In a more sophisticated way than their Indian counterparts, the US media is focusing more on form rather than substance while covering the 2012 presidential race. So we were told that US President Barack Obama 'lost' the first debate to challenger Mitt Romney. In the debate between the running mates, Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, was deemed to have stood his ground against the more experienced Joe Biden, who's been vice-president for four years. This was just because Ryan used some faraway place names in Iraq and Afghanistan and uttered some cue-card rhetoric about Iran's nuclear programme.
Thanks to such superficial coverage, the opinion polls have sent out confusing signals and the media has reported its swings and roundabouts with alacrity, but has not paused to think that it might be the result of their racetrack coverage. Thus, the Obama-Biden ticket was winning, especially in the swing states; after the debates, however, the incumbents have lost ground among the undecided, independent voters. With the election just a few weeks away, the polls suggest a close race.
The only other time the signals were so muddled was during the Bush-Gore election 12 years ago. At that time too, the media spotlight on form obfuscated key issues about the candidates' views on domestic and foreign policy.
In the current face-off, Obama, whose victory in 2004 was to have presaged a shift away from form to substance, is mired in the bogs of unfulfilled expectations. The hope of change stirred by his 2004 campaign has long withered. His 2012 campaign has been lacklustre and his supporters ravaged by the economic hard times and confused by his human rights ambivalence have lost enthusiasm for him.
The Republican campaign seeks to portray Obama as an incompetent leader who has fallen back on old Democratic tax-and-spend ways. Judging from what he said in the debate, a flummoxed Obama seems to have reverted to the saws of the Democratic Party: economic nationalism, rich versus poor - a divisive agenda. As for his healthcare and social prescriptions, the Republicans slyly suggest that four more years of Obama would turn the US into a Europe-style social democracy (just look where Europe is?).
In the Romney-Ryan narrative, under Obama, giant bureaucracies in the departments of commerce, labour and environment will hold sway over America's economic future, which is a problem not just for Republican supporters but uncommitted voters who trend towards the Right. Also, Obama has said very little about the impact of the homeland security department that is seen to trample constitutional and human rights with intrusive policies. This is a problem for many Democratic voters and leftish independents.
No wonder Romney is catching up with the incumbent. The challenger was successful as governor of a liberal state, Massachusetts, from 2002 to 2007. He had a moderately good record in office and ran an enlightened, fiscally conservative administration that did pretty much what Obama is advocating on social issues. In the current campaign though, he has moved sharply to the right on social issues and disavowed his gubernatorial record on healthcare. He has chosen to mouth homilies about domestic (let's put America back to work) and foreign (let's take out Iran's nukes) policy.
Romney's campaign managers have sensed that Obama has been cut adrift by the media, after their 2004 love affair. As such, the media coverage focuses more on his negatives, shunning substantial analysis of what the Obama administration may or may not have accomplished. This is what happened to Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000: he was painted as a part of the establishment being Bill Clinton's vice-president and so a magnet for the negatives that Clinton attracted in his second term. In the event, Bush won the controversial election. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rajiv Desai is the CEO, Comma Consulting
The views expressed by the author are personal