All across the Commentariat, I’m hearing the same message: “The pregame warm-up is over.” The Obama vs. Romney show-down has finally arrived, so it’s time to get serious about the November election.
It’s fascinating, though, to see what “getting serious” means to different people. For some, it means getting down to the nuts and bolts of the electoral college. We actually hold 51 presidential elections – don’t forget D.C. – or even 56, once you realize that Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote for each congressional district plus two for the winner of the statewide election.
People who get electoral-college-serious are already drawing their swing-state maps, like CNN’s above, where they give Obama 196 EVs, Romney 159, and leave 183 up for grabs in 15 swing states. If you want to try your own scenarios, go to 270towin.com. (Here’s mine: Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina only go to Obama in another landslide. Ditto for Romney taking Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. So I start with Obama 242, Romney 206 and eight swing states worth 90. I think it will ultimately come down to Ohio and Virginia.)
Other people get demographic-serious. These folks focus on the Latino vote, the gender gap, and the turnout of Obama’s “new voters” (mainly blacks and young people) who showed up in 2008 but not in 2010.
You can also get characteristic-serious. People’s voting choices might still be in flux, but Obama is more “likeable” than Romney (56%–27% in a recent poll), and is also seen as “more honest and trustworthy” (44%–33%).
Here’s the way I’m looking at the race: April head-to-head polls are fun, but a lot can happen before November. Unless you’re a professional campaign strategist, it’s also too early to get electoral-college-serious. That’s a game to play in October, when it merges with demographic-seriousness and you start talking about the Hispanic vote in Colorado or how the urban/rural split is playing out in Virginia.
Characteristic-seriousness is only part of the story. Nobody liked or trusted Richard Nixon, but in 1972 Tricky Dick had one of the biggest landslides ever. Nate Silver says favorability predicts the outcome in October, but not so well in April. (Maybe we talk ourselves into liking a candidate after we decide to vote for him.)
So instead, I’m getting narrative-serious. To me, this phase of the campaign is about fleshing out four stories: Why you should vote
- for Obama
- against Obama
- for Romney
- against Romney.
Come November, one of those stories is going to sound a lot more believable than the other three. Whoever benefits from that story is going to win.
The candidates’ characteristics matter, but only as the building-blocks of their stories. So Mitt Romney’s message can’t be: “You should vote for me because I’m a regular guy like you.” That loses, because we’ve all already decided we don’t believe it.
Losing campaigns are characterized by images that crystalize the unbelievability of some part of the candidate’s story: Mike Dukakis in a tank. John Kerry hunting geese. Mitt Romney trying to look like a regular guy is a similar image waiting to happen.
But Romney doesn’t have to be a regular guy to win. FDR wasn’t and neither was JFK. Neither, for that matter, is Obama. So Romney could have a winning message like this: “This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.” People who don’t like Mitt at all might believe that story and vote for him.
Vote for Romney. The Romney smart-executive message depends on a couple of things. The more the economy appears to need saving, the better it works. Plus, Romney has to look and sound like that guy. He needs to win the debates, and he needs some economic proposals that seem new.
Obama’s allies can throw sand in Romney’s gears in two ways: (1) By pointing out that Romney wasn’t a turn-around executive, he was a vulture capitalist who profited from deals that destroyed jobs. (2) By identifying Romney’s don’t-tax-the-rich, don’t-regulate-BP policies with the Bush administration. If Romney’s so smart about the economy, why does he sound just like George W. Bush?
Vote for Obama. Obama needs to portray himself as a reasonable guy who did well under difficult conditions, and who has kept his eye on the country’s long-term goals. He needs to contrast how the economy is now (middling) with how it was on Inauguration Day (in free fall).
No matter what the Supreme Court does with it, he needs to defend Obamacare as the only progress recent presidents have made on reforming our broken healthcare system. Make Romney (or the Court) own all the problems of the pre-Obamacare system.
Obama can also point to foreign policy successes that have no parallel on Romney’s resume: We’re not fighting in Iraq any more. We’re winding down Afghanistan. And Osama bin Laden is dead.
Romney’s allies can counter this by exploiting any bad news and blaming it on Obama. They need voters to judge the economy on an absolute scale rather than a relative one. Who cares how things were under Bush? They’re bad now.
Vote Against Romney. You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.
A simple “he’s rich” argument won’t work, because nobody cares. Every big name in politics, Obama included, is rich by most people’s standards. But if Romney’s wealth and general stiffness can be tied to his pro-1% policies, he loses.
In the primaries, Romney interpreted every such attack as envy of his success, not resentment of his being on the wrong side. That was sufficient for a Republican audience, for whom the rich are heroes. (But even there you have to wonder what would have happened in Michigan and Ohio if Santorum had hammered economic issues rather than wandering off into Jesusland.) But he’ll have to come up with a better answer in the general election.
The Obama campaign will make sure that specific groups are reminded of the extreme positions Romney took against them when he needed right-wing support. Women will hear a lot about what Romney-supported “personhood” laws would do to contraception, and Latinos won’t be allowed to forget his self-deportation policy. These attacks will be hard to counter without feeding the Romney-will-say-anything meme.
Vote Against Obama. There are two anti-Obama messages. The one for general consumption is that he hasn’t performed well enough to deserve a second term. The economy is still bad, the deficit is high, the wars have fizzled rather than ending in victory, and Iran is still on track to get the bomb.
That all works better if there is bad news to tie it to: a new downturn, a big bankruptcy, a terrorist attack, and so on. (Karl Rove thinks Obama can be beaten on foreign policy, but it’s hard to see how that happens without some striking event.)
The second anti-Obama message needs to be carefully targeted to the white Christian population: In Obama’s vision of America’s future, you’re not on top any more. Working-class whites in particular feel insecure and long for an imagined past. Romney needs to (subtly) cast Obama as the reason that past can’t come back.
What Works? It’s possible one campaign will just be better than the other at telling its stories. The anti-Obama story will have a ton of corporate money behind it, and that might make a difference.
But if both campaigns are competent, it’s going to come to events. If the news between now and November is neutral or positive, Obama’s stories work. But if there’s major bad news, voters may decide that Romney deserves a first chance more than Obama deserves a second.