Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who did Sandy Help?

Everything is political at this time of the electoral calendar, so there is no use pretending that Hurricane Sandy will not have an effect on the presidential race.

President Obama has been given a new life line. Forced to take politics out of his campaign, he can take a break from defending his record for two days. When an incumbent president is forced by emergency events to stop talking politics, he always enjoys the glow emanating form the Oval Office. This is especially so for a candidate who appears, to some undecided voters, to have lost his luster from 2008, so campaigning has limited marginal returns for him anyway. It's a difficult balancing act for an incumbent president campaigning to keep his job, because he must both be president and a politician. For two days, Barack Obama can be the latter by being the former.

If any candidate was enjoying any momentum in this last week of the campaign, it was probably Romney; and the news stories about Sandy has put a pause on that. Romney was out today collecting canned food and donations, and he will benefit from the humanizing pictures of his campaign's outreach. However, the challenger always does better when he can be in unfettered, attack mode.

This leaves us with two days before the weekend before Election Day, when voters will weigh the closing arguments of both campaigns. The Republicans have been successfully pushing a narrative of chaos, uncertainty, and an America in decline -- this has hurt the president's numbers. The critical question for the next two days is if the Romney campaign can congeal this declension narrative with the post-Sandy chaos. This is a high-risk thing to attempt - not least because Governor Chris Christie has praised Barack Obama's handling of this crisis and declared it out of bounds.

The Obama campaign also has an opportunity here. Americans have a love-hate relationship with the welfare state, but in war and emergency situations, most embrace the federal government without reservation. The Obama campaign will likely recognize an opportunity here to showcase what the government can do for us, when individuals and states are incapacitated by acts of God.

One thing we do not yet know, however, is how Sandy may have affected early voting in Ohio. Obama has been up in almost every poll in the last month in Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), and Wisconsin (10), which gives Obama 252 electoral college votes. If he wins Ohio's 18, he wins, that is why Sandy's impact matters. (If he wins Florida, he also wins.)

Assuming that Romney takes Colorado (9), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), and Florida (29), he will have 257 votes in the electoral college. If he takes New Hampshire (4) and/or Iowa (6) he still needs to peel one of the industrial mid-west states to his column. But if Romney takes Ohio, he wins. That is why there is a tremendous spin war going on about who is winning the early vote in Ohio.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

With Final Debate Over, Ground Game Intensifies

Mitt Romney barely passed the bar on Monday night's debate. He was tentative and guarded, not just because he was being strategic, but because he wasn't, understandably, in command of the facts of foreign policy as a sitting president would be. Barack Obama "won" the debate, but it will have minimal impact on altering the fundamental dynamics of the race.

A number of polls now find Romney's momentum continuing at the national level. Romney's team has been playing a national strategy because he needs to swing nearly all the battleground states in his direction, whereas Obama has played a state-by-state strategy because he has a couple of paths to 270. The upshot of this is that Romney is intensifying his lead at the national level, but this movement at the aggregate level has not translated as well to the battleground states. Most importantly, Obama still leads by a razor's edge in Ohio.

The Obama campaign is making a bet: that in these last two weeks, it is the ground game that matters most, because there are more registered Democrats than they are registered Republicans, and the key for Obama is turnout, not ideological conversion (as it has been for Romney). This is why Obama leads in field offices in key battleground states. Both campaigns acknowledge that the Democrats will dominate in this ground game.

And so, in this final stretch, it will be two great partisan armies getting the vote out in the battleground states that will determine the final outcome. The artificial high that Obama was riding through the summer, as Mitt Romney was still battling his compatriots during the primaries, was vitiated as soon as Romney took the national stage and glided back to the ideological center. On the other hand, whatever momentum Romney has today will not easily pierce the Democratic firewall in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

This means that silly season in American elections is in full swing. To get the vote, both sides must claim that Armageddon would arrive if one or the other candidate wins. Scare tactics, mud-slinging, and even a Donald Trump surprise are intended to rile people up and get them to the ballot box, or make them so disillusioned that they fail to turn out for their candidate. It is a quadrennial irony we face that everything that is wrong about American democracy is on full, unvarnished display at the same time that citizens prepare to perform one of their greatest acts in a democracy. The good news is this will all be over in two weeks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On the Second Presidential Debate

The second presidential debate tells us about the candidates' readings of their own campaigns. Both Romney and Obama were fighting for air time, trying to break out of the impasse of "he-said-she-said."

Women were mentioned about 30 times in the debate, because Romney knew that he had to close the gender hap. Obama joined in on the China bashing, because Romney has started to gain traction with workers in Ohio with his attacks on China's trade violations.

Obama knew that he had to deflate the Libya story, so he took full responsibility for what happened in Benghazi, even though Secretary Clinton had given him an out. Obama's taking offense at Romney's charges would not have gained him any Republican converts, but they are likely to have a net positive impact on undecided voters, who are usually willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Commander-in-Chief, because nobody has access to intelligence information the way the president does. The good news for Obama is that the next debate, on foreign policy, will shield him from his weakest link, the economy.

Where Romney will continue to have the benefit of the doubt is his proposed handling of the economy. His strongest moment in the second debate was when he pulled up statistics on the number of people unemployed, on food stamps, the size of the national debt, etc. This was Republican version of Bill Clinton's "arithmetic" speech. Obama tried to characterize Romney's economic plan as a "sketchy deal." The problem is that he doesn't exactly start off with a whole lot of credibility.

Emboldened by his last debate performance, Romney might have been too enthusiastic in the second debate. At times, he may have been snarkier than he should have been. Undecided voters, who already don't like negativity, would not have liked Romney's smack-down of Obama. ("That wasn't a question; that was a statement.")

Overall, Obama did much better in this debate than in the last, but he did not do enough to make up the ground he lost, in part because of the town hall format. A victory when a candidate is standing beside his opponent and sparring with him directly is more compelling than a (possible) victory when both are directing their comments to a small group of voters. The town hall format is just less interesting to watch, and I won't be surprised that audiences were bored and were channel surfing during the second debate.

As far as the horse race goes, Obama still has more paths to 270. Romney is looking good in Florida, but Obama leads in Virginia and Ohio. The Romney team knows that their campaign needs to put Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin in play in case they lose Ohio. Watch for a re-nationalized campaign strategy from Team Romney if they see movement in these previously leaning-Democrat states.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Looking Ahead to the Second Debate

Paul Ryan did a good job at the vice-presidential debate; but Joe Biden did a little better. Biden came off condescending in the initial part of the debate with his laughter, but he mellowed out toward the end. He was aided in part by the fact that Martha Raddatz, the moderator, was somewhat tougher on Ryan than on Biden.

Ryan's best line was his rebuttal to Biden's discussion of Romney's "47 percent remark," when he noted that Biden has had his own foot-in-mouth moments. Biden's best moment during the debate was when he informed the audience that the Congressman had sent him two letters asking for federal aid to stimulate job growth in Wisconsin. Ouch on both counts.

But this debate did not change the dynamics of the race. Independents care more about the top of the ticket, so Obama will still have to come back swinging in the next presidential debate if he wants to regain the lead he had two weeks ago.

The Romney bump from the first debate comes from one thing more than any other: it was the first time since the primaries that he had the freedom to come back to the political center. Before, he was hemmed in and awkward because he was trying to out-flank his competitors on the right. Now, by moving back to the center, Romney was able to tap into the reserve of undecided voters, while his critics on the right have no choice but to bite their tongue when they watch him take new positions, such as accepting parts of Obamacare, because they would rather Romney wins than Obama.

Knowing this, the best way forward for Obama on Tuesday is to draw out the Romney from the primaries. He will try to remind Americans of the Romney who was polling so poorly most of summer while the Obama team was bombarding the airwaves trying to define Romney as the guy with the offshore bank accounts who doesn't quite get middle America. To remind voters of himself back in 2008, Obama needs to recall the language of community, mutual obligations, and the promise of "a more perfect Union."

Obama should also be prepared to answer questions about the security situation at Benghazi. The best defense is an offense for him. Even if the administration had beefed up security in Benghazi -- and most of the requests were for extending the tours of security guards in Tripoli, 400 miles away -- there is no evidence to think that the embassy assault on Sep 11 could have been prevented or repelled.

Polls seem to indicate that the Romney bump from the last debate has tapered out. Both candidates will have to fight harder every day, as the number of persuadable voters decline as we approach November 6. After the second presidential debate, the ground game (as opposed to the air war) is going to become increasingly important -- and here is where Romney could be at a disadvantage, which is why he needs to ace this debate more than Obama.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Obama Out of Practice for First Debate

President Obama had a bad night. The key to succeeding in a presidential debate is recognizing that it is not a parliamentary debate. The rules, the moderator, and even the immediate audience (since they are not permitted to applaud) do not matter. Instead, candidates should bare their souls to the camera lenses. There, magic is made.

Like a legislator used to addressing the president of the chamber and not the audience, Obama was too formal last night. Obama was looking down on his notes too often when Romney was speaking. Silent moments matter too -- because candidates can still connect with the audience with their eyes. Even when he was not looking down, Obama was looking at Jim Lehrer rather than at the camera most of the time.

Obama's advisors must have, rightly, warned Obama not to lose his presidential poise. But they forgot to add that in a two-person setup, a basic modicum of aggressiveness was required. Given that Obama's countenance is naturally already cool, he would have benefitted from a reminder that he's back on the campaign trail, president or not. Advisors should tailor-make advice for their candidate. Next round, they should tell Obama to forget that he is president. He should look into the camera at every moment, when he is talking and when he is silent, pleading for the vote. Obama should also keep an internal clock, knowing that Jim Lehrer did him no favors last debate by allowing him to ramble longer than the pre-allotted two-minute segments.

Obama tried too hard to take Romney to task on the specific numbers of his tax plan. But there are no scorers in presidential debates. It doesn't actually matter who won the logical argument; but it does matter who passed the plausibility threshold. Mitt Romney did last night. He kept repeating the $716 billion cut from Medicare and in American politics, saying it is so, makes it so. Nobody cares about what the fact-checkers are saying today. Or about Dodd-Frank or Simpson-Bowles. Or whether rebuttals come the day after. Over 10 million tweets were shared as the debate proceeded last night, many about Big Bird, and most declaring Romney victorious.

Obama's biggest missed opportunity was on the discussion about the role of the federal government, when Obama normally would have excelled. Romney rightly reached to the sacred scripture of the Republican Party, the Declaration of Independence, referring to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obama failed to counter. The sacred scripture of the Democratic Party is the Preamble of the Constitution. Life, liberty and happiness matter, but so do justice, a more perfect Union, and the general welfare. Bill Clinton knew this when he gave his spectacular speech at the DNC Convention. Obama forgot his roots last night.

In terms of the horse race, this was not a game-changer; it certainly would not change the ground game in the electoral map. There were no forced errors on Obama's part, just missed opportunities. He should be advised, however, not to go overboard the other way in the next debate, as Al Gore had done in 2000. Obama was wise not to mention the 47 percent comment or offshore bank accounts. That information is already out there and there is no need for the President of the United States to do the dirty work that his surrogates can.

Obama is a quick rebounder. He will be back in the game in the next debate, and we will have a showdown.