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Still Waters

Although not much has changed on the surface of the presidential campaign, recent developments have stirred deeper insights.


Gloves off: Obama gets his hands dirty hitting Mitt.(Susan Walsh/AP)

A lot has happened, but nothing has changed.

This, believe it or not, is what passes for searing insight into the race for the White House from the top advisers to President Obama and Mitt Romney.


What they mean is the battle was joined in June and July, huge amounts of money were spent on TV ads, sharp blows were exchanged over Bain Capital and tax returns (Obama on Romney) and Solyndra and “You didn’t build that” (Romney on Obama). There have been gaffes galore (Romney, Romney, and Romney again), discouraging economic news aplenty for Obama (quarterly GDP, unemployment, retail sales, and consumer confidence), and the emergence of a potentially profound philosophical choice America will make about direction, fairness, government, and growth.

A helluva lot has happened. But not much has changed ... in the polls. The race remains a national tie within the margin of error. The Gallup tracking poll 100 days out had it tied at 46 percent (since 1964, every candidate who led this poll 100 days out except Michael Dukakis in 1988 went on to win). In swing states, Obama has picked up a bit of momentum, but margins remain too close for comfort. Obama has sold off some of his likability, but retains a huge likability edge over Romney. The economic news continues its gloomy slog. Romney retains his upside potential to sell himself as a turn-around specialist.

On the surface, not much has changed. At a deeper level, we know more than we did six weeks ago:


1. Romney can take a punch. Obama hit him and hit him hard on Bain, outsourcing, and tax returns. Romney wobbled but didn’t fall. Top Romney advisers aren’t stupid enough to believe they’ve taken all of Obama’s best shots, but they believe they’ve taken most of them, and they won’t be playing “rope-a-dope” ever again.

2. Obama has sown doubts about Romney. These are exposition doubts about values, middle-class connectedness, and shared goals. Not falling is not the same as gaining ground. Romney’s team knows this and understands it has got to do more to move undecided voters from curious but suspicious to curious and persuaded. They know Romney looks too rich for too long, like a misshapen vessel for middle-class aspirations. That they must change, which is why Romney debuted a new “I Believe” biography ad on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Obama retains these advantages even as he has traded down likability to grind up Mitt.

3. Obama has paid dearly to keep the race static. In the face of drab economic news, Obama has had to attack relentlessly. It’s been costly. Campaign to campaign, Obama has outspent Romney heavily in every swing state—with at least 70 percent of the statewide TV cost in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. Only in North Carolina is the Obama spending blitz below 70 percent of statewide TV cost (65 percent). Obama needs to feed this TV machine, which is why his fundraisers multiply, and when surrogates like the first lady show up in Boston (as she will next week) there is no ceremony or idle glad-handing. To attend, you have to write checks—personal ones. It’s cold and ruthless. Because Obama needs the money.

4. Narratives are coming. We are entering a new phase of the campaign where narratives begin to shape discussions and interpretations. Romney will hit the economy on Friday after the July jobs report comes out and add new specifics to his economic plan (responding to critics like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker). Top aides said that from now on, Romney will talk less about generalities (taxes and debt) and more about middle-class specifics (take-home pay and cost of debt per child). He will also roll out his vice presidential pick (yes, there’s an app for that), and use the GOP convention to fan what appears to be organic small-business fury over Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark. Obama will have his narratives of “forward” progress, an economy built to last, and breaking the D.C. stalemate. Both campaigns will devote time and energy soon to their own stories—reducing the frequency and intensity of the hour-to-hour skirmishes that dominated June and July.


5. Romney wasted time overseas. Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once famously said that the Arabs (not the Palestinians, as lore would have it) “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This can now be said of Romney. His hash of an overseas tour was a study in mismanagement and mediocrity. OK, he had a decent speech and good “golden hour” pictures in Jerusalem. How hard is that? If Olympic judges had scored his London visit, he would have been disqualified. The ranting at reporters in Poland (“Kiss my ass” and “Shove it”) from Romney’s press staff only heightened the image of frayed nerves. Will Romney lose the election because of the trip? No. But every day is precious, and fighting to ugly draws or losing them completely when you’re supposed to project strength, competence, and diplomatic acumen is malpractice. Gross malpractice.

A lot has happened. But the campaigns know each other better (like boxers), and voters have begun to sift a lot more information. It all looks static, and it sounds like white noise in saturated media markets (43,000-plus gross ratings points already in Des Moines!). But not much has changed. Or has it?

This article appears in the August 1, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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