BEHIND THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN STRATEGY
Jay B Gaskill
“I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
“Fools tend to be much better at campaign rhetoric than governing.”
“I could have possibly beaten Senator McCain in the primary. Then I could have been the candidate who lost to Barack Obama.”
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”
Rating the Candidates –
What if you Leave Ideology Aside?
Permit me to share four propositions that ought to be reasonably uncontroversial, except among the hyper-partisan set. These represent the key factors that (in concert with the weakening economy) prompted members of the Obama campaign team to identify Governor Mitt Romney as the biggest potential threat to the president’s reelection prospects among all the GOP contenders. I concede that many of the Obama campaign staffers will disagree with my assertions, but in moments of private candor some of them will concede that a credible case exists for each of the following four propositions.
Romney is smarter than Obama;
Evidence –Romney earned better academic grades as an undergraduate and at Harvard. This is a compelling indication that Romney is actually brighter than Obama or at the very minimum that he is functionally smarter – taking into account young Obama’s legendary academic laziness. A personal observation: A dual post graduate professional degree from Harvard is no cake walk, and it cannot be earned in the time frame that Mr. Romney did except by someone endowed with high intelligence and great diligence.
Romney is more disciplined than Obama;
Evidence – Romney has a clear track record of actual achievements that required disciplined effort and attention. Two post graduate, professional degrees simultaneously earned at Harvard – a law degree and an MBA, require more discipline that young Obama demonstrated during his entire formal education. Mr. Romney’s service as a state governor, and his significant business success, post-graduation, demonstrates a consistent discipline that is simply not evident in young Obama’s pre-campaign exploits; nor in Mr. Obama’s Illinois legislative career; nor in his comparative brief tenure in the US Senate.
Romney is more accomplished at executive tasks than Obama;
Evidence – As an executive, Romney rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics and the state of Massachusetts from fiscal distress (e.g., Governor Romney eliminated Massachusetts’ 1.5 billion dollar deficit). Contrast Obama’s absence of any meaningful pre-election executive experience, and couple that with the failure to rescue the US economy or keep his promise to “cut the deficit in half”.
Romney is more morally grounded than Obama;
Evidence – consider the presence or absence of illegal controlled substances; the extent of each candidate’s charitable giving over time; and the reputation of each for honest dealings. I submit that the historical record favors Romney over Obama. Now many of my friends on the left are very uncomfortable with any candidate who has strong moral convections because they fear the condemnation of drug use and other peccadillos that (in the left’s canon) are evidence of moral flexibility, tolerance and sophistication. They argue that Mr. Obama is equally moral, just differently so. But when issues of Trust are presented (see my “Three T” discussion below), those men and women endowed with a more traditional moral foundation have the edge. It is no coincidence that the straight-laced LDS employees at Los Vegas casinos are favored because of a culture of honesty.
Obama’s defenders will make the contrary case, of course, and some will simply say that the candidates are close enough, and that the policy differences matter more.
But these ideologically neutral attributes matter primarily among a large and often decisive subgroup of Americans for whom the various competing ideological catechisms do not dictate individual voting decisions. Let’s call them the soft-partisans. This is an even larger group than the self-identified independents among whom Romney tends to poll better than Obama. There are swing states and there are swing voters. The soft-partisans are the swing voters.
But do considerations of competence, discipline and character really matter in politics? If they were decisive considerations, President George Herbert Walker Bush would not have lost to Governor William Jefferson Clinton.
The pivotal question of the current presidential campaign for those voters who are not primarily driven by ideology comes down to whether Governor Romney is or is not an acceptable alternative to the incumbent president. The conventional wisdom is that, unless the economy improves, Romney wins…unless, for reasons that are not captured by intelligence, discipline, executive accomplishments or personal moral character, he has been somehow disqualified.
ENTER THE WHITTLE-AWAY STRATEGY
The core of the Obama campaign’s strategy is to whittle away at the soft-partisans on the emotional level. For example, Mr. Obama has taken the risk of alienating some socially conservative black voters in order to embrace the gay marriage issue. This move was calculated to sour otherwise conservative and libertarian gays on the former Massachusetts governor by exploiting the anti-Mormon subtext.
Why such an exercise in micro-manipulative politics? The Obama campaign is operating on the theory that a sufficiently large aggregation of micro-constituencies can deliver an electoral majority.
The 2012 election is taking place in in a political environment where large urban voting blocs remain firmly in the grip of the democrat-left, but are not sufficient to deliver victory. Victory or defeat is in the swing states. This is why the Obama campaign’s “whittle away” strategy seems to be aimed at the margins.
This will be a pivotal election for the Democratic Party because the Obama presidency no longer has the secure loyalty of blue collar males, the former Reagan democrats; this is the subgroup that returned to the fold under the “good old boy” charm of Bill Clinton; this is a subgroup that is once again up for grabs. This is why the Obama campaign is devoting money and time to generate an image of Romney as a heartless businessman, an out-of-touch rich guy who lacks empathy for the common folk.
The overriding issue in a failing economy is usually just that: The failing economy. Obama campaign is fully aware of this. The “whittle-away” strategy is designed for a hoped-for turn of events that emerges later in the year, when signs of a slight economic recovery become apparent, one that can plausibly be sold as the beginning-of-the-end of the bad times. But that may not happen in 2012. Watch the European crisis closely. If the economy gets any worse, think of Hoover trying to whittle-away at FDR.
The nominating conventions (8-27-12 for the GOP in Tampa Bay, Florida and for the Democrats 9-3-12 in Charlotte, North Carolina) historically generate a bounce in the polls for the respective nominees. But this is an afterglow that can swiftly be extinguished by harsh reality.
I note that August 5 and September 7 are the scheduled “official” release dates for the government-collected unemployment numbers based on data from the immediately preceding months. At the moment, the release of that news will precede the GOP convention and closely coincide with Obama’s renomination. If at that time, the official unemployment figures (which understate actual unemployment, as almost everyone knows) remain at or above 8% and Mr. Obama’s job approval poll numbers remain below 49%, then the Obama campaign will be staring at a Romney upset scenario. This turn of events can only be averted (so the thinking goes) if the cumulative effect of the negative whittling campaign has succeeded in moving the former Massachusetts governor into the unacceptable column among all those soft-partisans.
WHAT DOES THIS REALLY MEAN?
Whittling at an opponent’s character goes only so far, until it hits a hard core. From conservative sources outside the Romney campaign, some Obama whittling is also taking place, essentially revisiting much of the same material that the Hillary Clinton campaign tried without success to float through surrogates in 2008. The left-wing supporters of the president will be unaffected by “new” background information suggesting that the president has always been a member of the hard left. But the real game is not with those whose support is solid.
In the end, this whittling process is about the core character of the two candidates. After all the whittling and drilling, the remaining questions are all about each candidate’s essential moral character: Does it exist? What is it? How strong is it? How will it affect presidential judgment and leadership? Romney’s essential decency will probably not amount to Reagan’s legendary Teflon, but will operate as a bulwark against most of the character-based attacks.
In an earlier essay, I advanced the view that the 2012 presidential race will be decided the “Three T’s” – Trauma, Trust and Turnaround. That analysis still is the best predictor of the election’s outcome. The electorate has been traumatized; it is suffering from a loss of trust in the political elites that have led us to this pass; it will support a credible turnaround.
There is not enough time left in this election cycle to dispel the Trauma. The erosion of Trust in an incumbent who so dramatically overpromised and under-delivered cannot be so quickly repaired among the plurality of voters who are increasingly disillusioned. For these and other reasons, I am persuaded that the election outcome will turn on a single question: whether Governor Romney is the credible agent of an economic Turnaround. After all the smoke has cleared, that will remain the right question, posed at the right moment in history.
Caveat: That question, however it is framed or presented, has been pre-decided or preempted in much of the country. We are still living in a sharply polarized red state vs. blue state political and ideological environment. For example, New York and California are in the tank for Obama. Romney can count on a number of smaller states that counterbalance these two coastal liberal behemoths. But I note that Karl Rove’s latest Electoral College survey puts “Mr. Obama at 194 Electoral College votes and Mr. Romney at 101”. See -http://rove.com/election . Defeating any incumbent president is a tall order.
Romney will probably win in Texas, Arizona and Florida, but for now, the secure-for-Romney states deliver 93 fewer Electoral College votes than the secure-for-Obama ones. The Rasmussen Poll, using a very reliable methodology has consistently placed Romney a bit ahead of Obama for the last 19 months, but neither candidate has polled 50% or higher.
The undecideds still rule this contest.
Given the uncertainties, a bit of historical perspective is in order.
“For weeks before the presidential election, the gurus of public opinion polling were nearly unanimous in their findings. In survey after survey, they agreed that the coming choice between President Jimmy Carter and Challenger Ronald Reagan was ‘too close to call.’ A few points at most, they said, separated the two major contenders.
“But when the votes were counted, the former California Governor had defeated Carter by a margin of 51% to 41% in the popular vote—a rout for a U.S. presidential race.”
There is really no apt precedent for the current race. I personally believe that public opinion will remain fairly volatile through mid-October. This strongly implies that the race will be decided by the soft-partisans of Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, Florida, Indiana, Colorado and Arizona and a few other venues where the persuadable undecideds can still make the difference.
Further erosion in the hoped-for economic recovery will have an opinion multiplier effect, measurably tipping the presidential race against the incumbent. A prosperity breakthrough will have the opposite effect. Maintaining the same, fairly stagnant economic pattern through Halloween will produce a leadership opening for each candidate (advantage Romney, if he can move persuasively). One central question will frame the nation’s collective decision: Who can best serve as the architect of an economic turnaround?
Fear of that very question, and of its likely answer, is the force driving the Obama campaign’s “whittle-away” strategy. Follow the fear index and you will have a handle on the likely outcome of the 2012 election.