Ten of lesser-spotted things about American presidential politics and about 2012 campaign.
1. Why is Election Day always a Tuesday?
Even though America’s voter turnout is among the lowest in mature democracies and more than a quarter of people who do not vote claim they are too busy, efforts to move elections to weekends have failed.
The Tuesday after the first Monday in November was set as presidential Election Day in 1845.
In the mid-19th Century, the US was an agrarian nation and it simply took a lot of time for farmers to drive the horse and buggy to the nearest polling place.
Saturday was a workday on the farm, travel on Sunday was out, and Wednesday was a market day. That left Tuesday.
2. The sunglasses thing
Politicians are almost never photographed wearing sunglasses, especially during election campaigns and even at leisure.
Barack Obama plays golf with the sun glaring in his eyes, and this summer, Mitt Romney was photographed on the back of a jet ski on a lake in New Hampshire, bare-eyed though his wife Ann wore sunglasses.
If a person’s eyes are hidden, people trust them less, says Parker Geiger, an Atlanta executive image consultant.
“You just don’t get a sense of the individual,” he says.
“There’s no eye contact – that’s how you build trust. Sunglasses put a barrier between you and the other person. They say eyes are the windows of the soul, and if I can’t see your soul how can I trust you?”
3. In Nevada, you can vote for “none of the above”
The US state of Nevada allows voters to mark “None of these candidates” on the ballot.
The option has been on the ballot since 1976 and plenty of voters have used it.
In 2010 after a particularly brutish campaign for a US Senate seat, 2.25% of voters chose “None” rather than pick incumbent Democrat Harry Reid or Republican challenger Sharon Angle. Harry Reid won.
4. Thumb jab
Featured in the three presidential debates were Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and… Obama’s thumb.
At the debates, the president frequently jabbed his hand, with his thumb resting atop a loosely curled fist, to emphasize a point.
The gesture – which might appear unnatural in normal communication – was probably coached into Barack Obama to make him appear more forceful, says body language expert Patti Wood.
“It’s a symbolic weapon,” says Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.
“Speakers are coached to do it to look strong and mighty and to grab the attention of their audience, and in a political speech to emphasize strong points and to look like you are powerful.”
And on a subconscious level it’s phallic, she says. “It’s sexually male. Men put out their thumb and it says <<I am a man>>.”
Ten of lesser-spotted things about American presidential politics and about 2012 campaign
5. Job titles are for life
Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts for four years – and he left office almost six years ago. Yet he is still addressed as Governor Mitt Romney, as if that were a title of nobility rather than a political office.
The US has only one president at a time, but Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are always referred to as President Clinton and President Bush – even in the same sentence as Barack Obama.
And during the Republican primary campaign, Newt Gingrich was routinely referred to as Mr. Speaker – even though he was the Speaker of the House for four years and left that post nearly 14 years ago.
As odd as it sounds to hear “Presidents Clinton and Obama” from a news presenter’s mouth, the perma-title is acceptable, traditional and appropriate, says Daniel Post Senning, author and spokesman for etiquette arbiter Emily Post Institute.
“It really shows the esteem that we hold those offices in – that this is a democracy, and those are such important positions that it becomes like a professional title,” he says.
“I liken it to when a judge or a doctor retires. They’ve invested a lot in their professional identity and many retain the use of their professional title.”
6. Election loser can still win the White House
Four times in American history, the candidate with fewer votes has wound up with the presidency.
That is because the winner of the presidential election needs to capture a majority of electoral votes, which are apportioned to the states by population and for the most part awarded in winner-take-all state contests.
The national presidential election is effectively 51 separate contests (50 states and Washington DC), with the winner of 270 electoral votes taking the presidency.
Most recently, in 2000 George Bush won half a million votes less than Al Gore but took 271 electoral votes for the victory.
It is entirely conceivable that the person sworn into the White House in January will once again be the man with fewer votes.
One scenario envisioned by analysts – Barack Obama could piece together enough states to win the electoral college and hence the presidency, while Mitt Romney wins populous conservative states like Texas and Georgia by a wide enough margin to take the national popular vote.
7. It could be a dead-heat – with a President Mitt Romney and VP Joe Biden
American politics is at its most partisan and polarized in more than a century, many analysts say. But it could get much, much worse – Mitt Romney could be elected president and Joe Biden re-elected vice-president.
Under the US constitution, if the electoral college (the sum of delegates from each state – 270 and you’re president) ends in a tie – and there are several scenarios under which this could occur – the election is sent to the 435-member House of Representatives.
This is currently Republican-controlled and is unlikely to change hands, so they would choose Mitt Romney.
But under the same clause, the Democrat-led Senate would choose the vice-president – Joe Biden.
Joe Biden might then be tempted to undermine Mitt Romney at every turn.
“A historic tie, which would spur demonstrations that would make the healthcare battle look like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, seems a logical conclusion of the bitter partisan paralysis here and the bottom-feeding campaign,” wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Tuesday.
8. Why the obsession with “folks”?
“Folks here in Iowa understand this – you cannot grow this economy from the top down”- Barack Obama, 17 October.
“I know that a lot of folks are struggling” – Mitt Romney, 10 October
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney use the word “folks” far more often than the word is typically heard from the lips of men with their socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
The word, which finds its origins in the Old English, is in the US historically associated with the South. That’s a stereotypically less-pretentious region that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney are from.
The word used as such is roughly the same as “people”, but warmer and more inclusive, says Grant Barrett, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang.
“American politics is a southerner’s game,” says Grant Barrett.
“It’s a talker’s game and Southerners are talkers. At the national level we have often been dominated by Southerners.”
9. Only a third of the US matters
On 6 November, the election will effectively be decided by less than a third of the US population.
Most of the states in America, including four of the five most populous, are so solid in their support for the Republicans or the Democrats that the candidates do not bother campaigning there.
Instead, each side chalks up those safe states in their tally and fights over the remaining handful of swing states on their path to 270 electoral votes.
The election is thus decided by the roughly 30% of the US population which lives in the swing states.
For the 70% of Americans who live in California, Texas, Georgia, New York, Illinois and the 35 other safe states, their votes count toward the electoral college total, but they cannot be said to be relevant in deciding the election.
10. In North Dakota, you can vote without registering to vote
The only state where it is not necessary to register in order to vote is North Dakota.
Although it was one of the first states to adopt voter registration in the 19th Century, it abolished it in 1951. The North Dakota State Government website says the move can be explained by the state’s close-knit, rural communities.
“North Dakota’s system of voting, and lack of voter registration, is rooted in its rural character by providing small precincts.
“Establishing relatively small precincts is intended to ensure that election boards know the voters who come to the polls to vote on Election Day and can easily detect those who should not be voting in the precinct.”
People coming to vote must be US citizens over the age of 18, who have lived in the precinct for at least 30 days, says Al Jaeger, the North Dakota Secretary of State. And people still need to produce identification, if they are not known to officials.
“I don’t see any difference with any other states, except that we don’t have voter registration, but it’s the same result. It might be an oddity but it has the same purpose. Our elections have a great deal of integrity.”
Barack Obama has hit out at Republican Mitt Romney during a feisty 90-minute encounter in the second of three presidential debates.
Barack Obama – widely perceived to have lost their first encounter – came out swinging in New York on the economy, tax and foreign policy.
But the former Massachusetts governor accused Barack Obama of broken promises and a record of failure.
They will meet for a final pre-election debate in Florida on 22 October.
As he battles for a second term, the Democratic president has been trying to hold on to dwindling leads in the nine key swing states that are expected to decide the election on 6 November.
In the town hall-style forum at Hofstra University on Long Island, both men freely roamed the stage, circling, interrupting and at times heckling one another as they took questions from an audience of 80 undecided voters.
The moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, often had to intervene to keep order between the rivals as each fought to make his point.
Barack Obama set the tone from his first answer, when he contrasted his own bailout of the US car industry with Mitt Romney’s position that auto-makers should have been allowed to go bankrupt.
The president forcefully accused Mitt Romney of inconsistent positions, while claiming that his challenger could only offer a “one-point plan… to make sure the folks at the top play by a different set of rules”.
Mitt Romney meanwhile hammered away at the president’s record on the economy, blaming him for unemployment of 20 million Americans and bloated federal deficits, insisting the country could not afford another four years with Barack Obama at the helm.
In one of the most scathing exchanges, they bickered over last month’s attack on the US Libya consulate that left four Americans dead.
Mitt Romney suggested the Obama administration may have attempted to mislead Americans over whether it was a terrorist attack.
But the president said it was “offensive” to suggest that he had played politics on such a grave issue.
He countered that it was the Republican who had tried to turn a national tragedy to his advantage by releasing a partisan press release about the deadly assault.
As the debate progressed, both candidates made repeated and impassioned pitches to America’s middle class.
Barack Obama said he had cut taxes for middle class families and small businesses over the last four years.
But he said that if America was serious about reducing the deficit, the wealthy would have to pay a little bit more.
“Governor Romney and his allies in Congress have held the 98% hostage because they want tax breaks for the 2%,” said Barack Obama.
In his final answer he responded to an assertion by Mitt Romney that the Republican would represent “100% of Americans” by bringing up Romney’s secretly recorded remarks at a fundraiser in May.
In those remarks the challenger dismissed 47% of Americans as government-dependent tax avoiders who take no responsibility for their lives.
“When he said behind closed doors that 47% of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility – think about who he was talking about,” the president said.
Barack Obama said voters had heard no specifics on Mitt Romney’s “sketchy” tax plan apart from eliminating Sesame Street’s Big Bird and cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, a family planning organization Republicans say promotes abortion.
“Of course it adds up,” Mitt Romney said of his tax plan. He cited his experience balancing budgets in business, while running the 2002 Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts.
Barack Obama ticked off a list of achievements over the last four years: tax cuts for the middle class; ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama Bin Laden; helping the auto industry, as well as healthcare reform.
But Mitt Romney said the last four years had not been as rosy as the president would like to portray, saying the president had made pledges to deliver unemployment of 5.4%, an immigration plan, and to cut in half the deficit, but had met none of them.
“The president’s tried, but his policies haven’t worked,” said Mitt Romney.
One of the sharpest exchanges of the debate came when the pair clashed over former private equity chief Mitt Romney’s wealth.
Mitt Romney was defending his investments in China through a blind trust when he asked Barack Obama if he had looked at his own pension. He said Barack Obama would find investments in China in his retirement plan, too.
Barack Obama countered that he did not check his pension that often, adding: “Because it’s not as big as yours.”
Another fragment of the debate prompted a flurry of social media comment.
Arguing that he supports equal opportunities for women, Mitt Romney said he once had “binders full of women” candidates for cabinet jobs when he was Massachusetts governor.
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for 22 October in Boca Raton, Florida.
President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney are making final preparations for the first of three crucial presidential debates.
With just 34 days to go until election day, Wednesday’s Denver debate will focus on domestic policy issues.
Mitt Romney has long criticized the president for his economic record, but is likely to face questions over his own tax plans and immigration policy.
Barack Obama has opened up a narrow lead in the race over the past month.
He leads Mitt Romney in national polls and in many recent polls conducted in the swing states that will decide the election.
The latest national survey, released on Tuesday by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, shows Barack Obama leading, but by just 49% to 46%.
Mitt Romney has struggled in the polls since a secretly filmed recording emerged of him telling a private fundraising event that the 47% of Americans who did not pay income tax viewed themselves as “victims” and were dependent on government help.
Wednesday’s debate at the University of Denver will be the first time voters across the US have had the chance to see Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on stage together.
Both men have already been on the campaign trail for months, and used their prime-time speaking slots at the recent party conventions to make their case to voters.
An even bigger audience is expected for this first debate: the opening head-to-head of the 2008 election attracted more than 50 million TV viewers across the US.
The candidates’ body language will be heavily scrutinized, as will their tone of voice and how they handle themselves under pressure. Media pundits and campaign spin doctors will attempt to seize on any gaffe or mis-statement in an effort to claim victory.
Both campaigns have been playing down their man’s prospects in the run-up to the debate, with Barack Obama praising his opponent’s debating skills and Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan insisting that one debate alone will not change the campaign.
Nevertheless, both candidates’ messages are well-honed, and their sharp words for each other are familiar to millions of swing-state voters who have faced a onslaught of mostly negative TV advertisements in recent months.
Mitt Romney’s campaign is based around his belief that Barack Obama’s stewardship of the US economy has been a dismal failure. He points to an enduringly high unemployment rate (currently 8.1%) and poor job growth, and says his experience in business will turn the US economy around.
Barack Obama, by contrast, says his opponent offers little except a rehashing of the “failed” Republican policies that caused the economic crash of 2008.
The president proposes tax rises for the wealthiest Americans to help reduce the federal budget deficit, and says his opponent’s plans would hurt the middle class.
But critics say neither man has fully fleshed out his economic policies, and doubts remains about how either Republican or Democrat will tackle the $15 trillion US deficit.
The two candidates have been largely absent from the campaign trail in recent days, shutting themselves away with aides for hours of rigorous preparation and practice.
Mitt Romney, who is known for his meticulous approach to debates, arrived in Denver on Monday and has been using Ohio Senator Rob Portman to play the role of Barack Obama.
The president, meanwhile, has been preparing in Las Vegas, Nevada, with 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry reportedly playing Mitt Romney.
With the principals waiting in the wings, Tuesday saw vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan take centre stage.
Joe Biden stole the headlines, telling a campaign rally in North Carolina that the US middle class had been “buried” for four years. The remark was seized on gleefully by the Romney campaign.
“Of course the middle class has been buried,” Paul Ryan said in Iowa later on.
“They’re being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”
Presidential election debates 2012:
• October 3rd: Denver, Colorado. Domestic policy. Moderated by Jim Lehrer (PBS)
• October 11th: Danville, Kentucky. Vice-presidential debate. Moderated by Martha Raddatz (ABC)
• October 16th: Hempstead, New York. Town-hall style foreign policy debate. Moderator: Candy Crowley (CNN)
• October 22nd: Boca Raton, Florida. Moderator: Bob Schieffer (CBS)