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Obama's re-election and other perilous predictions for 2012

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Predictions in politics and government are a fool's game. The systems involved are chaotic and complex. The players change motive or exit the game unexpectedly. Choices are made for reasons that are often hidden, illogical or against one's own self interest.

Despite this, last year I went out on a limb with 10 perilous predictions for 2011.

Surprisingly, eight of the ten guesses are generally correct, albeit some achieving the predicted result in different ways than envisaged. For instance, Stephen Harper did get his majority, but at the expense of the Liberals, rather than through NDP losses.

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Gas prices failed to rise. China is certainly more wobbly than a year ago, but Beijing is managing to contain the evidence of that better than expected. And the biggest story of the year – the collapse of multiple Middle Eastern dictatorships – wasn't on my radar at all.

It is incredibly unlikely that my guesses will be as reliable for 2012, but here goes anyway. Some of these are comfortable picks (Romney, Redford, polarization) while others are long-shots (Huckabee, Iran) or tough calls (Obama, Europe.)

1. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee

The post-caucus coverage from Iowa seems to say Mitt Romney had a bad day, when the opposite is true.

The Iowa caucus is only worth a total of 25 delegates for the Republican nomination, and winning it is essentially meaningless in predicting the nominee. What it does is serve to winnow the field of its pretenders. With a fifth-place finish, Rick Perry is seriously damaged, and throwing everything into South Carolina. A fourth-place finish robbed Newt Gingrich of his momentum and leaves him in the race essentially as an anti-Romney spoiler. Ron Paul is not viable. Rick Santorum has emerged as the consensus choice for the social conservatives, but he lacks the infrastructure, fundraising or scars from the media onslaught to sustain his rise.

There are plenty of ways Romney can be injured or even crippled in a long nomination fight, but he will be the nominee. His support among the Republican establishment, financial advantages and experience in running in 2008 give him too many advantages. It may not even be a long nomination, given Romney now leads the latest polls out of the third primary state, South Carolina.

2. Romney will pick Mike Huckabee for VP

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Mitt Romney desperately needs to energize the Republican base to win the election. His single biggest problem will be the 41% of Republican voters who say he is an unacceptable nominee (and that was before negative ads about his record and positions began airing.)

He can't pick a moderate nominee, as that would further demoralize the very social conservatives he needs, which takes the likes of Mitch Daniels and Rudy Giuliani out of the running. He would be ill-advised to pick a Washington insider in the age of anti-Washington anger, which takes away Paul Ryan or any other senator or Congressional representative of significant stature.

His current nomination opponents – the typical starting point for a VP pick – are a gaggle of weirdos. Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Santorum, Herman Cain, Perry and Paul each alienate a large segment of the coalition of voters Romney needs to win.

He would be crazy to pull another trick like John McCain and nominate an unknown and untested small-state governor or business leader. Sarah Palin was exciting and energizing to the base, but caustic to moderates and independents.

That leaves Romney with a very short list: big state governors or other media tested, nationally known Republicans, who are social conservatives and competent to be president.

Rick Perry would have been perfect on paper: Texas Governor with a good job creation record. Unfortunately, Perry ran and was exposed as a nincompoop. Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, would have been great, except for his bizarre resemblance to Kenneth from 30 Rock.

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Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, is a strong candidate, as is Chris Christie of New Jersey. But neither Haley has a low profile and has yet to be tested by the national media, and Christie tends to shoot from the hip, a dangerous habit for a VP candidate.

The most likely choice of the risk-adverse Romney is Mike Huckabee.

With a high profile among Republican activists and a strong populist streak, the former Arkansas Governor has been vetted by his 2008 presidential run. He attracted the support of many of the Republican activists who formed the basis for the Tea Party, but carries none of the Tea Party baggage. His positions are not outlandishly conservative, but his "just folks" footing will enjoy broad support across the more conservative elements of the Republican base. The former minister can explain Romney's Mormon faith and abortion flip-flop in ways evangelicals will understand. Perhaps most importantly in a post-Palin world, he will not embarrass the presidential ticket or make people fear his becoming president who would not already fear Romney.

Huckabee provides a safe choice for VP that would excite the Republicans he needs to excite without risking alienating the moderates and independents needed to win. Their own personal relationship even appears to be warming after the vicious battles of 2008. Unless there is an animosity between the two that is so deep it cannot be healed by time and survival, Huckabee will be the VP candidate.

(As a caveat, trying to pick a single VP nominee from the two hundred potential candidates – before the presidential nomination is established – is a double fool's errand with a side order of stupid, so triple points for getting this one right.)

3. Barack Obama will retain the presidency

The fundamentals are bad. Democrats trail Republicans in enthusiasm. Unemployment is too high, approval ratings too low, and these things correlate significantly (but not deterministically) to a president's chances of reelection. Having set expectations far, far, far too high, Barack Obama presidency is the bitter disappointment it was set up to be.

But an election is not a referendum on the president. It is a choice.

As the Republican field winnows down that choice will become more clear. The next month will see Gingrich, Santorum and Paul attacking Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper who believes in nothing. Romney's likely nomination will leave Republicans uninspired, erasing the enthusiasm gap. (Even a smart pick like Huckabee won't be able to reverse much of the lack of enthusiasm for Romney.) A billion dollars in political fundraising will leave the Democrats able to saturate the airwaves in critical states with advertising further tearing down Romney.

Come the autumn, the choice will be between two flawed candidates, each with warts and disengaged bases. Here is where the differences will be:

» The Obama campaign is better organized, experienced, and ruthless. Romney's campaign is untested with significant turnover from 2008.

» Obama will enjoy a significant advantage in fundraising. This will pay for more advertising in key swing states.

·» Obama faces no opposition in the primaries, and a party more or less unified around the President. The Republicans will be publicly divided at least until the summer and perhaps until Election Day.

» There is a vague threat of a third party candidacy on the right (Paul as a Libertarian or a social conservative.) While it's a small chance, there is no significant third-party threat to Obama's left.

» The potential for foreign policy challenges in 2012 will allow Obama to lead while Romney does politics.

» Most importantly, the Republican Party has no message of hope for the middle class. The innate negativity of the Tea Party movement makes for excellent opposition obstructionism and terrible Presidential campaigning. Those who campaign for the job of leader of the opposition will get it, as Paul Wells says.

All of this adds up to four more years for the Democrat in the White House.

4. The Democrats will lose the Senate

It seems a bit illogical, but while Obama will win the presidency, his party will lose control of the Senate. The President's party holds 23 of the 33 seats up for election. Seven Democratic incumbents are retiring, including Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Ben Nelson in Nebraska, two states Obama will lose by a wide margin. The Democrats have to defend rookie Senators in Montana, West Virginia and Missouri, states Obama lost in 2008. They face tough races in swing states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin.

With just three seats to spare, it's probable that the Democrats will lose control of the Senate, even if they pick up seats in Massachusetts and Nevada.

5. Alison Redford will win in Alberta

Yes, yes. Predicting a Progressive Conservative government in Alberta is as boring as predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. But it is less of a certainty than usual.

There are obvious challenges before Redford, not the least of which is the Wildrose Party. As the most credible threat from the right since the Western Canadian Concept ran on its quasi-separatist platform in 1982, Wildrose presents to the PCs the challenge of fighting on two flanks. However, the splintering of the opposition to their left between the Liberals, NDP and Alberta parties leaves the PCs with the ability to fearmonger in the cities against the Wildrose while holding the middle ground.

Expect some losses in rural Alberta, but the PCs maintaining enough strength in Edmonton and Calgary to hold the government. Their strategy of securing a lead among women voters is smart and should pay dividends.

6. Quebeckers rally to the CAQ

Quebec politics routinely makes a monkey out of pundits, and this coming year has all the simian signs. But here goes anyway.

Earlier in December, I thought Jean Charest would call a snap election in 2012. The threat to the Liberals has moved from the exhausted PQ to the Coalition-Avenir-Quebec. As a new party, the CAQ lacked the grassroots and organization to contest an election next year, so the opportunity was present to rush to the polls. This is a similar tactic to what Jean Chretien did in 2000 when faced by the new Canadian Alliance Party, and it resulted in an increased majority. The looming public inquiry into corruption in the fall provided extra ammunition for this theory.

However, the merger with the ADQ announced in December addresses the grassroots challenge for the CAQ, and provides a base of experienced campaign professionals and organizers on which to rely. And their message of ignoring the Constitutional babble in favour of a focus on the economy and services has real purchase in a province simply sick of forty years of endless debate. The breakthrough of the NDP federally shows that Quebec is looking for something new. This risk of going early just became too great, and now Charest will wait for the CAQ to make mistakes.

With the ADQ merger underway, the PQ tired and demoralized, and the Liberals under siege from corruption charges, CAQ's new formula will have it well ahead in the polls in 2012, but not going to the hustings until 2013.

7. Europe muddles through

Last year, when I made my predictions for 2011, there was some criticism for ignoring the European bond crisis. The truth is I simply had no idea what would happen. This year, I feel more confident saying that the sky will not fall, Europe will not collapse and the largest economy in the world, the European Union, will muddle through.

The European Central Bank has restored confidence in lenders, at least enough confidence that they will keep lending. At the same time, the technocrat leadership of Mario Monti lowered the likelihood of Italian default, taking down Europe with it. Most importantly, there are enough vested interests agreed to keeping the casino running that the bumps along the way will sort themselves out. There are a myriad of tough decisions to be made as European countries dig themselves out of debt over the next decade, but the specter of a full-scale systemic collapse is quietly passing into the specter of individual country collapses.

8. Media moves from the mainstream

Back in the 1960s and even into the 1990s, people got their news from the same places. Most watched the evening news, a daily newspaper and radio. There was some minor differentiation in newspapers and radio, with some carrying opinion and editorials to the right or the left, but the news tended to carry objective pieces.

Today, objectivity is reduced. More and more people get their news not from dominant consensus sources but niche providers. Just by virtue of reading this non-journalist's blog, you are demonstrating the trend in action. This is a technologically driven splintering of the news consensus.

As we move into 2012, this trend will accelerate in two ways.

First, consumers will increasingly get their news from non-traditional sources. Social media, blogs, live fees and YouTube will be seen as more credible news sources than traditional media, because they are referred by friends and endorsed by in-group opinion. Never mind that the yellow journalism they are transmitting is often error-ridden, biased or just plain wrong. (A great example is the recent " Iceland Revolution" story that went around.)

Second, traditional news outlets will move further from a consensus position to more radical views in order to excite their consumers and hold onto share in a hyper-competitive marketplace. This will mean more aggressive fear-mongering on the left and right.

9. Political polarization will accelerate

The polarization of news sources is both a contributor to and a result of polarization of the public.

In good times, it's easy to take consensus positions. But the economic distress creates insecurity. People long for the certainty and easy solutions that comes from absolutes, rather than the grey positions of compromise and consensus.

The 1930s and early 1980s both saw significant economic downturns and resulting global political polarization. It's obvious we in another period of growing polarization, one that has been underway for the last few years but is continuing to accelerate.

More voices will be heard on both the far left and far right and political parties will move to adopt some elements of these ideas. This is not to say the market for centrist ideas and compromise is to be ignored. Most Canadians will continue to be essentially moderate. Mackenzie King's win in 1935 or Dalton McGuinty's victory last year show the ability of strong centrists to play the "me or chaos" argument. But the likelihood of voters choosing more radical options goes up in periods of discontinuity (ie, UFO in Ontario in 1919, the CCF breakthrough in 1944, Mike Harris in 1995, Rob Ford in 2010.)

10. Showdown with Iran

There will be a significant global showdown between the United States and her allies and Iran.

2011 saw reports by the UN confirming programs in Iran had been underway to develop nuclear weapons and may be continuing. The British embassy was stormed and attempts to extend the Arab Spring to Persia were repressed violently. American authorities say they stopped a bizarre plot by Iranian backed assassins to murder the Saudi ambassador.

The United States tightened sanctions and now the EU is considering banning the importation of Iranian oil. This is would have significant dampening impact on the Iranian economy. In response, the mullahs are threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a major transit point for much of the world's oil supply. They point to a captured American drone and explosions at a solid rocket development facility as evidence of American and Israeli spying and sabotage.

I am no expert on Iran, but I do know that domestic politics drive international politics. A bitter power struggle between religious and democratic conservatives in Iran is spilling into public. Only the threat of an external foe can keep the levers of power working, and compromise is not possible in those internal circumstances. At the same time, the United States, France and Germany all have major elections this year, increasing the demands on their leadership to look tough. These internal circumstances add up to increased sabre-rattling.

Basically, this domestic situation creates a type of "Prisoner's Dilemma" where the leadership of each country can't back down for fear of losing domestic support. This showdown will eventually reach a flash point in 2012.

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