John Garth considers the state of US politics through the eyes of Oxonian politicians.

Americans and outsiders alike could be forgiven for feeling nervous about the US elections. The nation appears locked in bitter strife over its direction and the outcome is too close to call. Yet with the expertise of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute (RAI) we can construct a reliable road map – or what might be called, thanks to insights from a quartet of Members of Congress who studied at Oxford, a ‘Rhodes map’ of the run-up to November’s elections.

Democrat supporters of Barack Obama have thrilled to the protracted mud wrestling between Republicans Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Speaking before runner-up Santorum bowed out in April, Congresswoman Terri Sewell (St Hilda’s, 1986; Democrat, Alabama) said: “The longer it takes for them to slug it out, the better it looks for our President.”

Barring wholly unforeseeable events, Romney is now a dead cert for nomination at August’s Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. Even a late entrant could not unseat him. But the primaries may dog the party after that. To mobilise their core supporters, Republicans will have to row back from criticisms they have hurled at each other. Romney has moved substantially rightwards; to win the swing states will require a ‘volte face’. “If he doesn’t move to the centre,” warns the RAI’s Nigel Bowles, “he’s going to lose.”

The people who will decide the outcome are not Republican voters in Texas, Alabama, or Mississippi, nor Democrat voters in California, Oregon, or New York. They are neither Tea Partiers, nor Occupy Wall Street campaigners – all of whose votes are predictable. Rather, the election will be decided by the swing voters of a few populous states, particularly Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and, increasingly, Virginia. “Obama won them all in 2008,” said Dr Bowles, “and if he were to win all of them again the probability of him winning the election approaches 100 per cent.”

Obama is likely to be partnered once again with Joe Biden, who will have an important role to play in winning voters in the swing states. To keep the Republicans onside while pitching for the centre ground, Romney is likely to choose a staunch and articulate economic conservative as vice-presidential running mate. Not Santorum; perhaps a relative unknown without Sarah Palin’s kind of baggage.

History shows poll margins like Obama’s so far this year to be eminently eradicable. But Republicans are not complacent. Senator David Vitter (Magdalen, 1983; Republican, Louisiana), not taking part in this year’s elections, said: “It’s going to be very close, in both the presidential election and the Senate, where we need a net gain of four seats.”

Barring a game-changer like an Iran war, the key lies in the economy. “If we knew what’s going to happen to real personal disposable income or to unemployment, we could predict the outcome of the presidential election with some confidence,” said Dr Bowles. Despite the surprising success of the automotive bailout, Obama faces an incumbent’s usual problem that counterfactuals do not win votes: he will gain little by saying the economy could have been worse. Other major issues, such as foreign policy, the environment, or America’s slide down the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s educational rankings, also offer few electoral benefits. Congressman Jim Himes (St Edmund Hall, 1988; Democrat, Connecticut), commented that: “The healthcare system is an enormous drag on our economic vitality. If I’m the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and I work at GE, I may not leave to start the next Microsoft or Apple, because that’s where I get my healthcare.” However, the issue is a double-edged sword for Obama because independent voters question components of his legislation, and for Romney too because as Governor of Massachusetts he has piloted a healthcare package rather like Obama’s. Racial or religious prejudice, a thorn in the side for both prospective candidates, will not affect the elections. It has been suggested, for instance, that, “most of those people that might be offended by Romney’s Mormonism think Barack Obama is Muslim anyway.”

A bloody battle can be expected, with popular anger stoked by a polarised media. As Senator Vitter notes, the bitter rhetoric in Congress itself has earned it historically low approval ratings. “I’m a strong conservative and I don’t shy away from those beliefs at all, but I certainly want to get to a more civil and productive discourse,” he said. Congresswoman Sewell said ‘gridlock’ on Capitol Hill made her first year there deeply frustrating, but finds hope in the way Alabama’s members of Congress came together when tornadoes hit their home state. “We didn’t see red and blue, we just saw Alabamians in need.” Congressman Tim Griffin (Pembroke, 1990; Republican, Arkansas) points out that today’s squabbles have nothing on those among the revered founding fathers: “You had shootings and duels with firearms, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. You had deep personal hatred between Jefferson and Adams. You had canings and knives and firearms – blood on the floor of the House of Representatives.” But 2012 will certainly be the most expensive US election ever, particularly with the advent of ‘super-PACs’ – political action committees which (thanks to a legal loophole) can raise unlimited dollars in indirect support of a campaign.

The elections of a third of the Senate and the House of Representatives are, Dr Bowles cautions, “Not ancillary to the main action: they are the main action.” Britons who assume the US political system is basically the same as their own are quite wrong, Congressman Himes points out: “Americans 240 years ago looked at what they had just rejected in Britain and said, ‘We are really going to explode and diversify and fragment power in this country.’” Congressman Griffin concurs: “If you want a system that rewards the winning party in election with complete and relatively unfettered power to make wholesale changes you do not have the American system, you have the British system.” Dr Bowles predicts that the next four years will see an unremittingly partisan battle for power on Capitol Hill.

Ten years hence, every member of our US political quartet sunnily foresees a revived America trading with a recovered Europe and as closely bonded with Britain as ever. It is economics that exposes the Republican-Democrat divide. Citing the internet as a product of state (i.e. military) ingenuity and private enterprise, Congressman Himes said: “If we have that kind of partnership in the realm of energy, this country will continue to be a global strategic and political leader.” Congresswoman Sewell, a public finance attorney, agrees: “The people I represent want us to spend money on education and infrastructure, and that investment will pay off in leaps and bounds.” In the other corner, Congressman Griffin hopes to see ‘pro-growth reform’ in tax and regulation, and Senator Vitter thinks Europe in its current crisis stands as a warning to the US: “The President has tried to make us a more left-of-centre European social democracy. It’s ironic because Europe is dealing with the downfalls of that model, and is moving in the opposite direction.”

During the elections, the RAI will benefit from the arrival of George Edwards, of Texas A & M University, as John G Winant Visiting Professor of American Government. Dr Bowles said: “He’s going to host a big programme of events, and he’s bringing colleagues who will pay more attention to the congressional elections than the presidential – and that’s fine by us.”