There’s no guarantee that President Obama will beat Mitt Romney if the two face off in November. But if that is the matchup, and the result, both campaigns could look back at last weekend as the turning point.
Such a showdown looks increasingly likely after Romney’s commanding New Hampshire victory. Unless his battered opponents recoup for a South Carolina upset, the former Massachusetts governor could effectively wrap up the GOP nomination this month.
Under any scenario, Romney looms as a strong challenger and Obama as an embattled, though not disqualified, incumbent. A race between them could reprise the “50-50 nation” evident in the razor-thin 2000 and 2004 presidential results.
Unexpected events could always intrude. But today, three factors look most critical in framing a potential Obama-Romney race. The most visible will be their ideological debate over Washington’s role. Two other dynamics could be even more decisive: the state of the economy, and the public’s assessment of Romney’s years as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital. On each of those latter issues, the past week could prove pivotal.
Both Obama and Romney appear spoiling for a big fight over government’s reach. Romney accuses Obama of abandoning American traditions by seeking to bloat government and redistribute income. “He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” Romney insists.
Obama, in turn, portrays Republicans as servants of a calcifying inequality that is strangling the American tradition of upward mobility for all. Only an activist government policing the marketplace and investing in building blocks of productivity, such as infrastructure and education, can maintain broadly based opportunity, Obama contends.
This will be a clangorous and consequential debate. But it almost certainly won’t decide the election. The reason is that the last sliver of swing voters who usually tip the result don’t fully align with either party’s vision of government’s role—or even view their choice primarily through that lens. As Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor surveys have consistently shown, about two-fifths of Americans basically endorse Romney’s limited view of government; up to one-third support Obama’s more expansive approach. The last approximately one-quarter of the electorate falls in between: These voters are open to activist government in theory but dubious that it will help them in practice. As Obama has privately noted, they are likely to be moved less by philosophical argument than by results and by personal assessments of the candidates.
That points to the first of the past week’s key developments: the federal report showing 200,000 new jobs last December. The economy has now added private-sector jobs in every month since March 2010—more than 3 million in all. That’s not world-beating, but it’s much better than the loss of 643,000 private-sector jobs during George W. Bush’s two terms. Obama, of course, is still carrying a net employment loss because the economy hemorrhaged so many jobs in 2009; but if voters pin those initial losses on the downturn he inherited, he might be able to argue that his path forward is more promising than Romney’s economic plan centered on extending the Bush tax cuts that produced such meager results.
The recent job gains haven’t dented the public’s overwhelming sense that the nation is on the wrong track. But if job growth maintains momentum—an uncertain but plausible possibility—it would fan the embers of optimism about economic improvement glimmering in recent polls. That’s critical because history shows that the economy’s trajectory matters more than its absolute level in shaping voter decisions.
This week’s other crucial development was the heated charges from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry that Romney at Bain practiced a “vulture capitalism” that “looted” companies and destroyed jobs. Romney argues that his Bain experience uniquely qualifies him to fix the economy. Gingrich and Perry, like Obama’s team waiting offstage, maintain that his experience there uniquely embodies a cutthroat capitalism that has undermined middle-class security while enriching the wealthiest. Apart from the economy’s condition, nothing may prove more decisive in a Romney-Obama race than how a majority of voters by Election Day interpret Romney’s Bain experience.
Facing this fusillade, Romney initially seemed unsteady, stumbling through a series of awkward remarks about pink slips and firing people that inevitably would resurface in a race against Obama. “This is the first time in the campaign where he has been the target, and he has not handled it particularly well,” one senior Obama adviser said. Many Republicans anxiously agree.
Romney has settled on a defense that equates attacks on his Bain record with attacks on “free enterprise.” (Some candidates wrap themselves in the flag; Romney is wrapping himself in The Wall Street Journal.) That may blunt the criticism in a Republican primary.
In a general election, though, he would need a stronger defense. He may formulate one—or win anyway, if enough voters remain economically dissatisfied. But if the economy improves, and Romney’s explanation of Bain doesn’t, both sides may mark this week as the moment when the business experience that he expected to be his core asset was revealed as a potentially disabling vulnerability.
This article appears in the January 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.