I am amazed at the tone of the press in the wake of the first of the three scheduled debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Not that Romney wasn't, indeed, better than expected.
And not that Obama did not appear strangely on the defensive, ill prepared and not up to his usual charisma, like Sarkozy when he confronted Hollande.
But to say that Romney had "regained the advantage," to trumpet that Obama was "sinking," even "on the verge of collapse," and that he had lost his "front-runner status," in other words, to make of this debate the "event" or the great "turning point," enough to "change the picture" and recreate "uncertainty" as to the outcome of a ballot too quickly "decided" demonstrates a rather strange lack of comprehension of the process at work in this election.
The American presidential contest, as Tocqueville demonstrated and one can never be reminded enough, is a bizarre election in which voting takes place state by state, thus not completely on a national scale of the United States.
What is at stake in these 51 different elections (one for each state, plus the District of Columbia), is to designate not yet the president, but the 538 delegates who make up the Electoral College, who will, with no great surprise but in a second instance, elect the president.
As each state has a varying number of electors equal to the number of its representatives in the House and the Senate (three, for example, for South Dakota, but 55 for California), and the "winner-take-all" rule dictating that the winner gain all the votes (except in Maine and Nebraska, where things are a bit more complicated) and thus carrying the entirety of the electors' votes to which the state in question is entitled to the College (and whether he wins by one, a thousand, or a hundred thousand votes, Obama or Romney can count on the three electors of South Dakota or the 55 from California regardless), the system has political aspects of which one must also be reminded.
California, precisely, is one of the states where Democrats have been predominant for so long that neither Obama nor Romney has much to say about it; neither spends much time, to say nothing of money, there.
There are states (like Tennessee), where the outcome is such a foregone conclusion, on the contrary, in favor of Romney, that neither he nor his rival bother to campaign there or to devote anything more than a token portion of their resources.
In other terms, the battle is concentrated in the states that are undecided, uncertain, the swing states, where everything can take a sudden turn; and among the ten or twelve swing states, it is focused on those that will grant the winner the greatest number of electors. (It is obvious, then, that the two candidates will not devote the same effort to the battle of Ohio, which is worth eighteen electors, as to that of New Hampshire, which is only worth four.)
Of course, nothing is fixed.
With the passage of time, we've seen states that were once acquired for one party shift their loyalties to the other camp (like those of the West Coast, sliding from Republican to Democrat during the '30s, and the inverse movement in the South during the 1980s).
And we may be witnessing the transformation of a state like Texas, historically solidly Republican, into a new swing state, due to its 26% percent of Hispanics (thus becoming, contrary to its status in previous elections, a battleground state).
But this is the principle.
With two consequences, concrete and massive.
This national (and even, given that the future of the planet depends upon its outcome, potentially international) election often resembles a local election: in Des Moines, where the two candidates traveled no less than fourteen times (!) this past summer, how could one avoid a concentration on the local, even small town problems of Des Moines, Iowa?
And as for the celebrated great debates addressing all of America, it is obvious, in this perception of things, that they haven't a shadow of the impact they would in a Jacobin country like France, which enjoys elections by "normal" universal suffrage. One can even go further and imagine situations in which they would be downright counter-productive and where what one takes for a performance would appear to be a counter-performance. (As a case study, suppose a promise of subsidies for Minnesota farmers were taken by workers in Michigan as representing so much less they would be allotted -- it's one thing to make the promise, in muted tones, during an interview at a Minneapolis TV station, but quite another to launch into a speech on CNN and, in so doing, benefit from a nation-wide echo chamber.)
Perhaps this is one of the reasons for Obama's mysterious reserve, last Thursday in Denver.
And this is why I do not believe he compromised his chances of winning the election that day.
His victory will be good for America.
Whatever one may say, it will be good news for the rest of the world.
And, as I write these lines, there is no more reason to doubt it than there was at this same time, four years ago.
Barack Obama, in all likelihood, will be the next President of the United States.