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US elections 2016

Obama euphoria gone, but ex-pats could tip race

The optimism of 2008 is gone from this year's US election. Obama has changed and so have the attitudes of foreign supporters. But in a close contest, as DW's Jefferson Chase argues, every bit of support could be crucial.

Back in 2008, for a week or two, I was the most popular guy in town. I had two tickets to one of the biggest US election night parties in Berlin, and my friends, caught in the thrall of Obama-mania, all wanted to tag along for the ride.

Four years down the road, my phone ain’t ringing. The people I know, Europeans and American ex-pats alike, just don’t seem particularly interested that in less than a week US voters will head to the polls to choose the world’s most powerful politician. And the lack of excitement isn’t confined to me and my friends.

President Barack Obama has been slipping in the recent polls. Part of his problem may be the absence of a bête noire.

"People were much more enthusiastic and fired up four years ago," Jerry Gerber, who’s in charge of publicity for the Berlin chapter of the organization Democrats Abroad, tells me. "I think a lot of it has to do with George W. Bush. Four years ago, a lot of people were so upset with his presidency that they were desperate for anyone else. And then there was Obama, a very charismatic leader. Add that to the bill and you had a group of tremendously enthusiastic people."

Gerber has a point. Mitt Romney may not have the best command of geography or the highest opinion of the poorest 47 percent of the American population, but he simply does not engender loathing of the sort George W. Bush did - a hostility which spilled over onto Obama’s 2008 opponent, Senator John McCain.

Most political observers in the United States originally regarded Romney as a weak candidate, but ironically that’s proving one of his strengths. Bush was viewed as a figurehead for an evil system that started the Iraq War and pushed the US into a massive financial crisis. Romney is seen as a stiff technocrat unlikely to barrel into any ill-advised adventures.

And that’s why the latest averages of national opinion surveys have him slightly ahead of an opponent who was once considered unbeatable.

Where did our love go?

Barack Obama (during 2008

It was also so much easier for Obama in 2008

On the one hand, it’s a mark of Obama’s core popularity that he even has a chance at all. As James Carville, the former campaign advisor to Bill Clinton, famously remarked, US elections are usually about "the economy, stupid," and the American economy has yet to recover from the crisis in the banking system that broke out four years ago. Nonetheless, despite relatively high unemployment and growing federal deficits, most experts think that Obama remains the slight favorite on November 6.

On the other hand, Obama is facing an obstacle he didn’t have to worry about last time around - fatigue with Obama.

Talking to friends in the United States over the course of the past four years, I registered a linguistic shift. At some point, people stopped referring to Obama and began speaking of "the president." It was a subtle sign that supporters were beginning to realize that their man was more like a traditional politician than they may have wanted him to be.

And that - more than anger at any specific policies - may be costing the incumbent most right now.

"I think it’s the natural order of things - like a first love," Gerber says. "It may mature into something very, very fine and nice, but the excitement - the rosy blush of first love - doesn’t last that long. I don’t think people are finding too many mistakes. They realize that there was a lot of obstruction from the Republicans and that Obama promised a lot more than he could possibly deliver, but that’s normal."

The 2008 election was a campaign of high drama that revolved around the question: was America ready to elect a relative outsider and an African-American to the highest office in the land? The crux this time around is: which campaign has the best strategy for amassing 270 electoral college votes?

On the banks of the Ohio

President Barack Obama, left, greets supporters after speaking at a campaign event in Toledo, Ohio

Both candidates are spending a whole lot of time in Ohio

What also gives this US election a surreally distanced quality is the frankness with which both campaigns are disregarding the overall popular vote and focusing on so-called swing states in an attempt to secure the needed majority in the US Electoral College.

States whose electorates could end up voting for either of the candidates are more in the spotlight than ever before, although their number is unprecedentedly small. Most observers think that only seven to eight states are truly "at play" - able to be won by both sides.

Moreover, in toting up the numbers, analysts agree to a remarkable degree that Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes is the real key. Both the campaigns are honing in on that state, while virtually ignoring vast stretches of the US that are perceived as automatic wins for one side or the other.

For many Americans, this election is symptomatic of an obsolete electoral system.

"Experts claim it all has to do with Ohio, frankly," Gerber says. "I don’t think Romney would have a chance without Ohio. I hate to say this, but I think it probably will all come down to Ohio - forget the rest of the country… It’s kind of sad, but that’s what you get when you try to run a democracy today with a constitution written in the late 18th century."

For now, though, both sides keenly focused on wringing some new from the old system.

Can you feel it getting down to the wire?

A manin a crowd of protesters holds a sign depicting a ghoulish image of US President Barack Obama

This time it's the Republicans who want to kick out an incumbant

Ironically, while massive enthusiasm may be lacking, this election may be as tight or even tighter than the one in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to then-Vice President Al Gore but still secured the White House with a razor thin majority of 271 in the electoral college.

Neither side has forgotten the drama or the lessons from that vote. Both Democrats and Republicans are doing everything they can in the final days of the campaign to ensure that their supporters actually cast their ballots.

That includes political organizations like Democrats Abroad, who target group is Americans who live overseas. They, too, are taking a pragmatic approach in which the only thing that ultimately counts is the magic number 270.

"Our telephone banking lists are arranged according to the swing states," Gerber tells me. "We’ve also had tables out all over Berlin trying to register people to vote. People we see here, though, have nothing branded on their foreheads about which state they come from. I wish they did."

In a race like this one, it’s not inconceivable that some of the 900 or so ballots from expatriates in German capital could tip the balance - in Ohio or elsewhere.

In any case, win or lose, the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad will be holding their quadrennial party on "the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November." That’s the date on which America’s 223-year-old constitution decrees that the people are to elect their executive leader.

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