Rereading Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, it’s hard not be struck by one passage illustrating the late Apple CEO's philosophy about focus groups and survey data: He ignored it. In his mind, he had a vision for what the iPhone should look like, and it was his job to convince consumers that they absolutely needed a touch-screen phone that could play music and surf the Internet, even though few people were clamoring for it.
Mitt Romney’s struggling campaign could use a little of the Jobs business plan — coming up with a grand vision for the future and making a case for it throughout the country. Instead, the candidate with the mind of a consultant has become obsessed with persuading the micro-demographic groups who remain undecided. So there’s an ad about coal in Ohio and Virginia, a “Dear Daughter” ad transparently trying to win over women, and even a Republican National Committee ad featuring a female Hispanic voter “breaking up” with a cardboard cutout of President Obama.
Micro-targeting has worked like a charm for Obama’s campaign, which has avoided talking about the president’s record in favor of mobilizing a base of young voters, minorities, and abortion rights-supporting women to carve out a bare majority. But it’s a questionable strategy for his Republican challenger, who badly needs an overarching vision that appeals to Americans dissatisfied with Obama’s performance in office and struggling in a stagnant economy.
If Bill Clinton served as Team Obama’s masterful defense lawyer at the Democratic National Convention, there’s been little attempt since by the Romney campaign to rebut the argument that Obama’s doing the best he can under the troubling circumstances he inherited. There’s little attempt at making the connection between the president’s unpopular first-term policies — the health care law, the stimulus bill, cap-and-trade energy regulations — and the sorry state of the U.S. economy.
It’s why the Romney campaign, despite conflicting signals from the Obama administration about the terrorist links behind the Libya attacks, spent a week without offering substantive criticism of the administration’s foreign policy (after jumping the gun with an early, critical statement about apologetic tweets from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo). Polls show Obama holding a consistent lead on foreign policy, so why challenge the conventional wisdom? If polls show undecided voters still viewing Obama personally favorably, the thinking goes, then it’s a fait accompli that those perceptions can’t be changed with a tough advertising blitz, like the one Obama unleashed against Romney. It’s a strategy that accepts polls and focus groups as static results, rather than working to persuade Americans of the rightness of Romney’s vision.
What’s ironic is that if Team Obama bought all of the preconceived notions that early polling and focus groups relayed at the beginning of the year, the president would probably be no better than even with Romney at this point. Earlier in the year, polls showed blue-collar white voters firmly opposed to the president, an indicator of trouble for him in the politically competitive Rust Belt states. Obama campaign officials were privately skeptical of their prospects in a state like Ohio, given its unfavorable demographic makeup and its weak economy. But the campaign designed a narrative designed to persuade a sufficient number of disaffected voters — their plan is better designed to protect the social safety net at a time of economic uncertainty. And their numbers have slowly ticked up. Now Ohio is looking like one of the tougher battleground states for Romney to win, and the blue-collar bastions of Michigan and Pennsylvania look increasingly out of reach.
While pundits have obsessed over Romney’s campaign gaffes, Obama's bump in the polls is more attributable to voters’ growing optimism about the future of the economy. That finding jumps out from all the latest polls. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, 42 percent now believe that the economy will get better, a whopping 15-point jump from July and a 6-point jump from the pre-convention poll. Obama has closed his once-sizable gap on the question of which candidate would do a better job handling the economy, and an increasing number of voters believe the country is headed on the right track.
That’s in no small part due to the campaign making the argument that the economy was awful before Obama took office and the challenges he inherited were significant. Clinton underscored that case during his prime-time convention speech, and clearly many voters, particularly those skeptical of the president’s performance, listened.
By contrast, every bit of evidence suggests that it’s Romney’s message – or lack of one -- that’s failing badly. Take Iowa, a state that should be in the challenger’s demographic wheelhouse. It’s filled with older, white voters and is one of the most deficit- and debt-conscious battleground states in the country. In May, the NBC News/Marist survey had Obama tied with Romney, stuck at only 44 percent of the vote. Romney’s campaign and outside allies barraged the statewide airwaves to the tune of $27.4 million, according to our Hotline ad tracker, outspending Obama and his allies by several million dollars.
Obama, meanwhile, spent much of August camped out in the state, making the case that his policies are better for the middle class, blaming Republicans for blocking the farm bill, drinking beers at the state fair, and earning lots of positive local coverage in the process. The result? The latest wave of polling, both internal and public, shows Obama emerging with a decent lead in the state.
The operating assumption by Romney for most of the campaign has been that the economy is so weak, there’s little need to offer an alternative vision or policy specifics. It’s that sense of caution that has animated the campaign throughout. Even with Romney’s bold selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, his reformist ideas have taken a back seat to talking points. It would be akin to Microsoft being fully content with its time-tested Windows operating system and Office software, blissfully unaware that its rival was working to change the terms of the technology debate.