Sunday, August 19, 2012

Team Romney's Game Change

In our fast-paced world where candidates throw everything but the sink at television and internet audiences to see what sticks, Mitt Romney made a particularly gutsy move last week by adopting Medicare in his fight against Obama and Obamacare. Together with the selection of Paul Ryan as VP candidate, this was a game change revealing that Team Romney is going straight for demographics in this home stretch of the campaign.

For months, the Romney team has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama's first term. They believe they have failed, in large part due to the Obama campaign's very successful negative campaign on Romney's tax returns and record with Bain. They now know that an unemployment rate hovering above 8 percent is the new normal, and they need to be more aggressive to get through Obama's teflon hide.

The Medicare strategy is clearly targeted at states with an older population. It is a strategy made for Florida and Pennsylvania. The Paul Ryan pick, on the other hand, will help Romney not only in Wisconsin, but is also a strategy pitched at young voters. If Romney can erode Obama's popularity among the young, especially those between 18 and 24, and secure the support of the older in Florida, he may have a way to 270.

But as all game changers are, these are  high risk strategies, very much like John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin. Most Americans trust the Democrats more on Medicare than the Republicans. More importantly, most Republicans don't know how to talk about Medicare. It is a convoluted argument indeed to lament that America is becoming an entitlement state while at the same time say that Romney would protect the entitlements of those above 55 (unlike Obama). Yet this is a problem surmountable with enough campaign advertisements which we know Team Romney can afford. A deeper challenge remains, however. Paul Ryan is young and likeable, but as we know from 2008,  it is not easy to transfer charm upwards from the second person on the ticket.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Playing the Veepstakes

As the national conventions of the major parties approach, the presidential campaign has taken a sharply negative turn in recent days.

Even conservatives are turning on themselves, not because they really think that Romney is going to lose, but because they are mounting an internal campaign to foist a more robustly conservative running mate, Paul Ryan, on Romney knowing that the person on the top of the ticket was the least conservative person the Republicans could have chosen.

Most candidates name their running mates about a week before the national conventions.  So this is the time to apply the pressure.

Between now and November, strategy will matter, because fundamentals are unlikely to change. In particular, the state of the economy is unlikely to be as great a predictor as it has been in past elections. First, the unemployment rate is not going to affect Obama as much as once thought, because of a collective sense of learned helplessness, already priced into the market, that the state of the American economy turns on what happens to the European Union. Second, 60 percent of Americans believe Obama inherited an economic morass, which means that the best predictor of election outcomes, the economy, becomes less useful. Third, the Obama campaign neutralized its greatest weakness - the economy's performance - by making a big deal about Romney's tax returns and Bain history. If Romney does not redefine himself in the eye of the electorate, he cannot put the blame of the faltering economy wholly on Obama's shoulders. Oddly enough, that Republican-leaning superPACs are raising three times as much money as Democrat-leaning superPACs is only adding to the perception that Romney is in cahoots with Big Business.

Since economic fundamentals are out of the control of the politicians, unfortunately, for already weary television audiences in the swing states, it is going to be a deluge of mud slinging till the end. Artificial crises, mutual outrage, feigned innocence are among the predictable catalogue of campaign techniques for a democracy reduced to treating citizens as poll-tested automatons responding to manufactured stimuli.

Political fundamentals, however, will continue to apply. And here, Obama dominates. The electoral map tells a story far clearer than the noise of the national polls going up and down, and the media reporting the sideshow of the day. In fact, at the risk of over-simplifying the puzzle, one need only look at Ohio. No Republican candidate has won the presidency without taking Ohio, and Barack Obama has led in every poll in Ohio since November 2011, by an average of 5 points. My advice to Romney if he wants to win: ask, beg, demand that Ohio Senator Rob Portman be his running mate. If he takes a risk  as McCain took on Palin, and goes with Ryan, then he already knows that he has nothing to lose.