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The debate frenzy distracts from the US political realities

Media focus on the performance of the US presidential candidates in last week's debate has drawn attention away from what's truly important: the candidates' policies.

Long before last week's presidential debate, the contours of the US election had already been set. Despite the silly reactions from pundits, on both the right and left, the debate added very little that will affect the outcome of the contest.

It was like watching the Yankees versus the Red Sox. Both sides cheered for their team. One side came away a bit more excited, the other a bit deflated, but no one changed sides.

Putting aside the exaggerated media reaction that "Romney triumphed" or "Obama blew it", the debate itself was quite boring. Mr Romney's performance might provide a shot in the arm to Republicans, many of whom have been troubled by their candidate and his lacklustre campaign. It may change the mood, but not the game.

More important than the debate are several factors that have defined the political landscape in 2012.

First and foremost is the demographics of the electorate. On the Democratic side, there is a dramatic increase in "minority" voters. Two decades ago, this group comprised less than 20 per cent of all voters. Today, they may be as high as 29 per cent. Estimates are that 80 per cent will vote for Mr Obama.

Add to this group young voters, educated professional women and left-leaning voters - not exactly the dependent "takers" of Mr Romney's imagined 47 per cent.

The core of the Republican coalition is increasingly white, middle aged and older, and male, with many overlapping "born again" Christians. It was from within this demographic that the Tea Party was born, and the effect they have had on this year's contest has been substantial.

After flexing their muscles in a Republican takeover of Congress in 2010, the Tea Party helped to shape the field of 2012 GOP presidential aspirants. More moderate Republicans were discouraged from entering the contest, and those who did run adopted more extreme positions. Mr Romney's statements during the debate would have seen him booed off stage during the Republican primary.

Another defining point in the 2012 election came from a Supreme Court decision. The Citizens United case opened the door for the obscene amounts of money - much of it unreported - that is allowing the so-called Super PAC to fill the airways with mostly negative ads.

Three additional events have played a significant role in defining the campaigns. Latinos had been frustrated by the failure of the Obama administration to make immigration reform a priority. The White House has argued that it lacked the support in Congress to pass legislation.

But this past summer, Mr Obama unilaterally acted to provide temporary relief to undocumented young people who had been brought into the United States illegally as children and were at risk of deportation. This reprieve, while initially criticised by Republicans, has energised the important Latino vote for Mr Obama. And as Republicans realised they were about to be swamped by this growing bloc, they muted their criticism.

The same can be said of Mr Obama's decision to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which discriminated against homosexuals serving in the US military, and his late recognition of equal marriage rights.

Gays comprise a substantial part of the liberal electorate, and equal rights has become a litmus test among young voters.

The final point was Mr Romney's now-infamous "47 per cent" video. For months Democrats had been working to define Mr Romney as an elitist who was out of touch with the working class. Mr Romney's off-the-cuff remarks to an audience of well-heeled donors has done just that.

The pundits' "group think" feeding frenzy will shape headlines for a day or two, but it will not alter the landscape. I doubt that in the long term whether the debates will substantially alter the size or composition of either candidate's support base.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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