This presidential election is starting to confound me. The fundamentals are pulling strongly in favor of Mitt Romney, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that President Obama’s campaign seems consistently a half step, sometimes a full step or two, ahead of the Romney effort. If this is going to be a close race, as polls suggest it will be, campaigns matter. Even if someone believes (as I do) that fundamental forces matter most—that issues like the state and direction of the economy and the economic well-being of voters and how they perceive the country to be doing are the most important thing—if a race is close enough, a campaign with the sharper plan and crisper execution can sometimes prevail. Just look at the 51-48 percent squeaker that President George W. Bush won over Sen. John Kerry.
None of the measurements of the economy—change in real disposable personal income, economic growth, unemployment rates (measured in various ways), and consumer confidence—are where a president needs them to be to get reelected. Those old enough to remember the television show Lost in Space will recall that it featured a robot that would warn its boss of imminent risks by calling out, “Danger, Will Robinson!’’ The economic numbers are definitely screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson!” right now.
In one private, unpublished analysis of nonpartisan polling this year, only 15 percent of undecided voters thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 71 percent thought it was off on the wrong track. Obama’s approval rating was 24 percent (59 percent disapproved); on handling the economy, his approval was just 22 percent (68 percent disapproved). To be fair, the undecided voters don’t like either party or either candidate—just barely over a quarter personally viewed Obama positively, and Romney’s personal positive ratings were only about a third of that. One question is how many of the undecided voters will actually vote at all, given their contempt for both sides and each candidate.
But if they do vote, I’d rather not be the incumbent, given their sour outlook on things.
Add in the lethargic nature of younger voters this year, with some surveys suggesting that fewer young people may vote than in either of the last two elections. Additionally, Latino voters seem anything but energized. Obama may well cover the same 67 percent performance among Latinos he got last time, but polls show they seem significantly less interested in voting. This is not good for a Democrat who needs a big Hispanic turnout in several key states.
Taken together, this ought to be a steep uphill fight for Obama. Voters seem perfectly open to the option of firing the president, but the Obama camp has given voters—specifically in swing states where wall-to-wall advertising is running—reason to hesitate about hiring Romney. Puzzlingly, the Romney campaign has offered very little to build up its candidate as a real human being, someone of character who’s worthy of being entrusted with the Oval Office.
The strategic decision by the Romney campaign not to define him personally—not to inoculate him from inevitable attacks—seems a perverse one. Given his campaign’s ample financial resources, the decision not to run biographical or testimonial ads, in effect to do nothing to establish him as a three-dimensional person, has left him open to the inevitable attacks for his work at Bain Capital, on outsourcing, and on his investments. It’s all rather inexplicable. Aside from a single spot aired in the spring by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, not one personal positive ad has been aired on Romney’s behalf. The view that any day or dollar spent on talking about anything other than the economy is a waste has been taken to such an extreme that Romney has no positive definition other than that of being a rich, successful, and presumably smart businessman. People see and feel the reasons for firing Obama every day in the economic statistics and the struggle that so many Americans face daily. The Romney campaign seems focused on reinforcing a message that hardly needs reinforcing, while ignoring a clear and immediate danger to its own candidate’s electability.
The attacks on Bain, outsourcing, and his investments are sticking to Romney like Velcro, and it’s hard to see how that will change until he picks his running mate. Romney has lost control of the debate and the dialogue. Instead of voters focusing on the economy, they are now hearing about investments and accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, as well as about outsourcing and layoffs.
The election is still more than three months away, and yet it has a different feel than it did just a month ago. Just as some Democrats in mid-June were starting to sound as if they were giving Obama up for dead, Republicans are now despairing. We have to remind ourselves that this election still has a long way to go. Each side will have up and down weeks, and there will be many twists and turns along the campaign trail—and that isn’t even allowing for some big, unexpected, Black Swan event that could always happen.
But, if I were a Republican, I would be very concerned about the events of the past two weeks, questioning both strategy and tactics as well as the underlying assumptions that have led to the campaign decisions made so far.
It would appear that a certain overconfidence has built up in the Romney camp, a smugness that would appear to come from beating an incredibly weak group of underfinanced, poorly organized rivals. In a couple of cases, these included candidates whose campaigns couldn’t even manage to get their names on the ballot in the state in which they were legal residents (Virginia). Maybe it won’t matter, maybe the economy is so lousy and unlikely to improve that voters will opt to fire Obama after all. But this election is starting to look enough like 2004 that Karl Rove should be demanding royalties from the Obama campaign, and others may conclude that no presidential campaign should ever again be based in Boston.
This article appears in the July 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.