There are two very different electoral personality contests taking place in 2012. On one hinges the fate of the world's most powerful military nation, and still its crucial economic engine. On the other hinges....the continued phasing out of bendy buses perhaps? They may be wholly different in scale but they are both going to offer fascinating and entertaining political drama, as is the nature of direct personal elections. And, intriguingly, though one is a philandering, gaffe-dropping right-winger, and the other a tightly controlled, committed liberal reformer, both the incumbents look - at present - as if they might be safe. That this is so, in a time of economic crisis which should absolutely not be favouring incumbents, is down in large part to the inadequacy of their challengers.
Let's take the smaller contest first. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has the second largest personal mandate in western Europe (only the president of France, elected by a whole nation, has a larger). His role, though, has few obvious powers and is defined more by his ability to influence a range of other bodies and their appointments, such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police Authority. Even so, the Mayor is in a position to provide leadership to one of the world's greatest cities, and there have been plenty of opportunities for Boris to do so, ranging from the need to bridge London's powerful and wealthy economic elite with its teeming citizens on average to poor incomes; through offering hope and direction during and after some of the worst riots to affect the city in years; to waving the flag for the city that will host next year's Olympics and ensuring its legacy. Boris has been, at best, erratic over all these challenges. He took his time to return when the riots broke out. The Olympic legacy is still befuddled and mixed. His has been an ambiguous voice on the issue of the City versus the People. Even when it snows, Boris' roadshow slips and slides along with the weather.
Against this, he should be an easy target. But his main opponent is a tired re-tread (Ken Livingstone), whilst the third party has - amazingly - also offered up the same candidate as last time (Brian Paddick). Dan Hodges outlines the reasons why Livingstone is such a poor candidate for a piece on Progress. He also notes the 'showbiz' nature of the mayoral contest, which is where Boris exhibits the necessary all important charisma against an opponent whose every pronouncement has been death-defyingly dull so far. As for Boris' ability to distance himself from the Tory Party high command, it is without peer. If he does win - the safe money option at the moment - it will give no comfort to the Tory Party.
The more significant contest is, of course, the US presidential election, and here attention has been focusing to date on the fractious Republican field. As I've noted before, barely a week goes by without one of the right-wing front-runners imploding, and it has most recently been the turn of outsider Herman Cain. Cain has been the subject of some vague sexual innuendos which have stalled his appeals, but every scandal and hitch afflicting the Republicans' right-wing leaders benefits the man who desperately wants the nomination, Mitt Romney. Many observers believe that, in turn, a Romney candidacy pretty well hands the election back to Barack Obama.
Incumbent Obama, too, presides over a recession with no obvious upturn in sight, and has imposed a hugely controversial - from both left and right - health care plan on a country that hates state action. The optimism that greeted his election in 2008 has dissipated and many of his liberal allies feel he has made too little progress to merit a second term. All of this should be manna to the Republicans, yet as Tim Stanley points out in the Telegraph, the Republicans have leaked scandal about each other and appear as a thoroughly disunified, macabre bunch of political misfits (ok, Stanley doesn't use those terms to be fair; he's a lot more polite). Stanley's article, from an academic who wants to see Obama out of the White House, is also interesting in its focus on the power of a relentless media in raking over candidate private lives, which should provoke a serious debate about how we really want our politics reported and pursued. For the moment, however, such shenanigans offer hope to a beleaguered White House incumbent. It's one thing that offers a link between two otherwise very different personal electoral contests.