I'm back from two and a half weeks in the United States with Mrs Stodge. We spent time in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas so I don't pretend that I've visited the "heartland" or the "real" America wherever that is.
That said, with the Presidential and other elections barely ten days away, I did get a sense of where one corner of America is right now. The first observation is that the assumption that Americans son't care about politics is quite wrong - we encountered people talking politics all the time in restaurants, hotel lobbies and elsewhere. What they were NOT talking about was the Presidential election but the more local contests (Congressional election) and, in California, the Propositions (issues taken for referendum - in California, any proposal to raise taxes has to pass a referendum which explains why California is bankrupt).
In Palm Springs, the Congressional election is between the Republican incumbent, Mary Bono Mack (the widow of Sonny Bono, who was the Congressman for the District and husband of Cher) and the Democrat, Paul Ruiz. The election contest is bad-tempered and wlmost wholly negative. The Democrats lambast Bono-Mack's voting record, the Republicans say Ruiz is anti-Thanksgiving (I'm not kidding, this was the opening line of attack of a Republican spokesman on a local news programme). To me, this looks like a battle between the golfers and the staff looking after the golf courses. California is becoming an increasingly Hispanic state (El Estrado del Oro) and that may mean it's a closer contest but I suspect Bono-Mack will prevail.
Much of the political advertising in California is based on the Propositions and it's pretty vitriolic stuff at times.
The other point to make is that ordinary Americans are far less polarised in opinion terms than the media and the political blogsphere. Listen to Fox News (apparently "Fair and Balanced" - they have a programme called "The Five" where one solitary older liberal is thrown into the bearpit next to four telegenic younger conservatives - "balanced" - my arse!!) and you'd think all those supporting President Obama were either idiots or the spawn of Satan while the Rachel Maddow Show routinely excoriates Governor Mitt Romney for anything he says.
Radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh are just as partisan and idiotic but the bulk of Americans aren't mercifully. I suspect it's the nature of the duopoly that creates an extremist media and a more balanced population. Unfortunately, the nature of political advertising is uniformly negative - the media message is emphasised on who NOT to vote for while fortunately most Americans are still working on the basis of who to vote FOR.
I think Barack Obama will win - whether he should win or deserves to win or whether a second term will be of benefit to the US and the world is or are different questions. Let me offer an example - we visited Las Vegas in 2010 - back then, the city was on its knees. The hotels were suffering, planned resorts such as Echelon and Fontainebleau had been abandoned and the Lake Las Vegas site had been moth balled after the hotel owners went into bankruptcy.
Two and a half years later and the signs of improvement are there - the hotels are expanding, there is a new development for a "London Eye" style attraction opposite the Mandalay Bay and the Lake Las Vegas resort has opened. However, improvement is tentative and it's definitely not a return to the good old pre-crisis days. The Lake Las Vegas Resort is busy at the weekend but dead during the week. Many of the Units in the shopping complex are closed or open only sporadically. The nearby development at Calico Ridge stands empty and abandoned.
So it can be argued the Obama economic record is mixed - things are improving but it's slow and painful and hasn't really kicked in for many Americans and those who hoped the election of Obama would lead to radical change will be frustrated though Obama's supporters will argue that the state of the economy has precluded some of the more radical economic pledges of 2008.
I detect little or no enthusaiasm for Mitt Romney or his ideas - his main support comes from those dissatisfied (for whatever reason) with Obama. It's hard to think that if Romney had been elected President in 2008, the policies he espouses in 2012 would have made things better. It's quite possible to argue many, indeed most Americans would be in a worse state had Romney's policies been in place since 2008.
With barely a week to go, the tension is growing, tempers are getting frayed and the arguments are getting more hysterical as the candidated criss-cross a relatively small number of key states. One of Obama's key weapons is Bill Clinton, as charismatic and persuasive a political speaker as I have ever heard. Clinton's demolition of Romney and his policies at the Democratic Convention remains far and away the most effective address of the entire campaign to date.
Whether it will help Obama home remains to be seen - the odds are still in the President's favour and if he can hold states like Ohio, Iowa and Nevada, he will get across the line even if Governor Romney is very close to him in the popular vote. It may not be as severe as 1876 but it is possible that Romney will win more votes than Obama but not where he needs them,