top of the ticket, like vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. “Romney’s the biggest stiff. It’s amazing to me that, in this entire country, we couldn’t find a candidate with a more dynamic personality,” says Alex. Since the first debate, Romney has been moving back towards the centre in a bid to win over independent and undecided voters. In interviews and on the stump, the Republican candidate has adopted a more moderate line on a raft of issues. It is a carefully calculated move, but it could backfire on him.
At a campaign stop in Miami last week, Obama poked fun at his opponent’s willingness to switch positions. “After running for more than a year in which he called himself ‘severely conservative’, Mitt Romney is trying to convince you that he was ‘severely kidding,’” Obama said to loud cheers.
Romney’s position switching has led to accusations that he is inconsistent and inauthentic. But that doesn’t bother Jim Lowry, who has worked on Wall Street for 18 years. “If you’re a politician you have to be a flip-flopper. At least Romney won’t be afraid to make difficult decisions. Democrats want to please everyone. Republicans don’t care if they have to p*ss people off to get things done.”
The conversation gets heated when it turns to the subject of the candidates’ positions on taxation and government spending. “Democrats expect the wealthiest citizens to pay for everything but how can 1 per cent of the people pick up the tab for everyone else?” says Don, who also withheld his surname.
The traders begin drifting off into the night. As Lowry drains his glass, he says, “Romney has to win it. Another four years of Obama is unthinkable down here.”