It’s Getting Nasty Out There
We’re not seeing a lot of “hope and change” from either side in the U.S. presidential campaign these days. Mostly it’s been attack, counter-attack, tee-up the next blast and stand back! At this rate you have to wonder how both sides will make it to election day, November 6th, in one piece.
Some of the recent nasty back and forth featured the always unpredictable Vice President, Joe Biden, warning a largely black audience in Virginia that a Republican victory would have them all “back in chains.” Mitt Romney’s camp seized on that as racially insensitive, while the vice president insisted he was referring to a Republican campaign promise to “unshackle” Wall Street.
Shortly thereafter Romney himself urged President Barack Obama to take “your campaign of division and anger and hate” back to Chicago. That was another ratcheting up of campaign rhetoric that probably was at least partly a response to the negative TV ads from Team Obama and its super PAC (Political Action Committee) allies that have had a measure of success in driving up Romney’s negative approval ratings in recent months.
Look, a lot of this simply turns off the public. Those few voters who are truly undecided don’t usually try to referee which side started the mudslinging. They just generally want it to stop and get both candidates focused on issues that matter to them like jobs, economic growth and a better future for their kids.
Ryan Pick Shifts the Debate
As we continue to weigh the pros and cons of Romney picking Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, there is little question that his addition to the campaign has changed the focus of the election debate, at least in the short term.
The Romney campaign’s theory of the case has always been to present their man as an experienced business and political leader who knows how to fix the economy. This assumes the public has already come to the conclusion that Barack Obama is a failed president on the basis of his economic record.
When pitching this argument to core conservatives, Romney’s advocates like to invoke the memory of Jimmy Carter and his one-term presidency. But it should be pointed out that Romney has very little need to convince Republican stalwarts that Obama must go. They’re already unified — not because they are enamored with Mitt Romney as their nominee, but because they really don’t like the president or his policies.
When it comes to making the case to independent, moderate or swing voters, even some who voted for the president four years ago, the Romney campaign likes to take on a sorrowful tone and make a pitch along the lines of: “We were all hoping for something better but it just didn’t work out, so it’s time to try someone else.”
So given that Romney’s chances of winning always revolved around the president’s economic record, job losses and economic growth, now the Republicans have added the dramatic presence of Paul Ryan to the mix. Ryan has been in the forefront of conservative and Tea Party inspired efforts to restructure government support for social welfare entitlement programs such as Medicare (health care for those 65 and older) and Medicaid (health care for the poor and disabled).
A Shift in Emphasis
Putting Ryan on the ticket is, at least in the short term, shifting the election debate from who can best revive the economy and create jobs to a more complicated and politically risky conversation (for Republicans) about the future of popular entitlement programs like Medicare. A Kaiser public opinion survey from earlier this year, for example, found that 70 percent of those asked did not want any changes in Medicare. Some notable Republican strategists, including Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal, argue the party can win the debate over Medicare by getting people to focus on the need for long term changes so that the entitlement will be protected for future generations.
But even Rove acknowledges that some Republicans worry that having a fight now about Medicare and other programs where Democrats have had an advantage in the past takes the focus away from what had been the central argument for a Romney presidency — that he is the one to restore economic prosperity and create jobs.
In addition, there’s some grumbling behind the scenes from congressional Republicans in tough races this year who don’t want to be tied into a general debate over the future of entitlement programs. If you are in a competitive district with a tough Democratic opponent, the last thing you want is for Medicare to become Topic A in the debate.
At the same time, Republicans believe they have an effective counter-attack in place to push back on Medicare. They are running ads focused on what they refer to as Obama cuts in Medicare that total $716 billion to help fund the 2010 health care reform law.
Democrats say that figure does not represent any cut in benefits to seniors, but is an attempt to slow the growth of the program over time in an effort to keep it viable longer. In the short term, this counter-attack could help the Republicans fuzz up the Medicare question and limit some damage.
But the question is will it have a long-lasting impact and is it merely putting off damage from Democratic attacks on Medicare that will take hold down the road. Too early to tell on that one.
Campaign Dilemma: Base Supporters or Swing Voters?
With our national politics increasingly polarized, there are fewer and fewer true independent or swing voters in presidential elections. Even though about a third of voters describe themselves as independents, surveys have shown most lean toward one party or the other come election time. That means the pool of available true swing voters is shrinking, even though both parties and their super PAC allies may wind up spending more than a billion dollars trying to win them over.
In past elections the undecided vote often hovered around 10 percent or more in some cases. This year experts have estimated it in the area of 3 to 7 percent or so. With fewer voters open to persuasion in the final weeks, both parties will emphasize getting their core supporters out to the polls, which political strategists like to refer to as a “base election.”
In that sense, the 2012 campaign shapes up as similar to the 2004 contest between then President George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry. The Bush campaign focused on whipping up Republicans that year with less emphasis on winning swing voters. Most people had already made up their mind on President Bush anyway, so the Republicans actually boosted their own turnout from the 2000 election nail-biter between Mr. Bush and Al Gore.
This year, President Obama has a tall order in reigniting enthusiasm among his supporters for a repeat of the strong Democratic turnout we saw in 2008, when one of his signature campaign slogans was “Hope and Change.” The Obama folks are paying particular attention to making sure young people, Hispanics and single women come back to the voting booth this year in order to maintain the president’s huge advantages within those voting blocs.