When Mitt Romney started his 2012 campaign, he basically assumed that all he had to do to win was point out to people that the economy was in the toilet. As it turns out, the voters already knew that and before giving him the keys to the White House, they want to know how he is going to fix the economy. Since he doesn't want to discuss his economic plan in any detail other than "tax cuts" and seems to be falling farther and farther behind, he is now considering broadening his attacks, hitting President Obama on energy, health care, taxes, and spending. Note that what he is talking about doing is more attacking. He is not planning to tell people why they should vote for him, just why they should not vote for Obama. For whatever reason, he can't get out of attack mode. The problem with that approach so far is that although he may convince people that Obama is far from perfect, he hasn't even tried to make the case that he is better.
Traditionally, re-election campaigns are about giving the incumbent either a passing or failing grade, and Romney still seems convinced that if people judge Obama a failure, they will vote for him by default. What he seems to have missed is that he is viewed in a very unfavorable light with an approve/disapprove rating under water. Relentless attacks on Obama without explaining why he is a better alternative don't seem to be doing the job for him, but he keeps trying.
The other day, the New York Times reported that in their debate preparations, "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." This then became the subject of predictable ridicule (check out #romneyzingers or #mittzingers on Twitter), but it actually does give us a window into the unfortunate state of the Romney campaign.
I'm sure they're feeling pretty tense up in Boston right now. Barack Obama has a small but stubborn lead in every poll, there's only a month left, and these debates are the best chance the campaign has at doing something dramatic. So if you were involved in Romney's debate prep, you probably wouldn't think that just showing your candidate to be smart and likeable will be enough to change the campaign's direction. Hence the pressure for zingers.
But it's tempting to learn the lessons of past debates a little too well, and that may be what is happening to the Romney campaign right now.
What a ruckus! NBC's David Gregory hosted the second debate between Massachusetts Senate candidates, sitting Republican Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren. If you want to call the interruption derby that devolved before the University of Massachusetts at Lowell students' eyes a debate. Gregory opened by asking Warren about the well-worn Cherokee heritage controversy. Warren repeated what she's said before—including in the last debate, which Brown opened by attacking her on the same issue. (Full disclosure: Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is a member of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, Demos.)
Ask Americans about Jimmy Carter, and the most popular response may well be: “Um. Wait. Was he a president or something?” After all, the man left office more than three decades ago, long before many voters were born. Unlike the Reagan years, there was nothing definitional about Carter’s presidency—which was one of its problems. And unlike Bill Clinton, the Man from Plains didn’t preside over a boom time—which was another one of his problems. He’s been a swell ex-president, but normal people don’t pay much heed to ex-presidents, especially the ones who run around doing fine things for humanity (yawn). Sure, to some politicos, “Jimmy Carter” is still synonymous with a gloomy and failed presidency. But for everybody else, Jimmy Carter was yesterday’s news 20 years ago.
A primary debate spin room, only a fraction as busy as what we'll see in Denver. (Flickr/WEBN-TV)
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be debating on Wednesday night, and as Michael Calderone tells us, an absolutely incredible 3,000 journalists will be trooping out to Denver to be there when it happens. They won't actually be in the hall, though. They'll be in a nearby gym, watching it on TV like everyone else. But after the debate ends, they'll decamp to the "spin room, where partisans will dispense utterly predictable remarks on what just happened. "Governor Romney hit it out of the park, while President Obama couldn't justify his failures," a Romney staffer will say.
"If this Romney is elected, we will obviously have to shut down the nuclear program. He is so strong and resolute!" (Aslan Media)
In today's Wall Street Journal, Mitt Romney takes to the op-ed page to offer his vision for a new American policy in the Middle East. Apparently, the tragic recent events in Benghazi have convinced Romney and his advisors that something is going on over there, and though they aren't sure exactly what, it's definitely something, and therefore Romney ought to come and say something about it, to show everyone how wrong Barack Obama is. If you thought Romney was being vague about his domestic policy, that's nothing compared to what he has to say about foreign policy.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney are preparing for the first debate Wednesday. Dozens of surrogates are preparing people for a miserable performance from their candidate. The idea is that if the candidate does not drool all over his tie, he can be declared the winner. It is not clear why they bother. People will watch the debate and decide what they think based on what they see, not based on how low the candidate's spinners have managed to set the bar.
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."