What Romney Needs Is a Bad Economy

Given the numbers, Ross Douthat argues, Mitt Romney isn’t far away from where Ronald Reagan was in 1980, or Bill Clinton in 1992:

The last two times an incumbent president was defeated by a challenger – Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush in 1992 – the hinge moment arrived only in the last few months of the campaign. In 1980, it came after the lone debate, when Ronald Reagan’s smooth, reassuring performance turned a tight race into a walkover. In 1992, it arrived with the Democratic Convention, when the one-two punch of Ross Perot’s temporary exit and the Clinton campaign’s skillful “place called Hope” showmanship propelled Bill Clinton to a lead he never relinquished.

In other words, if Romney can assuage voter concerns—and show that he is a competent alternative—then he can capture discontented voters and surge ahead. The problem, Douthat argues, is that Romney lacks a positive message, or anything that would show voters that he isn’t the heartless corporate raider described by the Obama campaign. Without that, he’ll never realize the potential for a Reagan or Clinton-style rout.

Because there have been so few presidential elections, it would be foolish to rule out the effect of Reagan and Clinton’s performances on voter confidence. That said, economic performance seems to be the key variable in determining whether voters turn against an incumbent. Here’s what the economic picture looked like in 1980:

And here is 1992:

Ultimately, whether a challenger succeeds or fails has more to do with macroeconomic conditions than it does with any particular kind of media performance. Or, put another way, whether or not Romney “connects” with voters depends largely on whether the economy deteriorates between now and election day.