Early Efforts to Define the Opponent
Some people call this the silly season. The ongoing back and forth between President Barack Obama and Republican Party challenger Mitt Romney is seen by some as merely a warm up for the main event, which won’t begin in earnest until America’s nominating conventions are over in early September.
The argument goes that most voters won’t start paying attention to the election campaign until the final weeks before Election Day. True enough, to a point.
But the fact is presidential election campaigns have become an unceasing, 24/7 undertaking, beginning months before November, in which both presidential campaigns struggle mightily to negatively define their opponent.
The latest example is the war of videos between a Super Pac supporting the president on one side, and on the other, the Romney campaign’s efforts to defend his record with Bain Capital. The Democrats hope to portray Romney as insensitive to the plight of workers who lost their jobs when Bain bought their companies, while Republicans will emphasize Romney’s effective management of those firms that thrived.
Historically, the months leading up to the November election can be crucial. It’s not always evident at the time because the assumption is that most people aren’t paying close attention yet. But the fact is it’s possible to largely define your opponent in the six months or so before the election, often with incredible effectiveness.
Remember the 1988 presidential campaign. Little-known technocrat and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis found himself with big lead in public opinion polls that summer over his Republican opponent, Vice President George H. W. Bush.
Mr. Bush positioned himself as the man who would effectively carry out a third Reagan term, since then-President Ronald Reagan was barred from running again in 1988 by a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to serving two consecutive terms in office.
Let’s say people were at least open to Dukakis, at least in the beginning. But it didn’t last long. Republican operatives quickly focused on the case of convicted murderer Willie Horton, who committed assault and rape while out on a prison furlough during Dukakis’s time as governor.
Despite criticism from Democrats who say the ad pandered to racial politics, the Bush campaign used the Horton case to define Dukakis as a typical Massachusetts liberal soft on crime. Years later, Dukakis expressed amazement that people fell for the whole Republican attack ad campaign that helped to do him in.
Dukakis probably found a sympathetic ear in his one-time Lt. Governor, John Kerry. Kerry went on to the Senate and then became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.
But Kerry ran into his own problems with the campaign of President George W. Bush when he was tagged as a flip-flopper thanks to an effective ad that showed him saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”, a reference to Senate votes on funding war efforts in Iran and Afghanistan in 2003.
Kerry was also done by what should have been his strength — his military service in Vietnam. A conservative-backed group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised questions about Kerry’s wartime service in the Navy.
Kerry’s people initially dismissed the attacks, skeptical that voters would buy into what they thought was typical right-wing electioneering. Too late, they realized the Republican attacks helped to define Kerry as sketchy and untrustworthy, and that depiction dogged Kerry right up until Election Day when President Bush eked out a narrow re-election victory.
The point is that candidates who are defined early on in a negative light can have a hard time trying to undo the damage.
Polls Show Race Tightening
Yes, Mitt Romney was pulled to the right, some would say extreme right, during the Republican primaries. And yes, President Obama has a big edge in that voters seem to like him more than Romney, even as they have doubts about his handling of the economy.
It’s also true that Romney faces huge challenges in reducing the gender gap in terms of his support among women voters. He also faces a huge deficit in support among Hispanics.
So given all that, President Obama should be a shoo-in, right? Ah, no. All signs point to a very close election, certainly more along the lines of President Bush’s narrow victory over John Kerry in 2004, and maybe approaching the Armageddon of U.S. presidential elections, the 2000 coin flip between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Many of the latest matchups show the major candidates dead even, and some even have Romney ahead slightly. That is somewhat surprising given Romney’s suspect national poll ratings through the Republican primary season, where he had to step carefully navigating the treacherous shoals of far-right Republican politics.
In some ways, Romney’s pitch is simple: If you like what Obama has done, stick with him. But if you don’t like where the economy is, or if you have lost faith in the inevitability of the American Dream, then “I’m your guy. I’m a proven businessman, someone who governed as a moderate Republican in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts and someone who comes out of the mainstream of the party in the mold of former presidents like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, both of whom benefited from the support of moderates.”
The Obama pitch is a little more complicated: “Yes, we could have done better, but we were handed one of the worst economic messes in U.S. history. Jobs are coming, albeit slowly, and there are plenty of other signs that things are getting better, even if it’s not as fast as we’d like. And by the way, voting for my opponent simply means a return to the Bush years, pre-2009.”
That’s why the White House really doesn’t want the election to be a simple referendum on President Obama and the last four years. That would make it too tempting for people vote “thumbs down.” And that’s also why they Obama campaign is committed to presenting the election as a choice between two directions — President Obama and moving “Forward” (his campaign slogan), or Mitt Romney returning us to the past.