If you're a Romney partisan, and you've seen Barack Obama move ahead in the polls over the last couple of weeks, you may be saying to yourself, "Maybe the debates can save him." After all, the four debates (three presidential, one VP) are the the only planned events between now and election day. Though you never know what kind of unexpected events might occur, tens of millions of voters will be watching. And so many times in the past, the race has been transformed by a dramatic debate moment.
Except that's actually not true. As John Sides lays out quite well, after all the sound and fury, debates almost never change the trajectory of the race. Of course, something never happens up until the moment that it happens, but there's strong reason to believe that the debates will change nothing this year in particular. But before I get to that, here's Sides:
Former governor Mitt Romney’s serial gaffes seem to be doing cumulative damage not just to his own campaign, but to Senate and even House races.
In the days since Romney’s clumsy attempt to make political gain from the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Politico’spiece revealing ineptitude and finger-pointing at the Republican National Convention, and the leak of the infamous “47-Percent” video, Democratic Senate candidates in most contested seats have opened up leads, according to usually trustworthy polls.
A new Wapo/ABC poll shows that 59% of the voters think President Obama will be reelected vs. 34% who think Mitt Romney will win. Note that this is a completely different question than who the voter supports. The polling data on who people will vote for gave Obama a mere 3% lead, 49% to 46%. In other words, there are millions of voters who want Romney to win but don't expect him to do so.
Yesterday, conservatives got all outraged because a microphone picked up a few journalists discussing with each other what questions they would ask Mitt Romney at what turned out to be his disastrous press conference on the events in Cairo and Benghazi. Aha! they shouted; Michelle Malkin told the Mensa convention that is "Fox & Friends" that "If it looks, sounds, talks like journo-tools for Obama, it is what it is." As Erik Wemple patiently carefully explained, in contexts like press conferences—by both Democratic and Republican politicians!—reporters often plan out what questions they'll ask. And you know what? They ought to do it more often. Maybe they wouldn't ask so many dumb questions.
It's certainly a problem that politicians are so sneaky and evade the questions journalists do ask. And the reporters don't really have time to sit down and engage in a process of deliberation so they can use their collective knowledge and wisdom to arrive at the questions that will prove the most edifying for the public. (And I should say that the problem isn't exclusive to political reporters. If I hear one more sports reporter who can't think of anything more interesting to ask an athlete than "What does this victory mean to you?" I'm going to scream.) But more often than not, what sounds on the surface like a zinger of a question doesn't actually amount to much more than an invitation for the politician to repeat his talking points.
If Mitt Romney began this week with a misstep over foreign policy—accusing President Barack Obama of “sympathizing” with the people who attacked the American embassy in Cairo—then he has ended it with a misstep over class. In an interview with Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, he said that “middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.” Here’s the full context:
President Obama’s convention bounce shows no sign of subsiding. Yesterday’s Fox News poll shows him with a five-point lead over Romney among likely voters—48 to 43 percent—and he continues to lead in the Gallup tracking poll, which shows him with a six lead over the Republican nominee, 50 to 44 percent.
In need of just a bit more Romneystrength. (Flickr/Jason Means)
Until a few days ago, few people cared all that much what Mitt Romney thought about foreign policy. It isn't an area where he has any experience, or, let's be honest, anything in particular to say. His denunciations of President Obama's record have a kind of rote quality. There's nothing really substantive there, no attacks on any particular decisions Obama has made or initiatives he has undertaken. What it all consists of is the idea that Obama is weak, and "apologizes for America" (I'm not going to bother debunking that one again). But when Mitt goes off on that stuff, you can tell he's just doing it to satisfy the Sean Hannitys of the world and assure the Republican base that yes, I hate him as much as you do, and now let's talk about the economy.
But in every presidential race, there are external events that force the candidates to change their agenda, which is what has happened now. And yesterday the Washington Post published this article, in which we learn just how powerful Mitt Romney could be:
Advisers to Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his sharp criticism of President Obama and said that the deadly protests sweeping the Middle East would not have happened if the Republican nominee were president.
The big news today wasn’t Mitt Romney’s continued fumbling over foreign policy (for which Team Romney is surely grateful). It was the Federal Reserve’s decision to embark on a new round of quantatative easing. For the uninitated, quantatative easing—or QE to the cool kids—is a strategy for generating growth in the economy. Right now, the problem in the economy is a lack of demand. Consumers aren’t spending, and so businesses aren’t hiring, and so banks are not lending, and so on. One way to deal with this is to provide income to people, throw out benefits, tax cuts, or public works—i.e., stimulus.
Do reporters dislike Mitt Romney? And if so, what kind of a difference might that make? I'm prompted to ask by this post from Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, in which he expresses doubt that back in 2000, reporters disliked Al Gore and liked George W. Bush. I won't spend time on that question—it has been extensively reported over the years, with not only quantitative analyses of the press coverage the two received, but plenty of on-the-record comments from reporters who were there at the time testifying that they and their colleagues found Bush to be a friendly fellow and thought Gore was a pedantic, phony liar. (In his post, Gelman confesses to not owning a television, which obviously calls into question his standing as a true American.) But the more interesting question now is the one about Romney.
This is sometimes difficult to assess clearly, since we all have a tendency to see press coverage that reinforces our beliefs as fair and objective, and coverage that contradicts our beliefs as unfair and biased. Liberals and conservatives both do this, although only conservatives created an entire industry out of crying "liberal bias!" and succeeded in getting virtually everyone on their side to weave that belief into their opinions and rhetoric on every single issue. If you're trying to assess it systematically, "bias" is extremely difficult to measure, particularly on the grounds people usually argue about. Researchers have come up with a variety of measures, but they almost inevitably leave important questions unanswered, in part because we usually have an implicit standard of objectivity we're referencing, and that standard raises questions that are hard to answer.
Eight years ago, innumerable commentators said "values voters"—in other words, voters with conservative values—were responsible for George W. Bush's re-election (liberal voters, apparently, don't have values, they just have opinions). They noticed a correlation between religiosity and the propensity to vote Republican, and in the most religious of all industrialized countries, this "God gap" was routinely characterized as a problem that Democrats had to solve if they were to avoid electoral doom. In fact, today the "God gap" is more of a wash for the two parties, and in the future it could become the Republicans' problem.
Mitt Romney is running for president. And I guess it can be hard, when you're running for president and your focus every day is convincing the American voter that you're a great guy and your opponent is awful, not to approach every new development in the world by seeing it as yet another opportunity to tell everyone that your opponent is awful. But when the only question you ask yourself is, "How can I use this to make my opponent look bad?" you run the risk of making yourself look like a jerk. Sometimes during a campaign, a candidate will be asked, "Is there anything your opponent has done that you agree with?" or "Is there anything good you can say about him?" Usually they say, "He has a lovely family," as though the thought that he might have done a single thing right is just impossible to contemplate. To say otherwise would be passing up an opportunity to "score points."
And this, I think, is the root of why Romney did what he did yesterday and came out looking like such an asshole. American civil servants had died in the line of duty, and the only thing he could think to do was use it as the occasion for a weak, unpersuasive attack on Barack Obama, delivered at an appallingly inappropriate moment. All he wanted was to "score points."
"I would point out that we have one president at a time and one administration at a time," President Obama said in June, responding to a critical op-ed by a Romney adviser in a German newspaper. "And I think traditionally, the notion has been that America’s political differences end at the water’s edge.” The president was merely restating one of the nation's oldest remaining traditions of bipartisan comity. The op-ed kerfuffle was, of course, absolutely nothing compared to the Romney campaign's latest break from that tradition.
Last night, an armed mob—angry over an American-made video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad—attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three of his staff members. This came after a similar uprising in Egypt, where protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. Initial reports on the situation—which revealed the death of a U.S. official—were followed by this statement from the Romney campaign:
“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.