My biggest complaint with many younger political journalists is their lack of appreciation for scale and context. Some seem to think that almost every event is huge and consequential, and will remain so until Election Day. How often have you heard an assertion like that on cable or talk radio or read it in a blog? I’ve lost count of how many “critical” events this year are now little more than an afterthought. There’s no doubt, however, that Mitt Romney’s speech tonight is enormously important—arguably more so than the debates or anything else that is likely to happen between now and Nov. 6.
Sure, in a close race, debates can become important. It was a debate that put Ronald Reagan over the top in 1980. Like this year, the Democratic incumbent—in that case, President Carter—was enormously vulnerable. But Reagan’s problem was that, because he was a former movie actor, voters weren’t sure whether he was smart enough and big enough to be commander in chief. Before the debate, he had not crossed that threshold of being presidential. Reagan did a great job in the debate, clearing the threshold with ease. And over the final five days of the campaign, the race went from “too close to call” by nearly every account to a 51 percent to 41 percent Reagan victory (with independent John Anderson picking up the remainder).
As in 1980, voters today are open to the suggestion of firing the president. And, like 32 years ago, the Republican challenger has not yet crossed a crucial threshold. But unlike Reagan in 1980, Romney’s challenge isn’t about his intellect or command of issues, hurdles that he can easily clear with a strong debate performance. Romney’s test is more personal. Voters began this week feeling like they didn’t know him. For whatever reason, his campaign is just now getting around to attempting to establish a personal connection between Romney and the public. That connection cannot be made in a debate; the format doesn’t lend itself to it.
Romney desperately needs to leave Tampa having created that relationship. Ann Romney’s speech was a start, but tonight, Romney has to do the connecting himself. Those wavering Republican-leaning independents, along with the pure independents and Democrats disaffected with Obama and the economy, need to feel more comfortable about Romney the person before they trust him with their votes. President Obama’s campaign and allied groups have done a masterful job of raising doubts about the GOP nominee. Romney needs to connect enough to earn the benefit of the doubt from voters. Tonight isn’t about a pitch to be president of the high school class. It isn’t a popularity or likability contest, but it is about clearing a threshold.
The Cook Political Report lists 11 swing states. Pollster.com has Obama leading in 10 (all but North Carolina), although some weeks Iowa tilts slightly toward Romney. The swing-state situation looks less promising for Romney than the very tight national picture.
These swing voters in battleground states have heard Romney called virtually everything short of a corporate grim reaper. They don’t need to consider him a guy they would like to have a beer with, but they need to feel that if he were a neighbor, they could comfortably ask him to collect the newspapers and the mail while they were away. Focus groups show that people perceive Romney as aloof and wonder whether he would even speak to them. His friends say that this is ridiculous, that he’s a terrific guy. But the doubts persist. Tonight is the night Romney needs to fix that.