DENVER, COLORADO—By the time his motorcade pulled up to Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver at 6:40 local time Wednesday evening, October 3, the president knew he had 20 minutes to make a decision.
The campaign of his opponent, Governor Mitt Romney, had so deteriorated that, for his part, Barack Obama understood there was a sound argument on behalf of running out the clock and not taking any great risks. The president is typically a prudent man, right up until the moment he does something notably risky, such as ordering the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in spite of virtually all of his inner circle advising against it (except CIA Director Leon Panetta). Now, with only moments until the debate began, the president could anticipate what might well be moderator Jim Lehrer’s opening question, for which the Obama campaign had prepared an innocuous response, counting on the near certainty that Governor Romney would offer a response even more useless.
Mitt Romney is using a campaign strategy of running out the clock, something appropriate for an incumbent who is ahead but not for a challenger who is behind. Numerous Republicans are pleading with him to break out and do something bold. Suggestions include going to the site of the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama has put on hold and talk to unemployed workers who want to build it or even just going to diners and talking to voters. But Romney refuses to do these things, possibly because his handlers are afraid he will make a gaffe that becomes the news for a day or more. So he sticks to reciting his prepared remarks in carefully staged settings and avoids all retail politics.
While there had been endless discussion about whether Romney is conservative enough or too conservative or too rich or too secretive or too whatever, one aspect of the choice of him as nominee hasn't gotten much attention: He is not a good campaigner. While almost no one can match Bill Clinton when it comes to kissing babies and eating ethnic foods, candidates have to be able to communicate with voters somehow. Clinton was the master of retail politics and Obama can fill large arenas and give soaring speeches, but Romney is not good at any of this and it is starting to hurt him. One can envision him sitting around a board room table with his advisors carefully planning out his strategy in a businesslike way. Step 1: Collect vast amounts of money from wealthy donors. Step 2: Bludgeon the opposition to death with a deluge of negative television ads. Step 3: Avoid all spontaneous contact with the voters and just travel around giving a memorized speech. Only politics isn't business and techniques that work in one don't always work in the other.
One way to measure the presidential race is to compare the national Gallup poll now to national Gallup polls taken on or close to this date in previous years to see their predictive value. Talking Points Memo has collected the data, and here it is. The notation D+6 means the Democrat was ahead by 6 points, etc. Incumbents are marked with an asterisk.
If Democrats weren’t already feeling blithely overconfident about President Obama’s re-election prospects, some are pointing to early voting as yet another source of sanguinity. The last time that there was a major “October surprise” in a presidential election, when Ronald Reagan “sealed the deal” against Jimmy Carter in a late-October debate, there was no such thing as early voting. Even absentee voting was in its infancy. But as part of progressive efforts to improve turnout, especially among low-income voters who sometimes can’t make it to the polls on Election Day, early voting has spread fast in recent elections—from 16 percent of all ballots cast in 2000 to about one-third of the total in 2008. This year, as many as 40 percent of Americans will vote early—which means they can, in the majority of states, already vote. And where does most early voting occur? In swing states. Iowa started voting yesterday. Ohio begins next week. As many as 70 percent of the votes in some crucial states—Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada—are expected to come from early birds.
In 2010, Tea Party mania influenced elections at every level—congressional races and governorships, most famously. But the biggest impact was on state legislatures, where 21 house or senate chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican control. In states like Texas, Republican majorities turned into supermajorities; in the Texas House, Democrats were no longer needed to make up a quorum. All the legislative energy was on the side of Tea Party Republicans. They made sweeping, historic changes—to labor laws, to health care, to reproductive rights, and, most of all, to state budgets and public school funding.
This is incredible: According to the most recent Bloomberg national poll, President George W. Bush—the man whose administration left us with two wars, crushing debt, a broken economy, and a tattered reputation—is more popular than Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Bush receives a favorable rating from 46 percent of those surveyed, and an unfavorable rating from 49 percent. By contrast, Romney receives a 43 percent favorable rating, and a 50 percent unfavorable. This makes Bush more popular than Vice President Joe Biden (42–45) and the Republican Party as a whole (41–46).
Two observations: First, if this result is accurate—and given Mitt Romney’s low favorability ratings across polls, there’s no reason to think it isn’t—then it’s partly a reflection of current conditions. The economy is worse now than it was at any point during the Bush administration. Even if Bush bears plenty of responsibility for the economic crisis, voters still look to the past as a better time, because in a narrow sense, it was.Still, this is a remarkable result. In the final month of his presidency, Bush's job approval averaged 30.5 percent and his disapproval averaged 64 percent. His favorability wasn't much better—in a Gallup poll taken before Obama took office, Bush earned 40 percent approval and 59 percent disapproval. Bush left in 2009 as one of the most unpopular men to ever occupy the Oval Office.
Old white conservative guys pretending to be excited about Mitt Romney. (Flickr/Newshour)
Who's to blame for Mitt Romney? That seems to be the question of the day out there on the interwebs. Politico tells us that the answer conservatives give when you ask them is, Mitt Romney is to blame. "Slowly and reluctantly, Republicans who love and work for Romney are concluding that for all his gifts as a leader, businessman and role model, he's just not a good political candidate in this era." Steve Kornacki counters that the problem isn't so much Mitt himself, it's the Republican party, which "never actually bothered to create a comprehensive post-Bush blueprint." Jonathan Chait notes that although some conservatives are now claiming Romney was foisted upon them by the establishment, nobody within the GOP really wanted Romney: "He won by default."
Remember when "you didn't build that" was going to be the ticket to the White House for Mitt Romney? Seems like a long time ago, but for a while there the entire Romney campaign reoriented itself around this alleged gaffe that Barack Obama had committed. They printed banners about it, they organized events about it, they made TV ads about it, they made it the theme of their convention. And what happened? It just didn't work. The contrast with the Obama's campaign's favorite Romney gaffe, the secretly recorded "47 percent" video, is so striking it sums up everything that has gone wrong for the Romney campaign and right for the Obama campaign.
President Obama’s margin in national polls hasn’t diminished at all this week—he still maintains a strong position among registered voters and likely voters. What is interesting, however, is his position in Nevada and Arizona.
When Mitt Romney announced his selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, conservatives swooned for two distinct reasons. First, Ryan was existentially one of them. Second, they exulted, Ryan’s selection meant that the presidential contest would be a battle of ideas, pitting their vision of a radically shrunken state and diminished social benefits against the Democrats’ support for social guarantees and a mixed economy.
The Republicans got their battle, all right. And they’re losing it catastrophically.
A new Kaiser poll in Florida among registered voters shows that 80% think Medicare is very important or extremely important for their vote and by a margin of 53% to 38% they prefer Obama rather than Romney to handle the matter. Recent polls have shown Obama with a small but consistent lead in Florida, no doubt due in part to Florida's many seniors (in 2008, 20% of Florida's voters were at least 65). In retrospect, Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate may have been a mistake, since his plan to change Medicare from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program is wildly unpopular in Florida, the most important swing state of all. Furthermore, Ryan's plan is also unpopular in Ohio and Virginia, the second and fourth biggest swing states.
As Mitt Romney’s poll numbers keep sagging, the 1980 election has become a kind of magical talisman for Republicans desperately seeking reasons to hope for a miraculous comeback win on November 6. (So has "poll-denial," the new birtherism; see Daily Meme, below.) In the summer, Rush Limbaugh helped revive the old legend of the Reagan Miracle. “I want to remind you of some history,” he told his listeners. “In June of 1980, Jimmy Carter led Ronaldus Magnus 39 to 32.” As summer 2012 turned to fall, and Romney swooned in the polls, a new reference point was discovered.
If you were to judge them against the records of previous Democratic presidents, it’s clear that President Obama is the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented a second Great Depression and invested billions in education, clean energy, and future technologies. The Affordable Care Act has put the United States on the path toward universal health coverage, and a more sustainable health care system. Dodd-Frank is the most important piece of financial regulation in a generation. It’s not perfect, but—all things considered—it’s pretty good.
At a certain point, it’s a little boring to say that Mitt Romney is suffering in the polls. But here we are, and Mitt Romney is still losing support nationwide. As always, the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls show a much tighter race than the larger surveys commissioned by media outlets. Bloomberg has President Barack Obama up six among likely voters, compared to the tie registered by Rasmussen. Gallup also has Obama ahead by six, but this is among registered voters; his margin is certain to narrow once Gallup screens for likely voters.
For most of American history, the idea of two presidential candidates debating was unheard of, though candidates for lesser offices did debate. James Madison and James Monroe traveled Virginia together debating for a House seat in 1788, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated during their 1858 Senate campaign, though the Lincoln-Douglas debates resembled a pair of speeches much more than the debates we know today. In 1948, Republican presidential candidates Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey debated on a radio broadcast carried across the country; eight years later, Democratic candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver did the same on television. But it was 1960, in the first general-election presidential debate, that the format was established in a form recognizable today.