Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Obama is Surging

The Obama campaign, by fortune or by wit, has peaked at the right moment. Early voting has already started in Virginia, and starts in Iowa and Ohio next week. This means that the polls telling a uniform story of an Obama surge in crucial swing states aren't just snap-shots; they are predictive of how voters -- about 35 percent of total voters -- are actually starting to vote as we speak.

Republicans like Karl Rove are saying that the CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac polls are wrong because they are using the turnout model of 2008. But Gallup found similar results. So did Bloomberg. So did the Washington Post. Obama's numbers are moving up, and it is intellectually dishonest and ultimately self-defeating for some Republicans to spin a story about over-sampling Democrats to deny the plausible reality that a triangulation of polls are pointing to.  (And by the way, the over-sampling spin is rather more complicated even than what its wonkish advocates say on tv, if only because no one knows what turnout is going to be.)

So right now, it is not looking good for Romney, who has to wait until October 5 to stand toe-to-toe with Obama, and demonstrate his presidential stature. It may be too late by then, which is why the Romney campaign has finally shifted from a national strategy to a state-by-state strategy, starting in Ohio. Whether or not it was wise to wait this late to start the ground game, we will know in six weeks. The Obama campaign has 96 offices in Ohio, nearly three times as many as Romney does -- a strategic bet by the Democrats that the ground game matters more than the battle over the airwaves. The Republicans are expecting, in the post-Citizens United world, that the superPACS will step up to seal the deal for Romney.

Every fumbling campaign has at least one correctable problem -- the candidate. Romney and Ryan need to stop complaining about how bad it is, or at least spend as much time telling us how good we could have it in the next four years. Even independent voters don't want to hire a doomsayer for president, and this is especially important because the alternative, Obama, is a positive, likable guy. Even if Americans do not feel better off today than they were in 2008, the real question is whether they would be better off in 2016 under Obama or under Romney. It is not just about malaise in America, but also about morning in America. What can Americans look forward to with President Romney? For better or for worse, voters need to be flattered, and they don't want to to be told that the only reason not to vote for a sitting president is the disaster he will bring; they also need to be inspired by someone who would awaken their better angels and lead them to greener pasture.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The September Surprise

Mitt Romney definitely did not count on foreign policy becoming a major issue two weeks after he chose budget hawk, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate, making his the weakest ticket on foreign policy for decades.

What is even more perverse is that Romney himself chose to go off message. Instead of hammering Obama on the economy, he decided to come out to call the administration's alleged failure to deliver a more forceful repudiation of the attacks on 4 Americans in Benghazi "disgraceful." The result is that foreign policy will now dominate the airwaves even more than it would have without Romney's provocation. It also means that foreign policy will figure more in the upcoming debates than it would have, and Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, who know a lot more about economics than war, will have plenty of opportunity to trip up against Joe Biden and Barack Obama. 

This is a continuing pattern of a campaign in constant search of an attack strategy that would work, one that willingly goes off message because for whatever reason, the message isn't working. A merely reactive campaign waiting on the sidelines to jump on a mistake cannot have a coherent message. 

The fact, anyway, is that President Obama is far more vulnerable on his economic record than he is on foreign policy. Yet he is not vulnerable enough. And this is the dilemma that the Romney team has not been able to resolve in the last couple of months. Each time they have tried a new message other than the economic declension narrative on the national debt and unemployment, they have had to ease up on the only strategy that has worked, but only to an insufficient degree. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Infusing foreign policy into the campaign, however, is particularly counter-productive for the Romney campaign because foreign policy is a very poor fit with their existing economic message, unlike say healthcare reform / repeal. This is why the RNC convention barely talked about foreign policy. When voters are uncertain about their economic future, they have historically been prepared to take a leap of faith in a challenger candidate; but when voters are uncertain about global unrest, they have tended to stay the course with the incumbent. Further, Obama's likability numbers translate most easily into his role as Commander-in-Chief. This is not an area on which he could be easily challenged, however loudly the voices of a minority in the Republican Party suggest otherwise. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Post-Mortem on DNC Convention

The Democrats are enjoying a little bump from their convention last week, but it had little to do with Barack Obama, and a lot to do with Bill Clinton. The reason why Clinton's speech worked was because he was specifically charged to address the substance of his speech to independents and older white males. He was very successful in making his speech appear reasonable, while delivering very partisan conclusions. As such, the speech was becomingly presidential.

Obama's speech on the hand was predictable and tired. He seemed not to have recognized that he was in a very different position than four years ago. The language of empathy and hope falls on deaf ears when the speaker's credibility has been tarnished. What his research team needs is a catalogue of facts, such as those presented by Bill Clinton, for making the case that the administration has made some progress on various fronts ahead of the presidential debates next month. Unlike Romney, Obama must walk a tightrope of appearing presidential when still appealing to his base. Facts, not emotions, are his best allies this time.

In the end, for better or for worse, elections are now about persons, not parties. Candidates make all kinds of promises and voters have to make their judgment calls by triangulating imperfect indices of credibility. This is why negative ads can be so damaging. But so can strategic endorsements. One of the most powerful moments in the Republican convention was when Ann Romney shed light on some of Mitt Romney's  private acts of charity.

The rest of the Democratic convention was uninspiring. The choreography of minorities conspicuously put on display and the overplaying of the abortion issue crowded out precious time that could have been spent on putting a positive spin on Obama's record and restoring his credibility. The choice of North Carolina as the convention site was possibly also based on hubris. Most polls since May have put NC in Romney's column. The Democrats may have done better with a more defensive strategy and held their convention in states like Colorado or Virginia.

Looking ahead, the electoral dynamics are likely to change if for one reason alone: now that Romney is the official nominee, he can dip into the RNC's funds to add to his already formidable war-chest. He may yet be able to make up the advantage Obama enjoys in the electoral college map.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Post-Mortem on RNC Convention

The Republicans' convention bump for Mitt Romney appears to be muted. Why? There was a lot of bad luck. Going before the Labor Day weekend caused television viewership to go down by 30 percent, as did the competing and distracting news about Hurricane Isaac. The Clint Eastwood invisible chair was not a disaster, but a wasted opportunity that Romney's advisors should have vetted. Valuable time that could have been spent promoting Romney (such as the video of him that had to be played earlier) before he came out to speak on prime time was instead spent in a meandering critique of Obama.

Obama's first remarks about the convention was that it was something you would see on a black-and-white tv -- a new spin on the Republican Party as allegedly backward, as opposed to the Democrat's who lean "Forward." The most revealing thing about the convention was that President George W. Bush was not asked to speak. Instead, he appeared in a video with the older Bush, possibly in a bid to mollify the presence of the younger. Republicans are still divided over Bush, which is why they continued their hagiography of Reagan in the convention. For all of Jeb Bush's intonations for the Obama campaign to stop putting blame on the previous administration, the fact is that the convention conceded that George W. Bush was indeed a liability. "Forward" is a narrative that can work as long as the look immediately backwards isn't too satisfying.

On the other side, Bill Clinton will of course make an appearance in Charlotte in next week. The Democrats have also wisely flooded the speakers' list with women, to show that the Republicans' paltry presentation of just five women represent the tokenism narrative that Democrats are trying to paint. Women are America's numerically biggest demographic, and they are more likely to turn out than men (by 4 percent in 2008).

In this final stretch, the gurus are gunning straight for the demographics. Campaigning has become a science, albeit an imperfect one. The Romney campaign now knows that a generic refutation of the Obama's performance about the economy, jobs, the national debt -- which we've all been hearing about for nearly 4 years -- is not going to change the underlying tectonics of voter sentiment. This is why they tried to elevate the Medicare issue last week, and why they're trying the personalize Romney strategy this week. The latter is more likely to work, and it should be done quickly, because next week, the DNC intends to make America fall in love with Barack Obama again.