Just about any analysis of the 2012 presidential election should start with words to the effect that this is a very close race, that close races can go either way, and that many different factors—convention speeches, debates, verbal miscues, overseas conflicts—can change the trajectory of such a race. A decision by Israel to attack Iran, for example, would certainly scramble things.
Still, this race shouldn’t be as tight as it is. Whether one looks at polling measurements of whether voters think the country is headed in the right direction, at consumer confidence, or at key economic measurements such as growth in gross domestic product, deviations in the unemployment rate, or the change in real personal disposable income, it is puzzling, to say the least, why polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney running neck and neck. Incumbents generally don’t get reelected with numbers like we are seeing today.
Most everyone knows that the economy was in horrific shape, and worsening by the day, when Obama took office. But by the time a president is running for a second term, he pretty much owns the economy. There’s also some history here: Although economists can argue the merits of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, the polling data show that the American people pretty much thought it was ineffective, if not a waste of money. Obama then turned his attention to a carbon cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but was dropped in the Senate amid opposition from states that produce fossil fuels.
Next came health care reform—obviously a very contentious topic. Let’s just hope that the thousands of pages of memos from Democratic pollsters arguing that the issue was a political winner were recycled so that there will be some benefit from that huge loss of trees. Basically, a year was lost on the Affordable Care Act before Obama could shift his focus back to the economy. By then, stimulus had become a four-letter word, and any further action to boost growth had to come from the Federal Reserve Board rather than Congress or the president.
Disenchanted voters aren’t just automatically blaming the guy who happens to be in the White House; they have some very specific objections to his policies and priorities.
So why isn’t Romney doing better? If we wake up on Nov. 7 to find that Romney has lost—as if the writer or readers of this column would go to bed before the outcome is known—here are four explanations.
First, Romney is a very bright guy but hardly a natural candidate. I suspect that the results of a Myers-Briggs personality test would not have suggested that he pursue politics as his vocation.
Second, and compounding the first reason, is Romney’s campaign advertising. Until his campaign finally began airing biographical ads a few weeks ago, his election effort seemed to studiously avoid trying to establish any bond, any connection, or any level of trust between him and American voters. His campaign seemed to hold the view that any day or dollar spent focusing on anything other than the economy was a day or dollar wasted. Presidential races are not likability contests, but a candidate does need to be “likable enough,” to borrow Obama’s phrase. Voters need to feel comfortable with the person they back.
The Romney campaign did not lay down a layer of positive ads at the outset to give voters some understanding of who its candidate is. So when the deluge of negative ads about Bain Capital, layoffs, outsourcing, income taxes, and foreign bank accounts came, Romney had no Teflon coating to protect him. The dynamic was more like Velcro. That’s why even though he is running about even with Obama nationally, in the 11 key battleground states where the ads aired, he’s ahead only in North Carolina and possibly Iowa. Plus, pros in the TV-ad world point out that Obama has been sophisticated in his media-placement decisions, while Romney seems to be pursuing a gross-tonnage strategy.
Third is Romney’s decision to spurn an effort by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to find a middle ground for the Republican Party on the Dream Act that could well have cut at least a little into Obama’s 35-point lead among Latino voters.
As my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein has pointed out, it is possible for Romney to win a share of the white vote generally found in GOP landslide victories and still lose the election, because he is doing so badly among African-Americans and Latinos. Black voters are pretty much out of reach, but Rubio offered a route that could have shaved the Hispanic deficit. No dice.
Finally, as much as conservatives are thrilled with Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, anything that takes the focus off the economy and Obama’s handling of it is not a good thing for the GOP ticket. A presidential campaign is the last place in the world to try to hold a serious and intelligent discussion about any substantive issue. Bringing Medicare, Social Security, and deep spending cuts into the conversation only distracts from the focus on the struggling economy and makes Romney’s path to victory that much more challenging.
As I said, Romney may still win this election. It’s awfully close. But if he doesn’t, the knives will be long, sharp, and unforgiving.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.