It is becoming clear that if President Obama is reelected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign; if Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign.
The U.S. economy—and, by extension, the public’s judgment of Obama’s stewardship over the economy—is a millstone that no president would want around his neck. Polls and focus groups are quite clear: While Americans don’t blame Obama for the economic downturn, they are disappointed with how he has handled it since taking office. They had hoped that he would be more effective. Just a third of Americans in last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling felt that the country was headed in the right direction, and 54 percent disapproved of the president’s handling of the economy.
What’s worse, it’s not getting better. A just-released Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of 56 top economists shows a consensus forecast of the U.S. economy growing by just 1.7 percent in the current, third quarter and 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter, with unemployment remaining around 8.2 percent for the last six months of 2012. Traditionally this would not be considered reelection territory.
But for all of that, Obama went into the conventions either tied or with an ever-so-slight lead in the national polls, and he comes out of the Democratic convention with a lead. The exact size of that advantage will be clear by the end of this week, when we will see a pile of new, post-convention polling. Gallup’s seven-day moving-average tracking poll through last Sunday gives Obama a 4-point lead, 49 percent to 45 percent. Going into the GOP convention, the battleground-state picture looked better for Obama than the national numbers: Obama was up in nine of 11 battlegrounds, with Michigan and Pennsylvania looking not so much like battleground states. Romney leads only in North Carolina.
While there are talented and hardworking staffers and consultants working on the Romney campaign, this column since July has been highly critical of Romney advertising and messaging. The decision to defer any biographical ads until August—ads that would have sought to define Romney on a personal level beyond being just rich, as someone worthy of trust, and as someone whom swing voters might be comfortable having in the White House—is inexplicable. The Obama campaign and allies ripped Romney apart in swing-state advertising, and with no Teflon coating to protect their candidate, it stuck like Velcro. While Romney allies say that such positive ads did not “move numbers” when dial-tested, my view is that these kinds of ads are essential to making their candidate acceptable. No matter how unhappy voters are, if they are uncomfortable with the alternative, the incumbent survives.
Only in the last few days has the Romney campaign begun buying any time in swing states on local cable systems, something the Obama team has been doing for months. While one campaign has been looking for every nook and cranny to reach voters and has been doing so for some time, the other didn’t bother until after the conventions. Go figure.
The Romney campaign made the extraordinary decision to not try seriously to connect their candidate with voters on a personal level until their convention. As dubious as that decision was, they were rewarded by having a convention shortened by a day due to a hurricane, then compounded the error of waiting until the convention by putting much of what was most needed to be seen in the 8 and 9 p.m. hours, when the only viewers would be C-SPAN fans. Wow! The biographical film and the testimonials of people whose lives had been touched by Romney were powerful, necessary, and largely unseen. Instead, the Romney campaign treated them to the Clint Eastwood debacle and a serviceable speech by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida that should have been made earlier, not chewing up precious broadcast airtime. At the 10-11 p.m. hour, abbreviated personal testimonies and the film introducing Romney’s own speech—which was quite good—would have made for an extraordinary hour of television and very likely have done him a lot of good with voters.
As a result of all of this, while voters are quite open to firing Obama, they remain quite reticent about Romney. Debates can and have been critical, but they work better for candidates who need to demonstrate that they are smart and knowledgeable, tests Romney met and passed long ago; debates are tougher venues for demonstrating empathy and developing trust.
This is a very close race and one that still could go either way. But the odds of Romney capitalizing on this economy, and the opportunity it affords, seem lower than they were before the conventions. If Republicans and Romney supporters are growing nervous, they should be.
This article appears in the Sep. 11, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.