During the past two weeks, the dynamic of the 2012 presidential election has shifted, and President Obama has moved out to a modest but significant lead against Mitt Romney. No developments in the economy or the world can explain this shift. That leaves the campaigns themselves. And during the past two weeks, Romney’s campaign has revealed itself to be stunningly incompetent.
Let’s start with a key structural feature of the 2012 campaign: Romney’s challenge has always been to keep his distance from the party he is leading—the Republican Party, after all, is farther ideologically from the median voter than is the Democratic Party. And as recently as a few months ago, Romney was in good position to do just that: While the public has seen Barack Obama and his party as more or less indistinguishable, they have viewed Romney as a moderate conservative within a highly conservative party.
But, astoundingly, his convention managed to achieve precisely the opposite of what it needed to. The Republican convention was a three-day display of what the Republican Party has become, and by the end of it, Americans viewed Romney, not just as an individual, but as the standard-bearer of his party. Only 36 percent of those who listened to or watched the Republican convention said that it made them more likely to vote for Romney, versus 46 percent less likely. As far back as 1984, there is no precedent for a convention that repels more voters than it attracts. Indeed, during the past three decades, national conventions have generated—on average—a positive response (more likely minus less likely) of 18 percentage points. So while the impact of the Democratic convention (plus 10) was below average, the Republicans managed to stage the least effective convention in modern political history.
And that disastrous convention was soon reflected in the polls. On September 5, the average of national polls showed the candidates in a dead heat at 46.8 percent of the popular vote; by the 13th, Obama’s support had risen to an average of 48.6 percent, while Romney’s fell to 45.3 percent, and Obama had moved out to a lead of 3.3 points. (Recent reports suggest that the Democrats backed up their convention with a pedal-to-the-metal advertising barrage in battleground states.)
Meanwhile, since the end of the convention, the president has run an effective and efficient campaign. He has a theory of the case and a strategy to match it. By contrast, Romney has been campaigning at a pace that can charitably be described as languid, lurching from one tactical statement to the next without a consistent theme or strategy.
The dust-up over events in Cairo and Libya is a good example of what has gone wrong with Romney’s campaign. Setting aside the dubious merits of his attack on the president, this is not an election that will hinge on foreign policy. And besides: If it were, Romney would lose badly, because Obama is getting high marks for his conduct of international affairs, and the Republicans have zero chance of reversing that public judgment between now and election day. Barring a genuine crisis—such as an Israeli attack on Iran—every day Romney spends on foreign policy is a day wasted.
But his problems go deeper than tactical misjudgments. For months, it appeared that he would run a campaign focused on Obama’s management of the economy. Romney’s argument would be simple: He hasn’t produced a real recovery, and I can. If you’re satisfied four more years of tepid growth and high unemployment, vote for Obama. If you think America can do better than that, vote for me. Selecting the unexciting but highly competent Rob Portman as his running-mate would have underscored that case.
But then came his surprise selection of Paul Ryan, which seemed designed to broaden the focus of the campaign to include the deficit and to shift the conversation from a pure referendum on the past four years to an agenda for the future. Yes, Ryan’s proposals were controversial, but Romney seemed to signal that moving from bland to bold, from management to vision, from incremental change to radical reform, was more than enough to compensate for the baggage he was taking on.
And then—Romney reverted to type, with an acceptance speech better suited to a Portman pick. When conflicts emerged between Ryan’s budget and positions the Romney campaign considered more politically convenient, the young vice-presidential nominee reversed course. And if Romney has been campaigning since the convention on a theme of bold reform, it has escaped the attention of the press corps and the American people.
Not for the first time, Romney is trying to have it both ways, using Ryan to excite his base while running as a non-threatening moderate conservative. But two strategies are one too many. To the extent that the Ryan selection tied Romney to the least popular part of an unpopular party, it strengthened the fear that Romney’s election would unleash a harder-edged agenda than a majority would accept.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the race is effectively over and that Obama can just run out the clock. At precisely this point of the 2004 election, George W. Bush led John Kerry by 5.7 points—49.0 to 43.3—but ended up winning by only 2.4 points, 50.7 to 48.3. Between September 13 and election day, support for Bush increased by only 1.7 points while Kerry’s support jumped by 5 points.
What happened? Several things, but mainly the first presidential debate. On the eve of that debate, Bush led Kerry by 6 points. Six days later, his lead was down to 1.8 points. Bush’s support fell by 1.7 points, while Kerry’s rose by 2.5. The Massachusetts senator’s strong performance had encouraged a number of voters to give him another look.
History could repeat itself. To judge from the amount of time Romney is spending preparing for the debate rather than campaigning, he understands that it represents his best, and maybe last, chance to reverse the impression that his ill-judged convention and lackluster campaign have created. If he were to repeat the gains that Kerry made, he would turn a significant deficit back into a dead heat.
Still, the current state of the campaign is surprising, at least to me. The people say, as they have for a long time, that the economy is their principal concern. But job growth has languished since late winter. Unemployment remains above 8 percent, where it is likely to stand on Election Day. Household income remains well below where it was when the recession officially ended more than three years ago. Manufacturing is weakening, as are exports. Gas prices are very high. Most people continue to say that the country is off on the wrong track. Political science suggests that elections involving incumbent presidents are closer to referenda on past performance that a choice between two futures.
And yet, Obama leads. If he ends up winning, the skeptics—of whom I have been one—will have to acknowledge that the Obama team understands something important about twenty-first century politics that we don’t. An Obama victory would suggest a more personalized, identity-based brand of politics can trump traditional economic metrics, even when times are tough. For their part, Republicans would have to acknowledge that the current stance and demography of their party don’t provide the basis for a lasting national majority. But then, that’s a lesson they should have learned some time ago.