If the presidential race were a football game, we would be at halftime. Admittedly, that metaphor comes up short. Having avoided a nomination challenge, President Obama’s team effectively got a bye and goes straight to the finals starting in September. Nonetheless, halftime is when coaches huddle, first with each other and then with players, to talk about what needs to happen next and what they need do differently to win the second half and the game.
Here’s some totally unsolicited advice from the peanut gallery, first for Mitt Romney and then for Barack Obama. Having devoted every waking hour for the last year and a half to catering to the carnivores in his party, Romney needs to cut back on the red-meat rhetoric that was required of him to win the GOP nomination. The vast majority of conservatives would vote for very nearly anyone running against Obama.
In a New York Times piece, Campbell Robertson wrote that “the antipathy toward the current administration among Republican voters, described here in terms ranging from the vulgar to the apocalyptic, can hardly be exaggerated.” While Romney must win a few Democratic votes, he doesn’t need to switch to a vegan or even a vegetarian diet. By the same token, independent and swing voters don’t eat all their meals at steak houses. He needs a more balanced and reasoned rhetoric, appealing to brains and not just to glands. A discussion with Republicans and conservatives about health care reform has usually entailed talking about big government. Independents, meanwhile, were concerned about Obama’s health care law because they already had health insurance. They were reasonably happy with it and were fearful that any major changes to the system would either raise premiums or cut benefits. Unlike conservatives and Republican partisans, independents don’t see health care or any other issue through an ideological lens.
Transitioning from primary to general-election politics is rarely easy. Candidates and campaign operatives develop Pavlovian conditioning. For months, they talk exclusively to partisans, looking for rhetoric that will elicit heads moving up and down in agreement. This rhetoric may create frowns or at least cause puzzled responses from swing voters. Sitting Romney down in front of a laptop, watching focus groups with swing voters, may resensitize him.
A second piece of advice for Romney: Shut up about foreign policy. It’s clearly not your forte. You sound shrill at best and, at worst, uninformed. Romney isn’t going to beat Obama on foreign policy. It will be on the economy. Polls show that Obama gets considerably better job-approval ratings on handling foreign policy than on anything else. For Romney, the bad news is that Obama is rated reasonably well on foreign policy. The good news is that voters don’t seem to be voting on foreign policy.
Finally, Romney needs to connect personally with voters. At worst, he is seen as Richie Rich. As one Republican senator backing Romney argues, he needs to be seen as more of a Ward Cleaver, the dad on Leave It to Beaver. There is a personable side to Romney. It just doesn’t show much. Contrary to what many seem to think, presidential elections are not popularity contests; it’s not like electing a class president in high school. But there is a threshold of likability that a candidate needs to clear. Romney’s not there yet.
For Obama, the most important thing may be to resist the temptation of telling people how much better the economy is doing than it really is. Voters don’t believe it and they don’t want to hear it. Ask Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who has produced reams of polling data demonstrating that. It is the economic equivalent of hoisting a “Mission Accomplished” banner, when the mission isn’t anywhere near completed and is not getting much better. Last Friday, Obama did it again, when the unemployment numbers came out. While the average voter probably doesn’t know that the unemployment rate has dropped more because of declining labor participation rates, they know that the economy isn’t creating so many jobs that the unemployment rate is coming down with any speed. The decline in labor participation among 25-to-54-year-olds is dramatic, and that of 16-to-24-year-olds is more dramatic still.
Obama has increased his approval among younger voters (18-29) and Latino and African-American voters. Particularly among young and Latino voters, his approval numbers last fall were not nearly what they should have been, given that those groups gave Obama 66 and 67 percent of the vote, respectively. What’s lacking is enthusiasm and intensity. It helps that those are easily definable and reachable groups; specific messaging and forms of media can effectively reach them. Those efforts, though, are made difficult by an economic downturn that was tougher on them than most, and a recovery that has benefited them less than others.
This article appears in the May 8, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.