US President Barack Obama (R) and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney shake hands at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

The US presidential race between President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney has become so close that Romney could win more votes nationally on Tuesday, but Obama could remain president.

That’s because of the peculiarities of the American system in which Americans don’t elect their president directly; they elect 538 electors – a fixed number from each state – on to an electoral college which elects the president.

As a result, four presidents have been elected in US history despite losing the popular national vote – the last being George W Bush in 2000 against vice-president Al Gore.

So if Obama turns the tables on Tuesday that would be a kind of revenge for the Democrats. But it’s not one they really want.

“That would not be good for America,” one of Obama’s supporters said this week.

“Well, at least you won’t have a power-sharing government,” one journalist joshed US officials, referring to the classic and controversial preferred South African solution to inconclusive African elections.

“Wrong!” retorted one official, pointing out that in the event of a dead heat in electoral college votes – 269 each – the House of Representatives would have to elect the president, and the Senate the vice-president. Since the former is controlled by Republicans, it would elect Romney, and because the latter by Democrats, it would choose Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden.

So an “administration of national unity”?

Unthinkable, perhaps, and certainly unlikely. Yet on foreign policy at least, a real power-sharing White House, if that were possible, would probably not be as unworkable as it might seem at first glance.

Despite local commentary suggesting that a President Obama would be very different – and much better for South Africa, Africa and the wider world – than a President Romney, over the next four years, the differences between them on foreign policy do not seem great.

Some South Africans worry that Romney, like Bush, would be much more likely than Obama to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts.

But, on the one country where US military intervention is most likely over the next four years, Iran, not much difference was evident between the candidates in their foreign policy debate last week.

Both essentially said that the US would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon without explicitly confirming that they would order US forces into Iran to prevent that.

And let us recall that it was Obama who ordered US air strikes in Libya as part of a Nato-led force which eventually helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi. That military campaign – though surely necessary – nonetheless incensed the SA government.


For Africa, some commentators are still insisting that Obama would be better than Romney, despite the evidence of the past couple of decades that Africa is largely a bipartisan issue.

A senior US official pointed out this week that it was President Bill Clinton who introduced Agoa – the African Growth and Opportunity Act which lets most African goods into the US market duty-free – and that President George Bush supported it.

Conversely, it was Bush who introduced Pepfar – the Presidential Emergency Plan for Aids Relief -- which Obama took up and continued.

These two programmes have been the linchpins of US Africa policy for the past several years and both have particularly benefited South Africa.

It’s true that South Africa-US relations, which had gone rather icy under George Bush, warmed up considerably under Obama and his ambassador Donald Gips.

Perhaps the temperature would drop a little with a Romney team in charge. But again, not so much.

South Africa and the US have made a special effort to institutionalise the relationship in formal structures over the past four years, to insulate it against a possible change in administration.

Most South Africans would probably prefer Obama to win because of his African origins and how that symbolises victory in America’s fight against its own racist past.

We might not like, but surely we need not fear, the possibility of a Romney victory.